The Rise of Geographic Tools

In a recent essay, I asked “Is Everyone a Geographer?,”given the advent of easy-to-use geotechnologies that have enabled the general public to use many of the same tools and data that were formerly only used by GIS specialists and geographers.  I received some intriguing responses as did a book in which my colleagues and I asked this same question, entitled Practicing Geography.   In the essay I contended that geography is a three-legged stool, with supporting legs representing content knowledge, geographic skills, and the spatial perspective.

The advent of geotechnologies has elevated the importance of geography to a level unprecedented in the history of the discipline, reinvoking inherent tensions between the integrity of the field as a discrete academic discipline, on the one hand, and its generalist appeal on the other hand.  Although this tension within geography is not new—William Morris Davis reacted to it over one hundred years ago—some say that geography has never been more prominent within the everyday human experience than it is today.

Personally, I’m not so sure about that.  We spend so much time indoors these days.  At one time we were all directly depending on the landscape for food, water, and shelter, we were very much attuned to local geography—where to plant, where not to plant, where the safe drinking water was, where we could set animal traps or fishing lures, and other actions that our very lives depended on.  That has changed for many, though certainly not all, of the planet’s inhabitants.  In the past, the ability to use “geographic data” depended on one’s five senses.  I suppose we could have a lively debate on whether geography is more prominent in the human experience now or in the past.  What is clear that the 21st Century certainly has seen society’s valuing geographic tools in everyday life.  This is different in many ways from the previous 100 years, where the ability to use geographic data, in the form of increasingly sophisticated paper maps, and later, databases and software, did require extensive geographic training.  Now, many of these tools are as common as the smartphone or the Internet itself.

The rise of geographic tools such as web GIS, GPS, data collection via smartphone, and easy-to-use GIS software means that we now have the capability of making decisions more rapidly and more wisely than ever before, and most importantly, use the spatial perspective in making those decisions.   Geotechnologies have no curricular “home” in most educational systems at the present time.  Thus, one challenge in education is convincing educational authorities and organizations, and even individual educators and parents, that these geographic tools enhance teaching and learning at all levels.  They are valuable tools with which to learn history, earth and environmental science, biology, geography, mathematics, language arts, and many other subjects, encouraging holistic and critical thinking.   However, they are also valuable to learn for their own sake, as technologies for an ever-expanding array of careers, from medicine to marketing, from engineering to ecology, from business to biology, from public safety to planning.

How can we connect the rise of geographic tools to the need to be using these tools throughout the educational system?

-Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

Joseph Kerski

About Joseph Kerski

Joseph Kerski is a geographer who believes that spatial analysis through digital mapping can transform education and society through better decision-making using the geographic perspective. He serves on the Esri education team and is active in GIS communication and outreach, creates GIS-based curriculum, conducts research in the effectiveness of GIS in education, teaches online and face-to-face courses on spatial thinking and analysis, and fosters partnerships to support GIS in formal and informal education at all levels, internationally. He is the co-author of Spatial Mathematics, The Essentials of the Environment, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data, and other books. Follow him on Twitter @josephkerski
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