Geography for the Non-Geographer

Geography, the science and study, is wide reaching, cross-cutting, and diverse. Spatial concepts, geographic fundamentals, analytical methods, and data maps are helpful or even critical in many disparate fields, see applications in Urban and Regional Planning, Environmental Studies, Public Health, Geology, Architecture, Journalism, and Civil Engineering.

As fields of study, Human and Physical Geography, Cartography, and GIS, are populated not only with professionals and academics, but also many enthusiasts and fanatics. The nature of spatial thought, geographic problem solving, and all of the related technologies attract a distinctive set of individuals both by trade and hobby that make for a unique and strong community, but must be careful of insularity and isolation from the industries and sciences that could it could benefit most. Interaction with the non-enthusiast is important. Geographers should be proactive and inventive, applying technology to existing methods, devising new problem solving techniques, and viewing applications in other fields as opportunity, not threat.

The focus of Geographic science, theory, and method should not be isolated, but rather seek to determine how geography can actively complement other sciences and industries, something the field is inherently tuned for. This necessitates introspection and a careful look at the field is presented to the non-fanatics, non-enthusiasts, and outside experts.

A Field of Specialized Generalists

The pervasiveness of geographic methods and the applicability of the spatial sciences in so many different fields might suggest that most outside geography view the field as a utilitarian driven enterprise, one wrapped up in a handful of software companies. The view is vastly different than that of a trained geographer, or even the so-called enthusiast or hobbyist. The science and tools of Geography are a piece of the problem solving equation, just like math and physics, but the exact tools and means of use are less prescribed.

Geographic method is often necessitated through questioning and as a means to an end. For example, what can be done to reduce poverty in my city? How can we affect policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Where should I relocate my business? Or, how can I improve the life expectancy of the people in my community? These questions are inherently spatial, but often the questions are conceived by specialists in unrelated fields seeking solutions to problems. In depth knowledge of the specific problem itself is often required, in addition to spatial knowledge.

Data Analyst + Writer + Graphic Designer + Database Administrator + Front-End Programmer + Server-Side Developer + UIUX Expert + Subject Specialist + Statistician = Modern Cartographer

Geographers serve to bring their expertise to a wide array of problems and issues and are conditioned to look at the world through a different lens, one that is focused on spatial methods, tools, laws, and algorithms. Ultimately, the preceding has made Geography a field of generalists solving problems in a world of specialists. For example, modern cartographers, trained in spatial thought and design, are asked not only to be aware of geographic methods and cartographic principles, but also serve as writers, graphic designers, data analysts, statisticians, database administrators, front-end programmers, server-side developers, and UIUX experts in communicating spatial content and answers to the non-geographer.

This leads to important questions. How do we, as a field, guide Geography and communicate the importance of Geographic thought and process in larger organizations? Where do specialized generalists fit into these organizations? In what areas can expertise be shared, and what areas do Geographers own? How can we build a knowledgebase that serves to educate non-geographers on methods, tools, and concepts associated with spatial problem solving? Answering these questions is critical to the mission of a field so pervasive and universal, and crucial in spreading understanding of geographic thought. To the world:

Knowledge of geographic fundamentals leads to better data, better analysis, and better decisions.

Sharing the Geographic Knowledgebase

Spatial scientists are tasked with advancing the field and also tasked with distilling the field into components that can be utilized to allow non-geographers to intelligently answer questions using the concepts and principles of space. This is an important and challenging task. There are many methods to do this. The point is to erase a history of complacency and fear of technology by owning the field and actively declaring expertise. When it comes to sharing knowledge, distilling information and components for non-Geographers is important. Demand is there, see the proliferation of online Map Schools, Map Academies, and community-driven Mapping meetups.

Perhaps a modular approach in teaching non-Geographers is best, but one that can only be designed and run by trained geographers, educators, and field experts well versed in geographic theory and history, keeping a focus on concepts that are manifesting through the tools, and communicating and conveying the small pieces of a larger field that apply to the specific task at hand. The science of geography just so happens to be a fantastic complement to an incredible number of other sciences, especially in the modern context, this should be something leaders in the field own, rather than shy away from, and work to build strong bonds across industries. A modular approach should be viewed critically, welcomed as a way to move faster than bureacracy and red tape will allow, but cautiously aware of oversimplifying the field. Meetups should not replace advanced theory, development of tools, and critical thought.

That said, an urban planner will not care about learning spatial analysis techniques with the goal of becoming a GIS Specialist, nor will they want to learn Python with the end goal of becoming a computer programmer, but rather care to learn Python and spatial analsis methods as a means to find answers and get results. The specifics might not matter, but knowledge of the concepts and tools in a practical and applicable manner are important. Parts of geographic thought and geographic technology are relevant to various fields, and getting this message to those fields is important. Non-geographers don’t need to get caught in the weeds, but need to know that the focus is approach, and there is no one answer to their problem.

“By making it easier, our clients think it is easier. It is not.”
Michael Batty

A New Marketing Department

As a field, geography is wide and diverse. You hear the terms neo-, paleo-, and even hipster thrown around regularly, sometimes with little unity. The field needs stop deciding between concepts and tools, and declare what it is: a cross-cutting, universal base of knowledge that needs sustained exploration and development originating from technological, scientific, and critical paradigms. Whatever the identify of Geography ends up manifesting as, it needs be unified and concrete, one that can be used to not unite practitioners and professionals and also serve to build a better picture of what is required to build, develop, and implement geospatial solutions and answers in a modern location-driven society.

The tool vs. concept debate misses the point, geography is both.

Geography and GIS shouldn’t be viewed as an exclusive group for those only with proper training or enough money to pay for an expensive software license. (This hasn’t treated us very well in the past…) Software is only a part of the picture, just as fundamentals and concepts are only a part of the picture. The ability to communicate this to non-geographers and non-enthusiasts is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle for the geographic sciences to address.

The debate surrounding the Geography and GIS is not tool vs. concept, the field is both. The debate is more on the best ways to build a robust knowledgebase and tool infrastructure for the future. Research is need on best solutions for automated data management, and topics such as automated generalization, projection, and spatial analytics such as correlation and hot spot analysis. The mission should be to continue building the core of geography, developing new techniques and methods to address spatial problems, and then manifest these techniques and methods through new tools that make it accessible to non-geographers. The field of Geography should proudly stand as a field of specialized generalists, or generalized specialists, and unite to solve problems in a world that is increasingly dependent on location and spatial thought.