The Changing Face of Geography

The Changing Face of Geography

By: Roger F Tomlinson
Today the study of geography is changing significantly and beneficially and, in particular, expanding outside academic confines. This is enabling the domain to meet the demand for the use of geographic science to address myriad issues facing the world.
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Geographers have as their task the description and explanation of the living space of humans and the resulting spatial structure of society. The development of formal views of these concerns forms the basis for the modern science of geography. But, the extent and complexity of the world we live in make this task hard. The volumes of data that result from even cursory global investigation are a serious impediment to our understanding. Fifty years ago, it was not possible to handle any large set of the hard copy maps and data that were being gathered, much less analyse them in any efficient way. The resulting inability – indeed the failure – to ask questions, let alone consider in depth the role of various interacting influences shaping the individual and societal factors, left us with a deep and generally unrecognised ignorance of space and time behaviour.

The advent of computers as information processing tools and the development of geographic information system (GIS) have measurably assisted geographers in their work. These new tools are being added to the discipline. Just as the advent of the telescope by Galileo increased the knowledge of the heavens and the concepts of space and the advent of the microscope revolutionised biology with its ability to add resolution and depth to inquiry, so the advent of the tools of GIS has impacted the discipline of geography. The quality of questions asked is rising, and the scope and use of spatial analysis are becoming more sophisticated. We are digging deeper into the spatial variables in considering factors that otherwise would not be explored. The trade-off between effort and inquiry is shifting in favour of inquiry. Workers are able to exchange their reasoning (decision models) very easily. This is contributing to the awareness of geography and the growing number of people becoming involved in the field. There is an increasing exchange of ideas and methods. As a result, the study of geography is changing significantly and beneficially and, in particular, expanding outside academic confines. Geography as a discipline is no longer encompassed by academic geography. It is now principally reductionist and curiosity driven, with a goal to produce general laws (a long-established scientific method with great virtue). There is an urgent demand for the use of geographic science in government, relative to society, and to address the pressing issues facing the world. Geographers have major contributions to make to these issues.

There is, for example, broad agreement in the scientific community that the earth’s climate is changing and that it is partly human induced. Very little is known, however, about the societal impacts of climate change, and there are very important geographic questions that need to be answered about changes in biogeochemical cycles, ecosystems, water resources, and resource utilisation; continued atmospheric pollution; and the overall economic, political, and social implications. Geographers can contribute to the body of knowledge about climate change by synthesising, analysing, and modelling possible impacts.

Similarly, with respect to human health and well being, understanding of a population’s health, the distribution of disease in an area, and the environment’s effect on health and disease is central to human existence and a quintessentially geographic problem. There are also significant issues about the accessibility of health care and spatial distribution of health care providers.

Fig 1. Above is an elevation model which was tested in the Southern Alps around Trento – amongst the most complex terrains in Europe. The scope was to calculate a difference map to the local high resolution digital elevation model (DEM). Mapping techniques such as these have revolutionised geography and paved the way for refined quantitative analyses overlaid by the spatial component.
Fig 1. Above is an elevation model which was tested in the Southern Alps around Trento – amongst the most complex terrains in Europe. The scope was to calculate a difference map to the local high resolution digital elevation model (DEM). Mapping techniques such as these have revolutionised geography and paved the way for refined quantitative analyses overlaid by the spatial component.

Globalisation is about interaction and integration among people, companies, and governments of different nations, a process driven by international trade and investment and aided by information technology. It has effects on the environment, culture, political systems, economic development and prosperity, and human physical well being in societies around the world. Again, the analysis of these conditions has a strong spatial component.

Societal security is an essential goal of all governments – one that has become increasingly difficult to fulfil in recent years. In an area of asymmetric warfare, socio-political solutions have become ever more complex, and their impacts affect different communities and socioeconomic groups in different ways.

Sustainability entails meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, which still remains a problem, especially in light of accelerated environmental change and the current food crisis. Geographers have a great deal to contribute to understanding and solving this complex, multidimensional, essentially spatial problem. Underpinning social diversity means comprehending and generalising the processes of spatial heterogeneity: defining characteristics of patterns and processes on the surface of the earth. Understanding processes, which account for social diversity, difference, and inequality, is key to good governance.

Fig 2. At least 5 million people in more than 300,000 institutions in over 150 countries are using geographic methods in their work daily.
Fig 2. At least 5 million people in more than 300,000 institutions in over 150 countries are using geographic methods in their work daily.

Summarising the Spatial Situations

GIS combines the ability to manage stores of geographic data and perform spatial analysis and modelling to visualise output and disseminate results and methods. It is not surprising that GIS and geographic analysis are being widely used. But the diffusion of geographic analysis methodology throughout the real world is quite remarkable. Based on licensing records, there are few countries or government departments in the world that are not using GIS. At least 5 million people in more than 300,000 institutions in over 150 countries are using geographic methods in their work daily.

Using the assumption that every USD 1 million of investment in data and GIS requires at least one trained person for the investment to be used effectively, there is a shortfall of at least 3,000 trained people per year in North America alone, compared to the output from all universities and technical colleges in North America.

Interest in the discipline is growing everywhere. Students are realising that geography offers career opportunities and interesting jobs throughout the working world. Academic geography may be splintering into quasi-named departments and subspecialties, but students who are trained in geographic analysis and can use the modern tools of GIS are in high demand. The growth of this interest is exemplified in the growth of the Association of American Geographers, which has increased significantly in size in the past decade and whose yearly conferences are attended by more people than ever. Similarly, indicative is the reintroduction of geography at Harvard after an absence of 60 years in the new Centre for Geographical Analysis. At the centre’s inauguration, the president of Harvard said, “Geographic information systems will let us change the nature of questions that are asked in a wide diversity of sciences and humanities.”

Indeed, a wide variety of problems has been identified and is being addressed, but many broad-based issues still demand the attention of geographers. There is a geography of security and terrorism that is multifaceted and comparatively little researched and understood, in spite of the fact that it could contribute enormously to this pressing problem. There is great scope in this area for the development of critical theories to examine alternative geographies.

The extensive development of quantitative geography in the 1960s and 1970s addressing the problems of analysing and modelling space needs to be integrated with the GIS capabilities of today and brought together to develop wider and more generally applicable models of geographic space and time, focusing on interactions and dynamics.

We still have no adequate models for major cities, much less for the world itself. I am convinced that we – or at the very least, our grandchildren – will have them, but there are many research questions that remain to be investigated on the way to creating Al Gore’s ‘digital earth’. There are questions that touch on many aspects of geography, including representation, efficiency of information management, appropriate scientific visualisation of issues, applications, and policy implications. I have no doubt, that GIS will be at the core of this progress and that the future will be rich and productive.

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