“A place is what it is because of its location. Where we are is who we are.”
Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa did not take geography for granted. He understood that a place is a space with an identity. Throughout his work Pessoa created multiple personalities to write his poetry, so much so that his literary genius was only recognized after his death when it was discovered that he alone had been multiple of the country’s greatest poets.
All this musing is good, but what of it?
The same way Pessoa was many from a singular space, so is geography. Your experience on Earth is a lottery of geographic variables: the human development index of your place of birth can determine your overall quality of life, the zip code of your residence the schools you’re eligible to attend, and your latitude the type of weather you need to prepare for. Your geography is, in many ways, your future. Which leads to the topic at hand:
You’re permeated with spatial data.
Enters the Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a set of tools and methodologies to make sophisticated decisions based on geography. Geospatial data is becoming increasingly reliable, voluminous, and accessible; this is data that you’re both passively and actively creating. For example, the route you take to work may be a conscious effort in itself, but the energy consumption from transportation may not. The spatial data that you produce is multilayered and connected, and you actively use that information in your daily life. In other words, we intuitively use GIS to navigate our world.
What needs to be emphasized is the use of GIS technology and methodology to address the world’s greatest trials: rising seas, food waste, urban inequity, resource management etc. A greater awareness of the space we occupy can in itself produce innovative solutions. And better yet, GIS is an interdisciplinary tool. Virtually all knowledge is bound to a spatial and temporal clause. Understanding those conditions enable us to become better decision makers, with greater foresight than previous generations.
Already in 1854 geospatial analysis was utilized to solve public health issues. You may have heard of Dr. John Snow, the father of modern epidemiology, and of his work on the cholera epidemic in London. Dr. Snow surveyed the infected district and identified the sources of the outbreaks around a cluster of water pumps. Because he mapped his fieldwork data, he was able to identify a spatial pattern and implement a solution to curb the epidemic. While cholera and other waterborne diseases are still a threat in large parts of the world, GIS can better address those problems on much larger scales.
The world is changing because we wish to shape it to our image, and we must prepare for the unintended consequences of our visions.
The beauty about geography is that it’s a discipline with no boundaries. City planners use historic traffic data to make city more sustainable by redesigning traffic grids. Architects and engineers can cooperate to choose the most suitable location for buildings that have solar grids. Disaster managers are able to mitigate the worst of a bad situation before it happens by identifying areas out of proximity from emergency services. The list goes on to include climatologist analyzing multispectral images to gage the effects of CO2 on the Earth’s systems, archaeologists conducting a transect to locate and map an excavation area, and educators to teach their students about issues in their communities.
The Geographic Information Systems, and more broadly the Geographic Information Sciences, are essential to mapping the denouement of what the future holds for our planet. We live in paradoxical times where the distances between places are becoming narrower through communication and trade, yet further apart in terms of social equity and environmental degradation. Globalization, being the loaded word that it is, cannot be remotely understood before we understand where we are relatively to other places.
For a place is an identity. Understanding how it’s changing now will also help us understand who, or what, we are becoming.