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Friday, 14 October 2011

What Makes Spatial Special – my (Kate’s) perspective

When I started on our master’s degree in 2003 at University College London the first week was an induction week. We were introduced to each lecturer in the department (Prof Muki Haklay, Prof Paul Longley, Jeremy Morley and Dr John Illife) and were giving an introductory series of lectures called spatial is special – I still remember them reasonably well. The notion of spatial is special is one of the first discussions included in GIS texts and introductory lectures. So, let’s consider the conventional reasons for why spatial is special, they include:

  • Geographic data is multi dimensional
  • There are lots of it – it is voluminous
  • It can be represented at multiple scales
  • It requires a projection system to turn a 3D real world into an 2D computer model or paper map
  • Special analysis techniques are required – nearest, furthest etc
  • It can be laborious and time consuming to collect, process and analyses
  • It is expensive and complex to maintain up to date geographic data
  • I t is cross –disciplinary in nature and can be used to link disciplines

(adapted from Longley, Goodchild, Maguire & Rhind (2011). Geographical Information Systems and Science, John Wiley and Sons: Chichester)

This is the technical response, but there is an emotive reason behind why spatial is special, and for me it is related to the age old adage “A picture tells a 1000 words”. Here in Portsmouth I teach to undergraduates in lectures with 200 students. I see my job as inspiring enthusiasm for exploring issues in human geography and I do this by finding relevant maps, images and TED talks to bring subjects/sub-disciplines to life.

For reasons unbeknown to me, there is a consensus amongst our undergraduate cohort that they don’t like GIS/ Geospatial data/ making maps. This bothers me, I am a map geek and I hope to inspire them to change their mind. So, even if the students don’t remember my name, they know me as the one that uses a map(s) in every lecture. Why do I do this? Good maps bring abstract concepts, theory and data to life. They help stimulate the imagination and aid knowledge production. They simplify and generalise complex issues in ways that members of the public and new learners can understand. It is inconceivable for me to imagine giving a lecture on migration without the aid of maps to illustrate movement.

How do I benchmark a successful lecture with 200 students? Students are not fiddling with their phones, whispering to each other, falling asleep or slouched in their seats. If they are engaged, attentive and interested it shows on their faces and in their posture. Last year, I remember giving a lecture on the subject an “Introduction to GIS and health”. There are so many powerful maps that can be used in this subject area, examples include:

  • John Snow’s map of Cholera
  • Changes in life expectancy as you travel from tube stop to tube stop
  • Patterns of malaria across Africa
  • Sptaial-temporal maps of population differences
  • Noise mapping in low income neighbourhoods of London
  • Mapping Internally Displaced People (IDP) in Haiti
  • Cartograms of population to reveal inequalities

When such maps are used in lectures to illustrate and communicate concepts and bring geographic data to life – the reward is a positive student reaction and a realisation that maps are useful. This is particularly evident if lectures reflect real world issues in the news. This lecture was delivered this year at the time of the during this lecture we also discussed the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan – highlighting health issues of such a crises and then looked at how different maps and mapping hacks of the incident could be used to explore at risk population groups. This type of linking between maps and real world issues bring to the fore the potential of geospatial applications for decision-making and problem solving issues in human geography.

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