Last week was a bit of a roller coaster starting in Las Vegas for the American Association of Geographers annual meeting and ending at Gov20Camp in Washington DC. In many ways the 2009 AAG meeting was a coming out party for the GeoWeb. There was a critical mass of presentations – well over twenty, and several respected figures discussing the GeoWeb’s impact on the traditional study of geography. Mike Goodchild’s talk on Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) was packed and focused on the impact of several GeoWeb innovations ranging from OpenStreetMap to geotagged Flickr photos. Much of Goodchild’s work has been focused on the rigor (metadata, ground truthing etc.) of VGI, which despite skepticism is emerging with surprising levels of accuracy.

Jack Dangermond’s talk explicitly called out the growing importance and role of amateur geographers, comparing their contributions to the amateur astronomy community. He even envisioned the emergence of a GeoFlickr where the community shared and remixed ESRI layer packages. While both talks had their unique quirks and perspectives on the GeoWeb/neogeography each acknowledged its growing importance in mainstream geography and GIS. I thought this was a subtle but interesting shift from previous talks that were couched in a shade more skepticism.

The particular session I presented at was entitled “Is Google Good For Geography?”. I think the title was largely chosen for its alliteration and being a bit provocative, but made for an interesting and engaging session. There were two sessions and the papers were spilt with 75% taking a critical theory approach to answering the question and about 25% taking a qualitative or quantitative approach to the general subject matter. If the Wikipedia page does not give you a flavor of critical theory – one paper posited that Google creates, “the tyranical majority in a dystopian algorithmic space”. While this can border on sounding almost farcical, well researched critical theory can provide valuable insights if you can cut through the obtuse vocabulary.

For my presentation I tried to play it down the middle of the road and provide as objective an analysis as possible. That said GeoCommons is a GeoWeb application and my opinions trend in that direction. I’ve embedded the presentation below:

(if you download the presentation the notes provide more depth to the arguments)

The point I was trying to drive at in the presentation was that geography as a discipline is missing the big picture when it comes to the GeoWeb and Google. While critical theory has its place and makes several valid points, the most important thing is the public actual cares about geography now, and we need to use the opportunity to better educate the public. For every criticism leveled in the session there are current initiatives in the community to address them. I’d wager that Google spends a good amount of time thinking about them although we rarely know it till they launch something. That said I’d put solid Vegas odds on it being much harder to say Google’s cartography is homogeneous in the future.

Back to the point, geographers need to engage in the conversation the community is having on the very problems and issues they highlight in their papers. Some geographers were annoyed that the community was not coming to them and acknowledging their work. I think this is the exact insular attitude that has made the discipline less relevant in the first place. It is all about out reach and communicating with the public if you want your research to matter, in my opinion at least.

Mike Goodchild, acting as the discussant, closed the session with his own set of questions and insight. Including reversing the question “is Geography good for Google?”. Although the more controversial statement he posed was that next year the topic should be, “Is Microsoft better for geography?”. A backhanded way of concluding that Google is good for geography, which I believe was the consensus with appropriate caveats.

The question this begged for me was, what is the difference in Microsoft’s mapping efforts that would make them better – outside of a partnership with ESRI…. Would love to hear some opinions one way or the other.


10 Responses to Notes from the AAG: "Is Google Good for Geography?" "Is Microsoft Better for Geography?"

  1. Eric Wolf says:

    Obtuse vocabulary: My advisor, a well respected GIScience academic, once complained to one of our department’s Critical Theorists about the “obtuse vocabulary” or “jargon” as she called it. The response was “And GIScience doesn’t have it’s own jargon?”

    We tend to forget that techies have their own language that we are constantly imposing on others. It’s kind of ironic that we dismiss ideas because we can’t get through another language – like that of Critical Theory.

    I’ve heard the academic position of “they should come to us” repeated numerous times. After the dot-com bomb left me in a position to return to school, I took a job at a small university in the Southeast as the sole GIS support person. I started calling myself the “GIS Evangelist” because, even though we had a full site license for the ESRI software and a dedicated teaching lab complete with large format plotters and digitizing tablets, most of the faculty didn’t even know how to spell GIS. The faculty member who started the GIS lab, a parasitologist but training, had the stated attitude of “I’ve been running this lab for a decade. If they want to use it, they can come to me.” Before I started working there, he actually required faculty to take his GIS course before he’d let them even install ArcView on their machines!

    Academia has a lot to learn about marketing…

  2. Sean Gorman says:

    Good points I think everyone suffers from jargon and vocabulary obfuscation to a certain extent. In the mid nineties I was doing research on the geography of the Internet and trying to find a simple explanation of how routing, BGP and autonomous systems work was near impossible. No matter what you do I think being able to put your work in simple English will get you a long ways to being relevant to other people. Then again this also removes a bit of the mystique from academia. I will say that critical theory jargon is way more entertaining than tech jargon. Beat this with a techie mouthful of acronyms “Reflections on normativity: Biopolitics and the spatial intersections of sexuality and whiteness”

  3. David says:

    Sweet, ‘Layer Packages’, another proprietary data/presentation format for sharing your data with everyone (who pays for ESRI licenses…)

  4. James Fee says:


    Nah, layer packages are nothing special. Change the extension to *.zip and open that puppy up. All it does is allow ESRI to read the contents into ArcMap/ArcGIS Explorer without all those wacky files such as *.prj, *.lyr, *.readme getting in the way.

  5. Thanks for the link to the Wikipedia “critical theory”–it’s been way too long since I dwelled on the collective Genius of The Frankfurt School.

    What’s striking about your slide deck is that your examples covered the most recent 3-4 years. The pace of change is jaw-dropping and most of academia simply isn’t equipped to keep up.

    What’s especially rich is to ponder all the ways in which academic geography departments are utterly failing their undergraduates–

    1. No experience with spatial databases and SQL
    2. The foggiest grasp of spatial statistics
    3. ESRI dialog-button pushing in lieu of understanding spatial analysis (see: “buffer”)
    4. Paper-centric cartography vs. screen-centric cartography.

    Sure, some of the above doesn’t lend itself journal articles for junior tenure, but there are way too many 2009 graduating seniors who’ve spent way too much money to exit their institutions of higher learning with a 1999 skill-set.


  6. Sean Gorman says:

    @James Fee still curious if you’ll be able to read/write to layer packages outside of ESRI. Is it shapefile or is it FGDB?

    @Brian Timoney agree that most graduates are trained button pushers unfortunately. A few exceptions like Wisco where the cartographers learn to program so they can do custom cartography outside of a GIS system. More out of necessity though and few teach the back end. I’d guess as geo becomes more mainstream it will be picked up by CS departments.

  7. Barbara Poore says:

    Sorry I had to leave before this session, Andrew.
    Thanks for sharing!

  8. Tom says:


    I’ve only spent a few years with geographers but I agree. First of all, let me say the fact that a lot of physical geographers probably don’t care about this kind of conversation may indicate something about its usefulness.

    That said, a few of your points, such as the lack of education about spatial statistics and cartography, suggest that the pace of technology shouldn’t matter in the long run. Aren’t these fields somewhat robust in the face of changing technology?

    This article by Middlebury econ professor David Colander suggests that economics is booming as a major because it gives students the mix of practical tools and theory that makes their investment of time and money in school possible:

    Geography has the same capacity for a solid combination of practical tools and theory. A lot of Geography department’s don’t capitalize on it. As Sean points out, some do. Still, the variation in any geography departments’ interests is exciting because it allows for this continual debate.

  9. Geoff says:

    I’d say Google is almost as good for and in Geography as George W. Bush. Sure no map is 100% correct but Google is like FOX news, they mix up entire cities and even countries. So Google is in urgent need of Geography and hence Geography would be very good for Google. It would make them much less look like total failures.

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