Useful Geographies – What Geographers Can Bring to the Table

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While some geographers find it hard to demonstrate the incredible potential of their field to the public, there is growing curiosity from a very wide (non-specialized) audience about our planet and the ways we depict, map, manage and inhabit it. People travel more than they used to, they travel differently, they experience distance, moving and reporting in different ways. What used to be secrets accessible only to an elite are now becoming everybody’s concern, as our contemporary (western) lifestyle is very connected and global, characterized by people consuming, communicating and travelling a lot.

People wonder more about why things are the way they are, who make the decisions, why and based on what. We want more transparency, more insights on how our environment is built, since we know it is made by people just like us, not someone wielding some sort of magical or divine powers (nor absolute authority, like kings or lords used to have). If anyone can search the internet to find out about things if they really want to, it becomes harmful to organisations and public institutions to hide the data. Open data are becoming the standard for future territorial governance, even if a lot of power remains at stake.

[Read the GeoCube Report on Useful Geography (PDF)]

Big Data capacities, geospatial technologies and surveying sciences allow us to be very  sharp “earth planners” capable of measuring, anticipating and planning far ahead, with global vision, what to build, where, for whom and how. While our capacities expand, the gap between specialized, closed, technical knowledge (such as cartography skills) and user-friendly designs, tools and apps accessible to everyone is shrinking. More and more data, mapping tools and interactive apps are being made available online to respond to the massive demand for pretty, useful and highly customized maps.

Despite those trends, the lack of geographical knowledge and spatial thinking behind the technology remains. We have access to great tools to visualize incredible amounts of data, but do not necessarily gain a sense of what perspective, context and interactions we should be looking for and applying to make sense of our world.

THAT IS WHERE GEOGRAPHY COMES IN.

A few years ago, the EUROGEO Association worked on an online guide, the GEOCUBE, to define key geography concepts for decision makers, especially European commissioners. Looking for the “useful geography” side of the cube, you can access the full report, made up of nine topics giving an overview of the fields in which geography is used around us every day.

Getting back to basics, this short guide provides a very accurate description of what geographers can bring to the table, especially regarding the analysis of movement patterns of people, goods, ideas and materials. After all, any other scientist can be a geographer if he or she decides to adopt that specific approach that considers things around us and tries to establish connexions and patterns by looking at them spatially. It all starts with the ability to ask geographic questions, such as “why things are where they are, how and why”.

[Read the GeoCube Report on Useful Geography (PDF)]

To answer these questions, it takes the capacity to:

  1. Acquire geographic information, such as locating, observing and systematically recording data about places, people and environments, using maps, doing fieldwork and interviews, obtaining reference materials and doing library research
  2. Organise this information by translating data into visual forms, making maps, graphs, tables, spreadsheets, time lines and oral and written summaries
  3. Analyse the information, by probing, examining, explaining and synthesising patterns, processes, relationships, connections, trends and sequences
  4. Answering geographic questions, such as making generalisations and drawing conclusions and inferences using inductive and deductive reasoning.

Pretty much any theme or phenomenon can be analyzed from a geographic angle. Some topics remain typically geographic, as they involve “things moving spatially”, such as:

  • Transport (assessing demand, mapping and proposing routes, locating train stations and airports, optimizing efficiency…)
  • Logistics (estimating volumes, needs and potential routes between departure points and destinations, coordinating and optimizing flights and rides, taking risks and territorial confines into account…)
  • Natural Resource Management (environmental evaluation of ecosystem capacities, limits and resilience, frequency and timeline of exploitation, stakes and risks…)
  • Planning (assessing volumes and patterns of people’s movements; knowing, mapping and reconciling different functions, needs and wills within the urban or rural space; thinking globally about all aspects and dimensions of the territory…)
  • Facility management (usually combining logistics, transport and planning, applied to one specific market/place)

Within those major topics, geographers touch on a wide range of interests, depending on the types of projects they are working on. Doing geography is also about being able to explore other fields and sciences to pick up specific knowledge and key concepts to help solve geographic questions.

  • Politics: Everything regarding planning has to do with politics. As multiple stakes are confronted over the same space (profitability versus well-being, lack of space, pollution issues, need for services, green space, transport efficiency, keeping places livable and pleasant for everyone…). It takes geographers to have a good sense of the lobbies and institutions acting in one place to get full answers to their questions.
  • Environment: Anything spatial is a physical object, therefore located in a specific milieu or ecosystem. From the hyper-local projects, such as choosing where to put one bus stop, to the global planning of a national train network, the environment is a fundamental aspect that must be considered in any decision. This does not mean that being a geographer requires being 100% pro-green, but usually knowing and paying attention to the environmental aspects increase eco-friendly sensitivity.
  • Law: Where there is politics, there is law. For geographers, the laws that matter the most are property laws. Everything related to land has to do with property. Environmental standards and national and local regulations must be known and mastered.
  • Economics: Any project has a budget and is being done in a specific political and economic context: more than learning the accounting, geographers need to know where the money is coming from and a sense of scale, as well as the economic mechanisms at stake.
  • Risk management: As geographers have a global vision on projects, they are usually in a good position to assess risks (natural and industrial, but also financial, environmental, political or risks related to health, people’s security, etc.). Assessing risk is weighing the vulnerability of one object (e.g. people, a building, a business plan) with the hazard probability (an epidemic, a natural disaster or an economical crisis). The geographic perspective can help a lot in dealing with multiple layers of thematic information to calculate probabilities and plays a key role in the decision-making process.

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