On Maps, Geography and Academia

Lewis & Clarke's "Big Map"

First of all, let me fess up, I love maps and, for as long as I can remember, always have. In large part it was maps that captured my imagination and brought me to the natural sciences generally, and to geology — my chosen area of studies, specifically. It was not, as you might expect, the other way around. Oddly it was also maps, to a degree, that piqued my “serious” interest in computers and information technology – my current and chosen career, with their incredible power to handle huge amounts of satellite imagery data. To me, and many others, maps are at, or near the apex, of ways that humans have devised to effectively convey information. Furthermore, maps are also totally eclectic by nature, They are just as useful in conveying and helping us digest huge amounts of data regarding the geology of Virginia, as they can be with voting patterns in the US, or bird migration patterns, or the human history of the Spanish Civil War. I cannot imagine a single department, school or discipline at William and Mary that could not use maps effectively in their research or to transmit knowledge.

Sadly however, despite their incredibly broad appeal and effectiveness, the use of maps has up until recently largely fallen into a state of, let’s kindly say, neglect in academia. Of course in some disciplines, Geology, Anthropology and Biology come to mind, this has never been the case, but in many others the use of maps and the importance of spatial information and relationships has only recently started to be looked upon more favorably again. Fortunately, this trend has been evolving for the past few years and looks to continue to do so. Currently maps and mapping can be incorporated into our research and teaching on many levels, from the very complex with huge datasets to the very personal. It’s quite possible that maps may figure more prominently in your academic future. Before moving on to the options already available to all of us now, perhaps it would be useful to talk a bit about maps and to review a bit of the history of geography in academia.

On Maps

Loosely speaking geography is the broad area of study dealing with almost any sort of spatial information (physical, political, cultural, biological, etc) on earth. The “tool of the trade” most people identity with geography are, you guessed it, maps. You may not have thought of them as such, but maps are a type of symbolic abstraction and have much in common with other symbolic abstractions, such as language, mathematics and art. Like language and art, maps can not only facilitate our thinking but also help shape it. This statement may seem like a bit of a stretch, but recent research has shown that significant portions of our brains, and several types of brain cells, are exclusivelly dedicated to constantly “mapping” the world around us. Obviously a good thing for a brain to be able to do since we live and have to survive in “space” — can’t find the fruit trees, your herd, the pool of water, and the rock where the leopard “hangs out”, chances are you won’t be around for long. This “hard-wiring” in our brains is probably what makes maps such a powerful, intuitive and attractive tool. Oh, and one last bit of terminology, the people that produce maps are called cartographers. Through history cartographers have had to use science and “art” in varying proportions to produce their maps and thereby communicate the intended information.

On Geography in Academia

A funny thing happened to geography starting in the mid 20th century, due to many factors, but at least in part due to its own successes, it became almost an extinct species in academia. Perhaps the most famous (infamous) and influential battle over geography in higher education was fought in the late 1940s at Harvard, and when that university’s president announced that “Geography is not a university subject,” it seems the die was cast. A few short decades later almost every geography department in higher education in the US had been dismantled. The reasons for how this came to be are hotly debated and not well documented, but they seem to have been tied to (the usual suspects of) campus politics and budgets, but also possibly even more so to geography’s broad application/attraction to many disciplines which made for “fuzzy” and ill-defined border for those departments to defend (pun intended). Furthermore, there seems to have been a general feeling that the world by this point had already been pretty much mapped, and that with no more “terra incognita” left on the face of the earth, there was little point in maintaining geography departments. To the extent this may have been a factor, it was based on a very narrow, and already dated view that, first, only physical geography was important, and second, that the earth was unchanging. I think the reasoning in the debate may have gone something like this: yes geography is important, but rather than having a geography department that overlaps with so many other departments, let each individual department use geography as a tool in its research in the way it best sees fit.

Into the Future

Regardless of the reasons for this end result, academia was left with a significant problem – who would collect geographical data, be able to analyze it, and make the maps? Cartography, as I said before, is both a science and an art, and as it was traditionally done, certainly not one quickly learned, much less mastered. Without the ability to collect spatial data and create maps, it became harder, or even impossible to analyze spatial data, so why collect spatial data? As you can imagine this sets into motion a strong feedback loop, and one that has been difficult to escape. But it now appears that escaping this unfortunate situation is finally possible. A trio of recent technologies have come to the rescue.

If you need to directly collect spatial data, or conversely just generally just find things almost anywhere on earth, the Gobal Positioning System (GPS) allows you to locate points on earth with unprecedented ease and speed. Dedicated GPS units can allow you to easily collect thousands of datapoints, and with the high end units, with errors of less than a few centimeters. The consumer versions of these units can be had for as little as $100, and they will find locations anywhere on earth to within a few feet. Even more amazingly, almost every modern cell phone today has built in GPS capabilities, and most “smart” phones easily allow you to collect, store and transmit point and path data that is nearly as accurate (or in some cases more accurate) than it would have taken an entire team of surveyors weeks to collect several years ago. Sound intriguing? If you need to collect location data of any sort, please contact us and we’ll be happy to get you up and going.

Webpage Documenting the Events of the Libyan Crisis using Google Maps Interface

Perhaps the most exciting innovation in maps in the last few decades is the advent of free online access to historically unprecedented amounts of spatial data. Most people are probably familiar with this through their interactions with services like Google/Yahoo/Bing Maps (or many other similar online maps) or applications like Google Earth, Blue Marble, etc. But just as important are the huge online repositories which now allow users to have access to previously produced maps, constantly updated satellite imagery, topographic information, census information, and so on. It would be foolish to see this flow of information as a one-way street – that is from the provider down to the user. Rather all of the information available through these means can also be used in conjunction with data collected personally, institutionally, or even from other online sources, to create new maps, which in turn can be shared back out to others. Perhaps most notably Google Maps provides an incredibly easy way to produce and share maps with your own particular data. It is, in fact, so easy that this 15 minute tutorial should be all you need to create and “publish” a map with your own data. With just a bit more effort, Google Maps or Google Earth can be used in even more interesting ways, such as a collaboration tool for a project such as “Mapping Memory in Madrid”, or a tool to help users visualize the geology of Virginia in three dimensions. We have periodically included both the use of GPS and Google Maps in our workshop schedule, but would be more than willing to meet you on an as-needed basis to get started with using these tools.

At the high end of map creation, Geographical Information Systems (GIS) allows users, albeit still with a significant but achievable learning curve, to tackle large spatially-related datasets and manipulate, analyze and illustrate these data sets in ways which were not even feasible just a few years ago by even the most gifted cartographers. The leading GIS software suite, Esri’s ArcGIS, is now available, free of charge, to every faculty, staff and student at William and Mary. This software can be installed on any college owned machine as well as personally owned faculty computers. Just as, if not, more importantly, in 2008 the College created the Center for Geospatial Analysis (CGA). The center has been tasked with several goals including the promotion, education and support of GIS on campus. For a good example of what can be achieved by our faculty using this software, the support provided by the CGA, and fair bit of elbow grease, see Dr. Salvatore Saporito’s School Attendance Boundary Information System (SABINS). We can help you with getting the software installed and running free of charge, the registrar offers at least a couple of full-semester ArcGIS courses every semester, and the CGA often runs short courses to get your started.

So here we are, it’s starting to look like a brave new world for maps in academia, and in this world you can be your own cartographer.

About Pablo Yáñez

Pablo Yáñez is the Academic Technologist for the Sciences. He studied Geology at the University of Maryland (BS) and University of Arizona (MS), where he specialized in Geochemistry. He joined Information Technology at William and Mary in 2000, and has since worked with nearly all of the academic departments on campus in some capacity or another. Beyond his "normal" Academic Technologist duties, during these years he has been involved in several projects/initiatives including: the use of the College's Public Access Labs; the creation of the Center for Geospatial Analysis, the Swem Media Center, and many technology-enhanced classrooms; and in the review and planning of campus-wide software procurement.