My Look Back on Geography Week 2013

By Casey J. McLaughlin

The traditional three Rs (Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic) should be the foundation of education and I like to think they all have a home in the wonderful thing we call Geography.  The National Geographic Society sponsors Geography Awareness Week, which was last week!  GIS day anchors the week (every 3rd Wednesday of November since 1999) and is a time for spatial celebration!  Last year I presented EPA’s GIS work along with a bit of my own opinion about general GIS.  This year, I attended the morning session at the 12th annual GIS Day at the University of Kansas.  During the long walk back to my car (is any campus parking friendly?), I thought about how the presentations frame where GIS is today.  I am, as usual, brought back to the idea that Geography is the center of the universe and GIS has a place in modern technology.

GIS is a hub for multi-disciplinarian work.  Geography not only provides physical context (through location) but also methods for organizing, accessing, and understanding the world.  Much of the work we do at USEPA is focused on place; a place where pollution has happened, a place where pollution would be very dangerous, a place where people should be protected, a place where water should be protected.  Place is critical to protecting human health and the environment.  Geography involves understanding place and the relationships between places and people.

“Earth is the Metaphor for organizing information” Michael Goodchild (Author and Professor)

A map is a record of a place.  Like a place is more than where stuff happens, a map is more than just a record, it can facilitate our understanding of the world.  Microsoft Bing Maps Architect Blaise Aquera Y Arcas has given two really good TED talks that I highly recommend.  He helped crystallize for me the idea that a map is more than just a catalog of places but also the canvas, the library, and the laboratory for understanding our environment.

“The map as Information Ecology” Blaise Aquera Y Arcas (Microsoft Bing Maps Architect)

GIS is central to modern technology. I first started learning about GIS during college in the mid-90’s and the first definition I read (Peter Burrough and Rachel McDonnell) specified a GIS as “a powerful set of tools for collecting, storing, retrieving at will, transforming, and displaying spatial data.”  Wow, I thought, GIS is a fantastic tool.  I later found out, however, that GIS could often be found in the basement – organizations had GIS groups but they occupied whatever left over spaces facilities had. While some saw the value of GIS, others only saw that it as a co$tly sub-group of planning.  For decades, GIS has been its own thing that was associated more with co$t than with inve$tment.

Despite being relegated to the basement or other windowless backroom, GIS is now main-stream.  Maps have long held an important place in planning, personal computers brought geospatial analysis into the business world.  Mobile devices, cloud resources, and cheap processing power have helped put geospatial into everyone’s hands.  Each time we use the location features on our personal devices we’re using GIS.  Everyone is holding location in their hands and spatial thinking is part of our normal day.  Paul Ramsey illustrates this best by declaring his team doesn’t do GIS anymore, they do spatial INFORMATION technology.  Location is and should be integrally woven into the fabric of decision making.

“We don’t do GIS, we do spatial IT on the spatial web” Paul Ramsey (Founder of PostGIS)

EPA is evolving too. I’ve worked with the government for a full decade now (yeah, being on campus changes my perspective on my age experience) and change takes time; but even the government changes.  A simple example is the Facility Registry System which consolidates information from a number of internal databases into our “one-stop source for Environmental Information.”  (Read about FRS in my blog entry, Where is that Facility.)  The simple idea is that before we started looking (spatial thinking) at maps of facility location the raw location data was all over the map!  Cleaning up this data, spatially, was a first step, but has to improved quality control, data update routines, and data access procedures.  I’m very encouraged by Federal efforts to use and share spatial data (National Map, Drought Monitor, NEPAssist).  Place is a powerful idea because we all have it and we keep moving from one place to another.  GO GIS!

FRS Locations

Looking at a map of uncorrected facility locations highlights why looking at a map can illustrate why knowing place is critical to making decisions about pollution and human health.

Casey McLaughlin is a first generation Geospatial Enthusiast who has worked with EPA since 2003 as a contractor and now as the Regional GIS Lead. He currently holds the rank of #1 GISer in EPA Region 7′s Environmental Services Division.

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