Tackling Geography, Science, Policy and Societal Needs at Harvard

Doug Richardson, Executive Director of the Association of American Geographers spoke at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government today. It was part of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project Seminar Series.

Richardson began with some opening remarks highlighting how science, technology and policy bring some limitations to the table. Science, he argued uses a "brittle" model that limits innovation. Technology moves rapidly and creates pressures that limit adoption (privacy and confidentiality issue have popped up recently, for example. Policy is limited because governments can be slow to value science and technology. 

He detailed the emergence of what he calls the geographic management system. Unlike traditional GIS, it focusses on the real time interactive management of operations. That area, he points out is where money is spent in both government and business. His descriptions made me think of excutive visualization dashboards and Tim O'Reilly's vision for Gov 2.0. Both employ up-to-date data and depend on decision makers tapping into valuable visualizations.

He concluded by addressing how innovation in science does not occur in a linear fashion and how the same in true in geospatial technologies. He suggested the term GIScicence, coined in 1992 perhaps appeared to describe what had come from business (Esri, for example, and his own company, GeoResearch) and was then moving to the Academy. One of the key elements of these systems, he argued is that they are cumulative. Ideally, geodata, once collected need not be collected again, but can always be queried and link via geography.

The question and answer period was quite robust and included queries from attendees from the Belfer Center, visiting scholars and Harvard's Center for Geographic Analysis and Graduate School of Design. I was very impressed with how practical and concrete the questions were; these individuals were trying to solve read world problems. I've paraphrased the questions and answers as best I could.

Q: The idea of GIS/GIScinece being cummulative sounds great, but it's not happening now. We don't really have the structures to manage and unite all the data we have collected. How do we do that?
A: There is funding for two supporting areas: cyberinfrastructure (archiving, management of big data) and space time integration (past, future, real-time).

Q: Please speak more about Volunteered Geographic Information.
A: It's a misnomer; some of it is not volunteered, for example when data pulled from social modia used for trend analysis. This is mis-labeled VGI.

Q: GIScience is not the best term for this are. GI System is more appropriate and highlights the "connecting of dots."A
A: I agree.

Q: How do you create demand for geo and community based mapping efforts?
A: Social agendas tend to push faster than econ development ones, but there is benefit for all. [I'm not sure I heard a specific answer.]

Q: What is the state of geography education, K-12, past present future?
A:  AAG memebership doubled (over Richardson's 12 years), annual meeting attendence went from 3500-~9000, there are new academic programs, basic and masters, lot of work on workforce, DOL study/GITA, 70-80% of the educating work in colleges is done in geography depts, AAG/NSF Edge program. [I'm not sure I heard a specific answer.]

Q: How might one use community mapping for election monitoring? I'm from Ethiopia.
A: Election monitoring can be done with mapping. We are doing redistricting here in the U.S. You can't collect data about how people vote, but can do exit polling. [I'm not sure I heard a specific answer, but one of the CGA attendees passed on his contact info and I'm sure they will discuss Ushahidi - which came out of election related issues in Kenya!]

Q: What should geography contribute to GIScience.
A: Its knowledge base, theme of relationship between human/natural systems, traditions of geography.

Q: What message related to GIS/geography would share with new legislators? [This it NOT a theoretical question. New members of Congress come to the Kennedy School for two weeks before heading to Washington DC., press release]
A: Support geo ed at all levels for jobs, using geo makes more more efficient economy, and creates jobs, foster data sharing with respect for security/privacy, the AAG developed resolution about geography education that four Secretaries of State signed [press release]

Q: During your tenure were there any suprise public policy issues that gave you nightmares?
A: geography and its technology is needed to make the world better, US should not be turning inward during the economic downturn and geography offers a window as to why not, security issues covered in my book [Geographical Dimensions of Terrorism], management of privacy/confidentiality

I'd like to hear readers' answers to this question: What message related to GIS/geography would share with new legislators? Please leave a comment.

Published Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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