The View From Here: Geographic Technology Terms to Avoid (or at Least Clarify…)
A few weeks ago one of my favorite tech writers, David
Pogue of the New York Times, penned a column titled "Tech
Terms to Avoid." His goal was to highlight terms that confuse
ordinary people in their quest to make sense of technology, and to
offer clearer alternatives. I'm no David Pogue, but I do aspire to
write the same kind of clear, concise, fun-to-read prose that he does.
Below I offer my selection of terms from our world of geotechnology
that we may not be able to avoid, but can better explain as we
communicate with a wider mix of people about our field.
Data: It's impossible to talk about any sort of geographic
software without mentioning data. Data are the gallons of gas that
power an application, be it on a laptop, phone or navigation device.
While we think of "data" as a single input, in fact, there are many
datasets involved in even the simplest apps. There might be a "basemap"
and a layer of "store locations" and to start off a "find the nearest"
type of query, the detailed "point location" of the shoppers,
determined by GPS or some other technology. My suggestion is that
instead of using the broad term "data," we get specific and use terms
like "basemap" and "store locations" and "your current location," along
with explanations of these, as needed. Doing so lays a foundation to
discuss other matters: the various sources of (and prices for)
different types of data, the need for privacy protection for some data
records and not others, and finally, that these data we use in our work
have one thing in common, a location.
GPS: While most practitioners in our field know that GPS stands
for "global positioning system," writing out those terms does not make
"crystal clear" the day-to-day use of the technology. GPS formally
refers to the constellation of satellites circling the earth, not the
hardware or chips we use to determine location from those
earth-orbiting satellites. As with data, it's better to add another
term or two to be extra clear. I like to use the term "GPS receiver" to
reinforce the idea that many products only receive signals; GPS-enabled
devices don't send any. When discussing GPS-enabled phones, referring
to a "GPS chip" may be helpful, to clarify that the GPS chip receives
data but another part of the phone does the sending/sharing with other
people or machines.
API: You can write out "application programming interface," but
non-programmers are not likely to know that it's a chunk of code that
allows programmers to take advantage of what's inside a software
program in order to build another program. The tricky part, I think,
about APIs is that they fall partway along the complexity and power
spectrum of programming between the simple customization of a program
that casual users can do and the full blown writing of original code.
The most effective discussions of APIs focus on what they enable rather
than the gory details of their implementation and use.
Map: How can you speak about geographic questions and answers
without maps? You can't, but you can be very clear about whether the
map is on paper (a "paper map" or a "printed map" or a "wall map") or
on a computer screen ("electronic or online map"). In addition, you can
be clear about the nature of the map. Is it a locator map? A
color-coded map? There's no need to use the terms thematic or
choropleth unless you want to show off that you studied cartography!
Further - and I hate to have to mention this, but I find that I must -
be sure to include a map (or link to one) whenever possible in your
Neogeography: You'd be surprised at how well non-geographers and
non-technologists can define the term "geography." When I taught
non-major geography students at two public colleges here in
Massachusetts I was always impressed that while they didn't know where
countries were, the students had a solid sense of what geography was.
What geography is and the sorts of questions we ask have not changed
significantly with the addition of technology. That's why I believe the
term neogeography confuses rather than clarifies the nature and role of
geospatial technology in most situations. If the goal is to highlight
the "new vision" of technology and its use in geographic problem
solving, I'd suggest simply referring to Web 2.0 and detailing how its
key ideas can be brought to geographic questions.
That wraps up my short list of terms to reconsider as you hone your
geographic communication skills for your clients, peers and the public
as we head toward the ubiquitous use of location technology. What other
terms "get us into trouble" with those outside our field? What are some
ways around those minefields? I invite readers to share their
suggestions in the comments section below.