The View From Here: Geographic Technology Terms to Avoid (or at Least Clarify…)

By Adena Schutzberg

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 communications!

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.

Published Friday, October 31st, 2008

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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