WANTED: Professional Geographers…Now More than Ever!

By Reginald Golledge

Applied Geography is helping to route cars, solve crimes and help improve the environment.

For decades, professional geographers were reluctant to admit that they actually were geographers.Such an admission brought about responses such as "I hated geography in school" or "I don't need to know where bananas are grown" (I guess they didn't expect to be on Jeopardy). Things are changing. Today's geographer is often an applied geospatial analyst, using technology such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Spatial Analysis (SA) to solve an increasing variety of social, economic, political and environmental problems. As a matter of record, Applied Geography (as an Association of American Geographers Specialty Group) has been around for about three decades. But geographers have been conducting important applied work for a lot longer than that.

Applied Geographers at Hunter College in New York gained national attention following the September 11th tragedy. Using laser based imaging procedures (LIDAR), they provided police and fire departments with daily updates of the topography of ground zero to help rescuers navigate over mounds and into or around chasms in the debris These regular updates of the devastated area from LIDAR images were compiled from an airplane flying 5000 feet above the devastated area. These images were analyzed by specialists in Remote Sensing and Satellite Imagery and further processed using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to produce up to the minute 52" x 80" map representations of the devastated area and its surroundings. They showed 30' craters, the remains of exterior walls, all despite the continued billowing smoke and dust.In addition to terrain mapping by LIDAR, (LIght Detection And Ranging system) GPS was used to measure debris height to within 8" - thus giving regular daily evidence of subsiding areas. For decision makers, these were the first clear pictures of the devastated area and proved to be extraordinarily useful visualizations that could help direct search, rescue and evacuation procedures.

During the Bosnian crisis, US military decision makers eventually began using regularly updated maps of the conflict area produced in the field from a Geographic Information System. As information about changes in the location of mobile and stationary field units were received, the GIS was used to update geographic (or location-based) information that helped increase the effectiveness and efficiency of US interventions. After the conflict a geographer developed a virtual reality representation of the decisions made during the conflict and indicated a substantially increased accuracy of performance (e.g.targeting) after the GIS was implemented.

About 20 years ago, a British Environmental Psychologist, Dr.David Canter, became Scotland Yard's "Secret Weapon" when he mapped the location of attacks by a serial rapist and, using geographic concepts of "least effort" and "home territory", predicted the general area in which the next event would most likely occur (dynamic spatial pattern analysis). As GIS technology advanced, so too did the use of geospatial thinking and reasoning. Today, more police departments are using Applied Geography to help in their fight against crime. CNN reports that Maryland police were using "Geographic Profiling" to help their efforts to catch the sniper that terrorized the Maryland-Virginia-DC area last fall. This profiling is an electronic version of the "thumbtack map" procedure more traditionally used by police and other investigatory groups to show the spatial distribution of criminal activities. But it is also much more than that for it performs powerful spatial analysis on data relating to the environment, the crime scene, the psychological profile of suspects and a theoretical profile of a hypothesized perpetrator and his/her patterns of spatial behavior and probable activity patterns. Produced by an ex-policeman (Canadian) from Vancouver, British Columbia, the Geographic Profiler provides an optimal search strategy for tracking and defining a "hunting area" associated with the sniper's attack patterns. This Geographic Profiling system has been used by Scotland Yard, the FBI, and the Royal Canadian Mounties and dozens of other police agencies worldwide. Users claim that the system has helped to solve about half of the 450 crimes for which it has been used.

GIS has helped Applied Geography to engage in the current age of technology. A GIS is essentially a set of interacting computer programs which operate on a georeferenced dataset to analyze and represent spatial distributions, patterns, geographic associations, and other spatial relations (e.g.spatial autocorrelation, spatial regression, clustering analysis and so on). When combined with GPS, GIS software provides visualization that respond to simple questions such as "Where am I?", "What's in my vicinity?", "How do I get there from here?", and to more complex questions such as "What is the time-space pattern of this set of criminal activities?", "Where is the best site to locate a new fire station?", "What elementary school can be closed with the minimal disruption of student travel?"

Perhaps the longest lasting examples of Applied Geography can be found in the areas of consumer spatial behavior and location decision-making. As early as 1965, David Huff (trained jointly in geography and marketing) developed a version of the old geography based interaction model (called the "Social Gravity Model of Human Interaction") for predicting market shares among competing shopping centers. While the original gravity model used only population size as an attractive force and interpoint distance as a friction, Huff revised the model using selling space and travel time as attraction and friction variables. Although modified over the years to include factors such as gross leasable area (GLA) and perceived distances as attracting and friction forces, the "Huff Model" is still the basis used by many businesses (and shopping center developers) to estimate potential consumer patronage and to evaluate market segmentation among competing centers.

A powerful new methodology now complements the Huff model as an applied geographic tool to examine location based services - in environments from real estate and location of new housing developments, to emergency service locations (police, fire, medical services). Called Location-Allocation Modeling, this consists of computer programs that combine optimizing efficiency or effectiveness in location decision making with iterative market area analysis (allocation procedures) to solve location planning problems in private and public sectors. Traditionally, a PC-based procedure, software now has become available for wearable computers and PDA's for use in the field. In the latter case, the PDA connects to a server that provides information such as current use or ownership of a location (often supplied from a GPS), as well as location of competitor outlets, available facilities (e.g.transport routes), local demographic and income data, or in fact any data contained in the server's database. Although PDA's have tiny screens, visualizations of phenomena can be represented, along with the results of spatial analysis of problems such as market share estimates. The applied geographer, using this technology, can instantaneously access information at a field site that may otherwise have taken days to produce.

Location based services have also been extended to the transportation domain. Just-in-time delivery companies (e.g.UPS, FEDEX) can (using GPS) track each vehicle as it travels a daily route while simultaneously updating information on shortest path routes to be followed while completing their delivery schedules. Using GPS and GIS, taxi companies can individually refer the nearest available cabs to respond to a service call. Much of this capability comes from special software designed to calculate shortest paths through the complicated networks of city highways, streets and roads.

In terms of more long-term uses, applied geographers have invested much effort in building regional planning models. In widespread use for planning and policy purposes, these efforts include models that perform optimal spatial redistributing solutions for political (voting) purposes when law requires this be done. Applied geographers now use such models to advise school districts on busing procedures (for anti-discrimination and ordinary daily travel by spatially scattered pupils). They are also used to pinpoint areas for development investment in different countries, and to assist in long-term planning of regional economic and social change.

In the transportation area, applied geographers are researching the building of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). In the highway domain (IHS) applied geographers investigate the impact of Highway Advisory Signs (HAS), Highway Advisory Radar (HAR) and in-vehicle advisory messages (e.g.radio or in-vehicle guidance systems or IVGS) on potential travel behavior. This helps predict what will happen when traffic barriers such a congestion, accident or construction, impedes regular movement. The latter, called the travel plans of movers, can be divided into obligatory or habitual activities and discretionary or variable travel behavior. Different responses are likely depending on which purpose is the dominant one in travel at that time. This helps make realistic predictions of changing traffic flows and helps evaluate the potential for different spatial responses to barriers (e.g.delay trip; change departure time; change route; substitute alternative activity; postpone trip) to be implemented.

The activities described above are drawn primarily from the human science component of geography. In a later column, I will deal with Applied Geography in the physical science side of the discipline. But even this short overview confirms arguments raised in previous columns that geography today is remarkably different from the image that many people have based on intermittent K-12 experiences.


Published Thursday, February 13th, 2003

Written by Reginald Golledge



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