European curriculum develops next generation’s ‘spatial citizens’

March 25, 2015

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Geo-enabled crowdsourcing and volunteered geographic information as a means of amassing data are becoming commonplace, spawning and enabling citizen-science projects and making huge contributions to our collective knowledge. Can we assume that such scientific contribution is now part of our civic responsibility? And if it is to become a regular aspect of civic engagement, how can it be taught and modeled for students and for their teachers? The Spatial Citizenship project in Europe is leading the way, developing a curriculum designed to create a populace of responsible “spatial citizens.”

The ubiquity and massive quantities of digital geospatial data is astounding, and there is no end in sight to this trend. One factor that has contributed to this tremendously over the last decade is how individual people have become both sensors and contributors of data, as well as demanding consumers of data. From a production perspective, the combination of readily accessible online mapping APIs and volunteered geographic information (VGI) have fueled our obsession with sharing via maps: where we eat, when we sleep and what we tweet, among hundreds of other possible activities.

Opportunities for geo-enabled crowdsourcing have been a boon to science and spawned rich and engaging citizen-science projects. With the pace of changes, the cost of data acquisition and the scale of the inquiries, it’s the only way to reach answers in some cases. Task the masses with collecting streamflow levels and invasive species. By reaching out to the worldwide community, the contributions of single people can scale into a critical mass of information and knowledge, such as what has happened with The Globe Program. In my youth, I spent way too many hours destroying asteroids with a video game, and now I could use those hours back to find more asteroids!

Contributing scientific knowledge that helps address environmental issues is one dimension of being a citizen, defined broadly. Geo-enabled civic engagement takes multiple forms, including supporting the one-to-many and many-to-one relationships that exist between an individual person and their local, state and federal government.

Going forward, individuals and their governments will only come to rely on these services and functions more, and will expect that the public has the ability to produce and consume geo-enabled information and opinions. If it is to become a regular aspect of civic engagement, how can it be taught and modeled for students and teachers? Reciting “The Pledge of Allegiance” may be the only citizen-related activity that a 4th grader in the United States experiences in a given month. How can she learn more about her opportunities, responsibilities and rights, and leverage the time that she is likely to be spending with her smart phone as she grows up?

That premise, that geo-media has a role in both the consumption and prosumption of knowledge for citizens, has been one driver of the Spatial Citizenship project in Europe. During its 3-year funding, participants from nine different countries designed and produced a curriculum that can be used by secondary school teachers to offer their students educational lessons and activities intended to expand awareness and build practices around this topic. The materials will help students and teachers alike, since this is an area of professional development that no teacher is likely to encounter on their own.

As the leaders of the SPACIT project realized, our emerging geo-information society warrants the development of new capabilities if people are to successfully participate as responsible “spatial citizens.” They first had to articulate the competencies that students will require to be spatially-literate and to use geo-media, involving location-based and geospatial technology, to participate in society in an active and informed manner. Spatially-informed citizens are able to interpret and critically reflect on spatial representations, communicate with the aid of maps and share location-specific opinions and ideas with geo-media.

One characteristic of the SPACIT curriculum that is missing from many of the other geo-enabled citizen-science and public participation activities is the understanding that students can — and should — be taught to be both reflective and reflexive in their actions. The novelty of having your mobile phone connect to the internet and allow you to click a point and send a picture of a pothole in need of repair to your City Hall, still has not reached beyond its “gee whiz, cool” factor with many people. Most cities have such technology in place. Hello, City of Boston, here is a picture of my snowy street that needs plowing, please come soon!

But how does the sharing of one picture fit into a bigger context of governance? Do people think about who has access to the images and who controls the workflow of these processes? Access to these personal hand-held devices may seem to facilitate the reaching of our governmental representatives, but is the access equal? When you look at the maps that result from all of these contributions, what do the patterns reveal, and hide, about the underlying socio-economics of the city? Preparing students and teachers to address these questions in their own communities was one of SPACIT’s aims.

Citizenry takes place on many scales, from being part of a municipality, a county and a state or province and national country. Of course, we also contribute to, and partake of, watersheds, viewsheds and soundscapes, reminding us that we have many global connections well beyond our administrative and political ones. Geography and space both distinguish us and unify us, and using geo-media can highlight or diminish the differences. Applications like Place Pulse, and all of the others that make us think about our environs, are just tools. It’s what we do with the ideas that makes a difference.


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