What Is “Geospatially smart” and Why Does It Matter?

January 24, 2018

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What does it mean to be geospatially smart? Series Overview: In our field, being “geospatially smart” sounds like it would be a highly desirable trait that allows you to execute your job tasks effectively and efficiently. But what do those two terms mean together? Are there any objective measures of what “geospatially smart” equals, and how one achieves that status? In this short series, What does it mean to be “geospatially smart”?, Directions Magazine will examine the notion of “geospatial smartness,” including how the ideas are defined; how they are measured, taught, and learned; and how they intersect with geospatial technologies. 

Sometimes phrases are difficult to define concisely because they are comprised of simple terms that you don’t stop long enough to think about. “Geospatially smart” is an example. As an adverb, “geospatially” is modifying the adjective “smart.” In common American English usage, “smart” connotes mental alertness. A smart person not only has some knowledge but applies that knowledge in an efficient, practical, or effective manner.

By extension, “geospatially smart” means having geospatial knowledge and applying it in a geospatially-informed manner. “Geographic” and “spatial” have much longer histories as published terms, as keywords considered via Google’s Ngram and in common English. “Geography” and its adjective, “geographic,” (or “geographical” for those of you who favor British English) are broad and inclusive terms and historically linked with written descriptive work, especially common in academic settings.

“Spatial” is the adjective for the noun “space” but it too is unavoidably broad in its applications since “space” basically means where anything and everything exists, moves, and/or interacts. So, “spatial thinking” as a phrase validly is applied to everything from assembling a piece of furniture from printed instructions, to mentally imagining the pattern of the family tree connecting your great-grandfather to your nephew, modeling how earthquakes occur at plate tectonic boundaries, and explaining why solar eclipses occur. As the late geographer Reginald Golledge once said years ago here in Directions Magazine, spatial thinking really is an essential part of everyday life, whether it’s about driving or packing or writing or day dreaming.

What about the term “geospatial” itself? Exactly why, when, and how the term came into use isn’t certain, but the rapid expansion of its use since the 1990s speaks to its utility. “Geospatial” sets a scale that limits spatial to the domain of the Earth and the human activities on it. The military has found this term particularly suitable, especially as an adjective applied to “intelligence.” “Geographic intelligence” could refer to listing the principal products of Peru, and “spatial intelligence” has been co-opted by psychologists studying our mental capacities to mentally rotate or manipulate 2- and 3-dimensional objects, often in abstract space. Though “intelligent” as an adjective is as generic as “smart” is in its meaning, once you use the word in its noun form and add geospatial, “geospatial intelligence” is unambiguously militaristic, hence GEOINT.

Which brings us back to “geospatially smart.” For discussion’s sake, let’s think of geospatially smart as being cognizant of geographical phenomena, patterns, and principles and applying that knowledge to practices, decisions, and activities. How does this play out? If stream water needs to be tested for water quality, a geospatially smart person takes upstream and uphill landuse practices into account when selecting sampling locations. A geospatially smart person wouldn’t reach for a national road atlas if he/she were interested in finding a new route to walk the dog in his/her local neighborhood. Geospatially smart people may never have heard of Tobler’s First Law of Geography, but they do notice when they see a tree that doesn’t look at all like its neighbors, and they would expect Akron and Toledo to be more similar to each other than Boise and Providence.  

Numerous examples of geospatial smartness take place where geography and time interact. For instance, geospatially smart designers of highway systems should take into account sunlight patterns that blind drivers at certain times of the day or year. Geospatially smart boaters know how to plan for dynamic wind, tides, and navigational needs. The whole field of geodesign is based on the notion that geospatially smart people can make better decisions about their environments.

Whether this mode of thinking is called geospatial or geographical is a point of passionate contention for some, and that distracts from discussing how this inherently-worthwhile mode of thinking is applied in our personal and professional lives. As a geographer, I find the term geospatial to be a valuable complementary one to geographical, rather than an off-putting substitute. If a point of distinction is necessary, I find that geospatial implies that digital technologies are involved in the process of what is being described. I infer the technology connection from many observations of how and when the word is used, such as the types of job positions with “geospatial” in their title, or the Geospatial Revolution video series, or the congressional Geospatial Data Act of 2017.  Or, maybe it’s just my sense of how technologies are permeating all dimensions of our professional world.

Geospatial thinking contributes in significant ways to the work we do in this field, and we have a sense for what it is and why it matters. If we can define it, can we measure and test it? Can it be taught and learned by working professionals? How can it be integrated into formal educational programs? And how exactly does it connect with our use of geospatial technologies? We will explore these questions in the coming months here at Directions Magazine. 

Additional readings related to this article: 

Artz, Matt and Baumann, Jim. What is the Geographic Approach? ArcNews Online, Fall 2009.

Association of American Geographers, The Geographic Advantage

DiBiase, David. The Nature of Geographic Information: an Open Geospatial Textbook. The Pennsylvania State University.

Dobson, Jerome. Bring Back Geography! ArcNews, Spring 2007.

Downs, Roger. Grappling with Geography’s Existential Dilemma: The Legacy of William Torrey Harris. Geographical Review 2016, 107(4).

Getis, Art. What Holds Us Together, in GIS Best Practices: Essays on Geography and GIS. Redlands, CA: Esri. September 2008. pp 3-8.

Jackson, Peter. Thinking Geographically, Geography 2006, 91(3): 299-204.

Sinton, Diana, Bednarz, Sarah, Gersmehl, Phil, Kolvoord, Robert, and Uttal, David. (2013). The People’s Guide to Spatial Thinking. National Council for Geographic Education, 2013.


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