GeoInspirations: Karl Donert - Geography Ambassador to the World

January 9, 2019
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Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Dr. Karl Donert, a geographer working on partnership-building for the purpose of instruction, curriculum and research.

When I think about all of the people who have influenced me most in my career, Dr. Karl Donert comes immediately to mind. And when I consider those people who have had the most influence on others, again, Dr. Donert comes to mind. I met Karl at a Geographical Association conference in the U.K. nearly 20 years ago, and one of my earliest memories of working with him was when he invited me to his university, Liverpool Hope. It was one of the best work trips of my entire career, and Karl was the most wonderful host, collaborator, instructor, and tour guide. I have had the pleasure of contributing to books he has edited and authored, GIS professional development events he has organized, and initiatives he has created for the purpose of keeping geography instruction, tools and methods thriving. Dr. Donert is an innovative, fascinating and expert geographer who has been tirelessly building programs and bringing people together for the advancement of geography throughout the world. He’s probably one of the most well-known geographers in the world, but just in case you do not yet know him, it is my pleasure to introduce Karl to Directions Magazine readers.

I asked Karl to describe his current position and his background. He said, “After teaching in higher education for more than 20 years, I'm now a consultant working with lots of different organizations. I am the elected president of the European Association of Geographers, a nonprofit organization promoting geography and the work of geographers to many different types of situations. I get to share the geospatial message to organizations and individuals in many countries largely via the innovative projects I am involved in and at events and conferences. EUROGEO is a European umbrella organization that engages with scientists, policy makers, associations, teachers and educators around the world. Our next conferences are in Paris and Ljubljana — check them out and the work we are doing at http://www.eurogeography.eu.”

I wondered if Karl could name the most important thing that convinced him to enter the fields he pursued. He told me, “I discovered the world of geography through a book I was given, G.H. Dury’s ‘The Face of the Earth.’ This happened by chance and it changed my life! I was most influenced by my tutor at university, Professor David Smith, then head of geography at Coventry University. He has been a role model for me, an inspirational speaker, brilliant teacher, first class researcher and charismatic gentleman! David has been a leading glacial scientist, researching evidence for changes in land and sea level. Though he is retired from teaching, he is still ‘doing geography,’ being very active at a very high level in providing scientific evidence to influence European policy makers who are dealing with climate change.”

Given that Karl has accomplished so much, I wondered of which project or initiative he is proudest. He said, “This is a tough question. At a personal level I am proud to have been the elected president of EUROGEO, an association that protects and promotes geography and the work of geographers. As an active, dynamic and innovative organization, EUROGEO connects geographers from almost all countries worldwide. It is a network where sharing takes place through conferences, seminars and workshops, via the association journal, ‘European Journal of Geography,’ and our new book series with Springer [Publishing Company]. The association is also a stakeholder organization in many major global initiatives like Eye on Earth, the International Year of Global Understanding and Geo for All. EUROGEO has participative status in the Council of Europe — meaning we can engage with policy makers on critical issues like migration, climate change, environmental sustainability and the Landscape Convention. We recently gained consultative status to the United Nations, where we have been contributing to Habitat III data and the Sustainable Development Goals and Global Citizenship Education.    

“I've been fortunate to be involved in many exciting projects and work with so many great geographers. I'm proud of most of my projects so it was very hard to choose. There are two of them that stand out: Firstly, the HERODOT project (2003-2010), which connected more than 350 university geography and geography education departments in higher education. The purpose of HERODOT was to address the Bologna Process in Europe and improve the quality of learning and teaching in higher education. We ran six conferences and 20+ workshops and seminars. We published a series of books and articles, and actively worked with more than 700 geographers from around the world! I'm still working with many of the friends I made in the eight years of project activity. I think HERODOT had a major impact on learning and teaching geography in most European countries and beyond, as it provided professional development to academics and engaged many of the participants in EU-funded activities (on geography) for the first time. We also undertook a comprehensive survey of the state of geography in EU countries and explored the curriculum essentials that make geography education special. This was part of a very large European Commission initiative on Tuning Education Structures in higher education.

“Secondly, I would choose the YouthMetre project (2015-2018) I coordinated. YouthMetre sought to demonstrate the importance of geospatial information in empowering youth (young people aged 18-30) to take part in democratic decision-making in Europe. After researching youth policy issues and open data sources, we developed a data dashboard on issues and priorities concerning young people. Together with study groups of youngsters in 15 countries we established a youth well-being index based on 87 data sets in Europe. This demonstrated the power of data to highlight the best and worst European regions in terms of youth priorities and policies in place. The data dashboard is available at http://www.youthmetre.eu/youthmetre/. Training resources were produced to use the dashboard and help young people to engage effectively with youth policy and decision makers. A number of multiplier events were then carried out with NGO's, regional government authorities and policy makers. The policy initiatives led us to meetings with European Commission representatives and to hold two large conferences on empowering youth at the Committee of the Regions building in Brussels. The project has since made recommendations for further European actions and new project initiatives have resulted. You can see a recent presentation on this initiative at http://bit.ly/2CYjY9u.”

What is the most important thing on which Karl thinks we, the geography, education, science and geospatial community, need to work? “I believe geography — research and education — needs to become much more closely linked to policy and find its rightful place in supporting evidence-based decision-making. Taking geospatial data and making sense of it for policy makers should be an important focus. Opening access to information and data is central for this, and increasingly I believe we should, in education, be equipping people with the skills and competences to read, analyze and interpret geoinformation, so that they can actively contribute to decisions being made at different scales. I therefore believe the geospatial community needs to not only better develop ‘hard skills’ like (basic) data literacy but also 'soft skills' such as problem-solving and collaboration. I was a partner in the GI Learner project, which sought to deal with this, developing secondary pupils’ spatial thinking skills in the curriculum via a learning line through K7 to K12. I think the materials and resources created by the teachers involved are really excellent.”

What is Karl’s advice to a new professional in these fields? “Geography should be seen as a uniting subject bringing experts together from many specializations to make sense of the world. I believe it is good to specialize, but be able to see the bigger picture because of the broad range of skills we bring. So young professionals should be encouraged to live geography to the full, embrace all aspects and love your subject!”

I asked Karl to name a favorite set of resources. He said, “Many of my favorite maps can be found on the Views of the World website; for instance, this visualization of earthquake threat in Europe. But I also think the Gapminder site and tools [are] awesome. You can start with this one: https://www.gapminder.org/tools/#$chart-type=bubbles. It's brilliant. They can be used both online and offline. They are really thought-provoking.” (Author’s Note: I teach with Gapminder quite often and I agree with Karl — definitely a primary resource for teaching about how variables change over space, by country and over time.)

Karl also shared these projects in which he was recently involved:


Learn more about his work in this webinar, Promoting Geospatial Education in Europe.

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