Public geographies and accidental geographers

In the post about the Engaging Geography seminar, I’ve discussed how different levels of engagement with geography can be used to define if a person using a system should be considered a ‘public geographer’ or just a consumer of geographical information in a passive and ephemeral way.

Thinking more broadly on geotechnologies, it is appropriate to include the people who are producing many of the everyday geographical representations. Frequently, the people who are producing these representations use GIS.

When thinking about the Web, it’s clear that the vast majority of the people involved in public geographies do not have any ‘formal’ geographical background. You might think that, in the case of GIS, because of the barriers to entry, the situation will be different.
This is not so. As Dave Unwin noted in his paper in 2005, many of the people operating GIS are actually ‘accidental geographers’. When you take the number of GIS users worldwide, it is clear that only a few have gone through formal geographical education beyond basic school geography. Unwin notes that ‘accidental geographers’ have naïve conceptualisations of geography (for example that it is all about the location of factual objects in space), lack of understanding of spatial analysis and sometimes have a dismissive attitude to the academic disciplines of geography or cartography.

Neogeography is putting these accidental geographers in a new light. Some users do indeed see geography as uncomplicated and GIS as the ‘something that produces maps’. However, as a person is exposed to systems that are dealing with geography for a sustained period she is more likely to start questioning the nature of this geography and the way that it is represented. After a while, these questions will lead to a process of learning about geographical concepts – and the fact that so much information is now available on the Web will certainly help. Sometimes, the commitment to geography might lead to joining organisations such as the AGI and maybe even becoming Chartered Geographers (GIS).

So, in summary, there is a whole range of commitments and interests in geography, and both accidental geographers and neogeographers can be positioned along a continuum from ignorance to expert knowledge. I think that most will move through this continuum and enjoy the process of developing geographic knowledge.


Public geography, public geographers and neogeography

Engaging Geography is an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded seminar series, originally conceived by Duncan Fuller, who is sadly missed. The seminars are an appropriate tribute to his memory. The first seminar was held in Newcastle at the end of January and there will be 5 more over the next 2 years. So there plenty of opportunities to join!

The seminar gave special attention to public geographies – such as films that are an output of academic geographical research; photography and exhibitions by artists who deal with geographical issues in their work; and the wide range of examples that are coming out of the work of geography teachers and school geography.

The seminar was thought-provoking with lots of practical demonstrations and discussions about many issues – including how gender influences public geographies, the impact of communication, private geographies and many other issues that were packed into the two-day seminar.

During the discussions, Daniel Raven-Ellison, who runs Guerrilla Geography and Urban Earth, noted that the rapid increase in digital geography (neogeography) where geography is ‘used’ by many is one of the best examples of public geographies. This made me think more about the meaning of public geography and public geographers in the context of neogeography.

I would argue that we should differentiate between systems (websites) that are not based on user-generated content (mash-ups and public mapping sites) and those that require active geographic contribution from the user.

As Byron Antoniou (who is doing his PhD at UCL) noted, within the websites that are based on user-generated spatial content, we should differentiate between geographically explicit systems (OpenStreetMap, Geograph) and geographically implicit systems (Flickr, Wikipedia). The latter can hold geographic information, but that is not their main objective.

So, when users use a public mapping site passively, they don’t engage with the geography of the place fully. They consume a geographical image and, because of the nature of browsing, this image will disappear in the general haze of the many pages and images that they are exposed to. Considering that the average user might view up to 150 pages a day, this is no more ‘public geography’ than a map in a newspaper. Even the programmers that construct mash-ups are not ‘public geographers’ – they are concerned with the automation of the representation, and very rarely consider the visualisation carefully. Not surprisingly, the exceptions (such as London Profiler) have been created by people with a deeper understanding of geography.

In geographically implicit systems, there is some engagement with geography, but it is limited and might even be mechanical. For example, if GPS information is used to automatically geotag an image on Flickr or Picasa, the user is not actively engaged with the geography of their image. The engagement can be higher for example when a person creates a memory map, or manually locates the image position on the map, as it forces the person to recall the real world geography and match it with the map.

Finally, geographically explicit systems are, in my view, mostly public geographies. Because of the task that they were designed for, contributors are aware of the geography that they engage with both in the digital form and in the real world. For example, when a participant captures a road in OpenStreetMap, she is forced to consider the real world characteristics of the street as well as its digital representation. Thus, a meaningful engagement with space and place is an integral part of working with these systems.

Yet, because of participation inequality, even in geographically explicit systems only a small group of participants (about 10% or maybe less) are becoming deeply engaged with the process and working with the system for a period of time that allows them to develop a fuller geographical understanding of projections, scale, place, space and other ‘deep’ geographical concepts.

So while it might seem that there is an explosion of digital mapping information and applications, the number of public geographers – while growing – is quite small.