Geo-awareness, Geo-enablement, Geotechnologies, Citizen Science, and Storytelling: Geography on the World Stage

Geo-awareness, Geo-enablement, Geotechnologies, Citizen
Science, and Storytelling: Geography on the World Stage
Joseph J. Kerski, Ph.D.
Education Manager, Esri, 1 International Court, Broomfield, Colorado USA

Five converging global trends – geo-awareness, geo-enablement, geotechnologies, citizen science, and storytelling– have the potential to offer geography a world audience – attention from education and society that may be unprecedented in the history of the discipline. Issues central to geography are now part of the global consciousness. Everyday objects are rapidly becoming locatable, and thus able to be monitored and mapped. Many tools and data sets that were formerly used and examined only by geographers and other earth and environmental scientists are now in the hands of the general public.  Citizens outside academia are becoming involved in contributing data to the scientific community. Multimedia and cloud-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have greatly multiplied the attraction that maps have had for centuries to tell stories. But despite these trends bringing opportunity to geography, is geoliteracy becoming increasingly valued? How can educators, researchers, and practitioners seize the opportunity that these trends seem to present to actively promote geographic content knowledge, skills, and perspectives throughout education and society?


My aims in this document are three fold. First, I make the case that five converging global trends are exerting great impact on geography, on education, and on society. Second, in light of these trends, I consider whether geoliteracy is becoming increasingly valued. Third, I offer practical suggestions to the geography educator, researcher, and practitioner to be able to seize the opportunities that these trends offer for developing geographic knowledge, skills, and perspectives in education and society.


Five converging global trends may present geography with world attention that may be unprecedented in the history of the discipline (Figure 1). These include geo-awareness, geo-enablement, geotechnologies, citizen science, and storytelling. Each of these recent trends is transforming the audience for geography and how geography is taught and perceived.

The world faces complex challenges that are global in nature but also are increasingly affecting individuals’ everyday lives. Few hours pass without the impact of seismic or weather-related hazards on human populations. Disasters resulting from these hazards affect communities, countries, and sometimes, entire continents. Changing birth rates and immigration are global issues that impact the politics and economics of nations and the social fabric of local communities.  The supply of energy resources is fundamental to enable the use of technology and has been linked to standards of living and educational attainment. Epidemics and diseases affect specific segments of society and impact the entire planet in significant ways. Sustaining agriculture and fisheries is critical to food supplies. The transportation of people and products consumes massive amounts of human time and energy. Issues of water quality and quantity are fundamental to the very existence of humanity. Political instability and violence displace whole populations.

These challenges have long been some of the fundamental issues that geographers studied.  Yet in the past decade, these challenges have become a part of the public consciousness. The themes that have driven geographic thinking and research have in large part become topics of everyday conversation. There is a heightened awareness that these issues affect individuals’ everyday lives, that they are serious, and that they need to be solved. There is also growing realization that they all occur somewhere, at multiple scales, with specific spatial distributions, patterns, and linkages; and with temporal and spatial components.


Societies are rapidly moving to an era where most everything in everyday life will be able to be located on a map, or “geo-enabled.” From smartphones to tablets and laptops, from webcams recording traffic or bird counts to whether car parking lot sensors, from orbiting Earth-imaging satellites to surface or underground sensors recording water quality, seismicity, and weather, these sensors and devices transmit a latitude–longitude signal, enabled by the coupling of Global Positioning Systems (GPS), smartphone towers, and Wi-Fi transmitters. As geo-enabling extends to thermostats, light switches, and appliances in ordinary homes, it contributes to
“the internet of things” (Wasik 2013) and “smart cities” (Al-Hader and Rodzi 2009). As these measurements become mapped within Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing environments, they become a “nervous system” for the planet (Dangermond 2002). This geo-enablement is taking place at different rates in different areas around the world, leading to a more uniform access to technology in some areas, and increasing inequalities because of access to devices, bandwidth, and data in other areas.


Until recently, satellite imagery, digital maps, aerial photographs, 3D profiles, geodatabases, spatial statistics, and related tools, methods, and data were used largely by those in GIS and scientific fields. Today, millions of maps and satellite images are viewed hourly. Like music, graphics, office tools, and other technologies, GIS has been migrating to a cloud- based “Software as a Service” (SaaS) model. Not only have geographic tools, maps, and spatial data become instantly available, they can be downloaded, streamed, embedded, changed, and reformatted on devices from smartphones to tablets, in the field, in vehicles, in research labs, in classrooms, and just about everywhere. These digital maps are used in newscasts, web pages, videos, and news feeds, becoming among the most common type of 21st Century media. Geodatabases map and synthesize data coming in from geo-enabled devices and objects, and through these objects, the public has become extremely conscious of the value of maps in their everyday lives.

The largest part of the “internet of things” sensor network is not electronic sensors, but the general public themselves. In fields such as phenology and bird monitoring, the public has been engaged for decades in contributing their own observations, but web-based GIS makes it easier for the general public to contribute data. The general public is also voluntarily and involuntarily providing information about their location through the use of cloud-based smartphone and web applications. Information being fed to cloud-based services offers to make life more efficient, comfortable, and interesting. Examples include connecting with others through fitness apps, recommending products matching a person’s purchasing history, and feeding individuals’ current speed and location to a regional real-time traffic map so that motorists can avoid snarls.   Information about the location of things are of high interest to those providing Internet services. However, even more interesting to service providers are the movements of people, who make up a seven billion strong sensor network – providing information about the planet as has never been gathered before.

For centuries, maps have been valued because they provide a large amount of detail in a small amount of space, and because of their capacity for telling a story. Telling stories through maps began with describing explored lands in great detail against terra incognita. Today, geographic tools, data, and multimedia on the web expand the ability and audience for storytelling through
maps. Any person with a smartphone or computer can use maps to tell his or her story.  Platforms that enable citizens to tell stories through maps include Esri Story Maps (, Map Story (, and other tools. Today’s story maps range in scale, theme, and purpose. From Napoleon’s march to this year’s hurricanes, from China’s new highways to where food originates, educators, students, researchers, and the public can create their own story maps, through the use of live web maps with text, video, audio, sketches, and photographs. Teaching about the dynamic Earth with dynamic maps seems particularly appropriate to many (Hong 2014).

This is not the first time when geography was afforded great opportunity. During World War II and again during the Cold War and Space Race, a heightened awareness of global affairs translated into calls for increased frequency and quantitative rigor in geography and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education. However, these periods tended to be short-lived, and were accompanied by setbacks, such as the closure of many geography departments in the USA (Dobson 2007). Will the five trends occurring today be enough to generate and sustain the interest of the general public, as well as policymakers and educational administrators? Will this enable the recognition of geography and the geographic perspective and cement geography as a fundamental, funded, respected subject throughout education and in decision making throughout society?

Each of today’s issues of concern to the public is fundamentally tied to space and place – they are geographic issues. To grapple with these issues requires a population that can assess and use geographic information to make wise decisions—in short, a geoliterate population. Pattison (1964) defined geoliteracy as including four traditions, or foundations: spatial, area studies, man-land, and earth science. Researchers from two geography associations (Natoli, et al., 1984) identified five themes—movement, region, human-environment interaction, location, and place. Edelson (2012) stated that it should include how our world works, how our world is connected, and how to make well-reasoned decisions, or interactions, interconnections, and implications. I believe that geoliteracy requires cultivation in each of what I consider to be the essential “three legs” of the stool of geographic literacy: (i) core content, (ii) skills in using geographic tools, and (iii) the geographic perspective (Figure 2).

The first leg of the stool is core content.While core content is important, it is often maligned, perhaps because it is often equated with memorization of facts for examinations. Geography’s core content is richer than mere facts:Much of the core content is systems thinking: ecosystems, and systems of climate, culture, watersheds, oceans, land use, governments, and Earth-Sun relationships. Core content focuses include learning about natural phenomena such as how ocean currents affect climate, and cultural phenomena, such as sense of place.

The second leg of the stool is the development of skills, including the effective use of geographic tools. Many geographic tools and skills are focused on maps, such as analyzing remotely sensed imagery, using GPS and geolocation, representing the Earth as map layers, and using 2D and 3D data in GIS environments. Others, including assessing data quality, graphing and charting, classifying, collecting, analyzing, and mapping field data, and communicating geographic content, are important skills as well.
Fundamental to skill building is the geographic inquiry process. This process includes asking geographic questions, acquiring geographic data, exploring geographic data, analyzing geographic information, and acting on geographic knowledge gained. Despite the “geographic” words used to describe this inquiry process, the process can and should occur in any discipline.

Thus, the geographic inquiry model reflects and supports scientific inquiry. Researchers and practitioners advocate that geography should be taught often and deeply, in problem-based and project-based learning environments (Capraro and Slough 2013), with “wicked problems” that are difficult to solve. The focus on inquiry translates into minimizing fact-based worksheets while maximizing hands-on work, discussion, and communication. Inquiry includes tackling issues–landfills, urban greenways, and traffic, pros and cons of energy extraction, and the implications of rapid growth in specific ecoregions and population decline in others. In each case,
mapping is seen as the key to understanding patterns, relationships, and trends.

The third leg of the stool—the geographic perspective—begins with “spatial thinking”. The geographic perspective represents a certain way of seeing the world. Geographers see the world working through a series of interwoven and changing spatial relationships, operating from the level of chemical bonds in soil, to the distribution of macro invertebrates in a river, to commuting patterns in a metropolitan area, to the ebb and f low of seasonal variation in the temperate latitudes, to how ocean currents affect land climates, and beyond the Earth itself, to Earth-Sun relationships. The geographic perspective seeks to discover why processes and phenomena occur where they do, and includes themes of scale, region, diffusion, patterns, and spatio-temporal relationships. The geographic perspective also includes critical thinking—questioning and investigating where data come from, how to manage uncertainty, how
problems are framed, and the scale at which problems are addressed.

Is Geoliteracy Becoming Increasingly Valued?
Each of the five global tends identified offer geographers unique opportunities to advance the core tenets of the discipline. But is this advancement occurring? Some evidence points to increased attention and funding for geoliteracy, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) funding the “geography roadmap” project in the USA (Bednarz et al. 2014). NSF also funded the GeoTech Center, a community college-driven effort to strengthen GIS education. The GeoTech Center was instrumental in the creation of the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM), which defines the expertise that distinguishes geospatial professionals and skills. The GTCM has been widely used to reinforce the notion that successful use of geospatial technologies does not rely merely on the acquisition of software skills, but upon personal effectiveness competencies, such as integrity, initiative, and lifelong learning, on
academic competencies, such as communications, geography, mathematics, science, and engineering, and on workplace competencies, such as teamwork, creative thinking, problem solving, working with technology, and business fundamentals. Finally, the National Academy of Sciences, in their Learning to Think Spatially (2006) report, stated that intentional teaching of spatial thinking was valuable in education, that spatial thinking needed to start with young students, and that it taught often and in deep ways.

As geography aligned itself with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in the USA in recent years, geography has been the recipient of attention and funding. To bring together scientists and educators from cognitive science, psychology, computer science, education, geoscience, and neuroscience, the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (Grossner 2012). Internationally, the Spatial Literacy in Teaching (SPLINT) initiative in the UK focuses on the pedagogy of geospatial technologies and the enhancement of spatial literacy in higher education ( Janelle et al., 2009).

Geo-awareness is also gaining attention for geography. As decision makers increasingly engage in geographic tools, educators advocate that there is an increased need to understand how to wisely use these tools. Coupled with this is media attention on “big data” and a growing awareness that much data exist in mappable forms. Data fluency ( Jukes et al. 2010) means to understand the capabilities but also the limitations of data. Maps are incredibly useful, but contain distortions and limitations, such as map projections, scale, resolution, and attribute completeness. Those with the geographic perspective and skills must be included in the
discussions about the wise use of the ongoing deluge of data, such as issues of copyright, privacy, data aggregation, interpretation, and communication of that data. Because geographers are tasked to understand the whole world, those with the geographic perspective are well-suited to understand when connections exist between data and the implications. They are well-suited to separate the trivial from the important, to consider the implications of information on society, and counsel society on the interpretation of the data about people and the built and natural environment.
More significant evidence, however, exists in the adoption rate of what many consider to be foundational tools of geography–geotechnologies. Educators are adopting geospatial tools more rapidly now, prompting observation that GIS adoption is moving past “innovators” and “early adopters” to the “early majority” of educators (Kerski, 2015). The likeliest causes are (i) the advent of web-based GIS tools and (ii) a renewed focus in education on inquiry. The advent of web-based GIS flattens the learning curve for educators and students, enables analysis and exploration to take place on the web without large software packages to install, and can be used on any device. That maps and geographic data have become one of the most popular resources on the Internet comes as no surprise. People have always been fascinated with investigating their home – the Earth. For centuries, maps have stirred imaginations and inspired explorations of the unknown. Maps provide a rich source of information in a small amount of space, showing spatial relationships between climate, vegetation, population, landforms, river systems, soils, natural hazards, and much more. In education, maps have always done more than locate “where” places are – they enable students to investigate the “whys of where” – the essence of scientific and geographic inquiry.