A View from Ravi Purushotma

Geographic Intelligence

The June issue of Technology Review contained both an article titled Do Maps have Morals? discussing the history of GIS and the moral implications of the power it gives its user, and one titled Group Rethink: Can Technology Raise Society’s…

  • August 2, 2005

The June issue of Technology Review contained both an article titled Do Maps have Morals? discussing the history of GIS and the moral implications of the power it gives its user, and one titled Group Rethink: Can Technology Raise Society’s IQ?. Ironically, these two articles could not have been better paired. The latter article discusses examples such as Surowiecki’s description of the search for the Scorpion submarine (audio), where, by aggregating the intelligence of a large diverse group of people, the Navy was able to achieve the seemingly impossible task of locating a sunken submarine across a vast geographic region. Implicit here is the suggestion that as technologies enable people to more effectively share data and aggregate expertise across diverse pools of people, society’s problem-solving ability increases exponentially [see a TR article on the group game ilovebees].

As discussed in the first article, while GIS technology has immense potential for a variety of positive uses, the history of it thus far has instead largely been one of only a few select groups such as the military using it for planning strategic nuclear targets. This year, however, both Google and Microsoft have announced visions in which advanced GIS tools will be made freely available to everyone. Already we have seen numerous ways in which Google maps has been used to effectively share everyday information such as where to find free wireless access – and savvy Google maps users have been able to use it for fun things like getting out of speeding tickets. More significant, however, is that Google last month released all the API’s necessary to allow their satellite imagery and hybrid overlay technology to be integrated in with virtually any data source.

In the school curriculum today, a pedagogical goal is to produce students who can effectively use and interpret data such as U.S. Census data. However, someone who uses charts and tables, as taught in school, pales in comparison with the ability of someone who can do things like integrate census data with Google maps to quickly see important geospatial relations in data. Thus, only those who have personal access to and are in peer communities fluent in these technologies, gain important data-analysis skills otherwise lost to the wider public. As Do Maps Have Morals? points out and Group Rethink implicitly suggests, geo-collaborative skills would be highly beneficial if made available to the public at large – but how are we to ensure everyone receives the training necessary for that?

Certainly it would make sense for mainstream school curriculums to hook their data sources up to the Google APIs, too. Social Sciences classes trying to understand anything from crime in Chicago to the history of moon exploration would come alive. Foreign language classrooms could use satellite and aircraft imagery to fly through and learn about foreign architecture or everyday life tasks like house hunting. Whereas Google maps is a free service, the current leading language textbooks/workbooks go for $150 per student, and provide far less engaging lessons for learning foreign geography or house hunting.

Rather than needing to be taught separately, GIS skills should be integrated into and improve already existing curriculum (as outlined above). Unfortunately, even if textbook publishers were able to overcome their reputation for resisting change and fully embraced the hooking of existing curriculum into APIs like Google maps, the highly bureaucratic and slow state textbook adoption process would ensure that no changes would be made until after the current generation will have long graduated. What, then, is the best way to ensure that this nation (or others) as a whole receive both an awareness of and the means to learn information-age skills such as GIS?

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