New Geographic Technologies and Data Sources

The discipline of geography is in a period of transition from a past where geographic information was transmitted in the form of paper maps to a future in which most geographic information will be transmitted through digital information systems. The early signs of this transition can be seen in the dissemination of satellite images of cloud cover and other meteorological/climatological data on the Internet. A stream of new technologies such as GPSs will provide georeferenced information on a great variety of activities about which little is presently known. Vast quantities of new digital information about the Earth and its peoples are becoming available, and national and international standards for spatial data exchange are being developed and adopted. Geographers need to learn about these spatial information sources and understand how to use them appropriately in their work. Academic geographers also need to consider how new technologies and data sources will create new opportunities for collaborations with the private sector.

If geography is to meet the challenges of rapid technological change, steps must be taken to familiarize students with new technologies for data analysis and display. The past two decades have seen an explosion in computing power and the ability to process and store data. Technology now plays a preeminent role in a wide range of geographic research. In the environmental arena, for example, parallel processing technologies have opened new possibilities for addressing computationally intensive problems such as global climate change. A broad array of data representing the physical world consists of point samples representing surface or volumetric phenomena. Geographers, and others, have developed successful algorithms for interpolation of surfaces and volumes from such data. Continued advances of this sort will require a substantial coterie of geographers who understand new technologies and can use them effectively.

There are also general computer hardware, software, and networking issues that point to the need for increased technical competence in the discipline. Geographers have come to rely on digital communications networks to support both research and instructional efforts. They also actively use this technology to disseminate information to the broader science and applications communities. For example, the geographic information system listserve (GIS-L) is reported to have a national and international readership exceeding 20,000—almost three times the size of the Association of American Geographers. As the use of digital libraries and such digital information exchange tools as the World Wide Web becomes more common, the importance of technological literacy in the profession becomes obvious. Geographers need to be trained to understand the logic of data processing and networking so that new technologies can be exploited to their maximum potential in the service of geographic research and teaching.

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