Archive for Education

Happy Birthday Copernicus

google copernicus canvasGoogle decided to highlight that today is the 540th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus. The honor bestowed by Google has resulted in dozens of articles in the mainstream media, from The Washington Post to BGR India.


Who is he? And why would we care after 540 years?

podpisCopernicus was a big-idea man – arguing that the Earth revolved around the Sun (heliocentric model) when his contemporaries believed otherwise.

A mathematician, physician, and astronomer of Polish descent,  CopernicSystemCopernicus’ heliocentric theory wasn’t published until after his death in 1543 at age 70 from a stroke. And it wasn’t until 60 years later that the much-noted opposition from the Roman Catholic Church became official.

Copernicus was a visionary, a big thinker ahead of his time. And he took a stand, believing what he observed and measured, despite it being contrary to popular belief and doctrine at the time. In an age when big ideas now seem to become accepted within months, it seems ridiculous that such a central truth of the universe waited a hundred years before acceptance, helped along by Galileo Galilei. Perhaps if Copernicus had been able to spread his theory faster, acceptance would have come sooner. However, maybe the culture of thinking has simply evolved to the point where the barriers to innovation are few, and the environment for critical thinking is open.

The birthday is also a reminder of how specialized we have become – what person today can claim to know astronomy, philosophy, medicine, and mathematics while being fluent in five languages? Copernicus developed his ideas based on seeing connections between these fields, and his observations.

A systems-level view, and the connections between components of the whole are fundamental to the science of geography. Copernicus also represents a zeal for the truth, and the gumption to go against common thinking.


A New Look at the Earth: Landsat 8 Launches

Yesterday, NASA launched the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) carry a new Landsat 8 satellite. According to NASA:

LDCM is a collaboration between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The Landsat program has been providing uninterrupted imagery of Earth since the first Landsat in 1972. About three months after liftoff, USGS will take control and the spacecraft will be renamed Landsat 8. Once on station 438 miles above Earth, LDCM will orbit every 99 minutes and image the entire Earth every 16 days.

There’s not much technology that could claim to have contributed to observing the Earth than the Landsat satellites. Since 1972, The Landsat program has provided imagery used to study the Earth, including changes over the last 40 years. The program was almost not started, then had a history of funding trouble, with a stint at being privately run from 1983-1992.

As a graduate student, I studied Landsat 4 imagery to ascertain its cartographic value. While the spatial resolution improved over the previous Landsat imagery, from 75m to 30m, there were still challenges using the data for any robust accurate mapping. According to the USGS, Landsat 5 delivered high-quality, global data of Earth’s land surface for 28 years and 10 months.

This infographic is a good summary of the history and technical information.

A USGS study showed recent Landsat imagery top five uses as forestry, fire, land use, agriculture, and education. The uses of Landsat data continue to be important to society, as detailed in many articles on this NASA Landsat page.


Should You be Making Maps?


A couple of recent blog discussions reminded me of an age-old controversy around computers. Computers automate tasks and allow wider information access, making it easier for more people to do more things with more information. The computer tools continue to improve as more data goes online, thereby accelerating this ongoing trend. Clearly, this has changed many common human activities and given the masses the tools to do things once done by limited circles of people.

Activity in the world of maps, with the rapid growth of online mapping technologies and geographic data, reflects this trend. However, along with the automation comes some heated discussions about the role of professionals.

Google’s Ed Parsons, in “Cartography is dead, long live the map makers” argues that because the display mechanism for maps is now usually computer screens and not paper, that the skill is becoming less relevant.  As I commented on his blog, I think the paintbrush treatment of a complex subject does it some disservice. Do we need cartographers to make all maps? Absolutely not. Do we need them for some maps? Absolutely yes. We also need maps, online or paper, to reflect sound cartographic principles because those principles are based in years of research. Ed’s definition limiting cartography to print is erroneous.

Importantly, and often overlooked, just because it is easy to make maps online does not mean that it is easy to make good maps online. Anyone can use a word processor to write, yet much of what is written is useless to most people.


Much about online mapping is problematic, not only to cartographers but to many disciplines. So called mashups can combine data that is, yes, geographically overlapping. Yet the data is often from sources of different accuracies, time, and scale. Data sources vary in reliability also. So what results from the mashups? Without proper oversight and discipline, mashups are often meaningless or worse, misleading.

I’m all for the explosion of maps and wider uses of geographic information, online and off. But to cast aside cartography, a discipline that was, in part, responsible for us getting here in the first place, and is still actively improving geographic visualization, is simply wrong.

Along these same lines, Sean Gorman recently wrote “The Professional vs. the Amateur: Thoughts on the ESRI UC” about the delineations between “professionals” and “amateurs” made at the user conference. Sean thinks ESRI and other vendors define GIS professionals as those knowing how to use their software, rather than those with expertise in the field of study. This may be true, yet I’ve heard Jack Dangermond discuss this topic and his main issue seems to be on the data side – people with questionable authority providing geodata to be used by others. There is risk in the map making for sure, but if the data sources are unreliable, the resulting visualization will be questionable regardless of the level of expertise of the map maker.

Simply put, good maps come from good data combined with the application of sound cartographic and geographic analysis principles. Both are necessary and whether they come from certified professionals or not is a side issue.

Festival of Maps Chicago – Geography Sails in the Windy City

festival-maps-Chicago.JPGWith the popularity of online maps, personal navigation devices (PNDs), and GIS we can easily forget that it all started on paper. We can forget the trials and tribulations of those who made early geographic discoveries, those who labored to produce early maps. In a world of instant information about where we are, many of us forget how we arrived to this place. We curse at the online map for not having a new street, while early mapmakers struggled lifetimes and even risked their lives to find and map new continents. We start to take for granted the aerial views of our world, when only a few decades ago the first remote sensing satellites launched.

Chicago is a city rich in mapping history. The first plat map of a portion of the city was surveyed in 1822, with the city plan mapped in 1830. It is the home of venerable map maker Rand McNally and publisher R.R. Donnelley & Sons. Online mapping provider MapQuest started as a division of R.R. Donnelley & Sons. The Newberry Library and the University of Chicago have long been at the center of map research and preservation. For example, the University of Chicago Press edits and publishes the multi-volume series of books resulting from the History of Cartography Project. Replogle Globes, the leading globe manufacturer, started in a Chicago apartment in 1930. NAVTEQ, the large provider of digital geographic information, has its headquarters in the city.

The Festival of Maps Chicago began in November. Dr. Anna Siegler is the Executive Director of the Festival. She told me that the Festival, five years in planning, is a citywide set of events across more than 30 cultural and scientific institutions. The ambitious project started with a committee of distinguished Chicago philanthropists, map collectors and civic leaders. Using the annual Chicago Humanities Festival as a rough model, Dr. Siegler directed the efforts that led to opening day in November. She found willing organizations among Chicago’s leading museums, libraries, arts organizations and universities. Each participating organizations decided how they would contribute. The result is 31 exhibits in 28 venues with 10 lecture programs. Rand McNally designed and printed the maps used to promote the festival.

“Everyone who heard about our map events would exclaim that they love maps,” said Dr. Siegler. “This enthusiasm seems clandestine, though. We wanted to bring it out of hiding.” One goal is to take that love of maps and feed people with real examples of the rich Chicago map scene. With the decline of geography in schools, the Festival can help renew interest and knowledge in the subject.

The Field Museum exhibited more than 100 maps of all types in its “Maps: Finding Our Place in the World” exhibit. Exhibits elsewhere vary from historical (“European Cartographers and the Ottoman World 1500-1750” at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago) to the modern (“Mapping the Self” at the Museum of Contemporary Art). There is also a local focus, with several exhibits and lectures about the mapping of Chicago. Even the Brookfield Zoo participated with its “Building and Mapping of an Institution” describing the challenges of mapping a zoo.

The Festival goes beyond old fashioned exhibits. Maps in the Public Square: An Atlas of the Next Chicago Region is a virtual exhibit showing how maps are central to the discussion around Chicago’s future.

While the Festival is now wrapping up, others are following Chicago’s lead. Baltimore just opened its Festival of Maps on March 16.

In this age of declining geographic knowledge, the map festival can play a significant role in helping people appreciate the importance and roles of location in our lives and as a way to help understand history and current happenings. It is encouraging to see the success of the ambitious efforts in Chicago. Hopefully other locales will find the resources to take a similar path.

A Nation of Dunces?

Has it really gotten this bad? Apparently so, laments Susan Jacoby in her opinion piece in The Washington Post this past Sunday, “The Dumbing Of America: Call Me a Snob, but Really, We’re a Nation of Dunces.”

She argues the U.S. has become anti-intellectual, using evidence such as decreased reading amongst the young and “the erosion of general knowledge” including geography. She retells the story of FDR urging Americans to look at maps of the Pacific to better understand the challenges of WWII. The result was maps selling out around the country. Contrast that one finding of a 2006 National Geographic-Roper survey. Almost half of Americans 18-24 years old “did not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made; a third consider it” not at all important to know a foreign language.”

The discussion continues, stressing Americans do not think it matters that we don’t know things, what she calls “anti-rationalism.” What she writes rings true in geography. People say they love maps, but they know little about geography. Recently I saw an adult unable to point to Europe on a world map. That person was not arrogant about it, rather was embarrassed. However, the lack of knowledge, with or without the arrogance, is a danger to our society. Jacoby challenges the presidential candidates to make it an election issue, and it should be. It should also be a concern of people in business who will have to deal with these dunces as they enter the work force.

It is high irony that in the information age, we have grave concerns about knowledge.