Category Archives: conferences

A Few Hits and a Miss

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the annual conference that Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis holds. This year the theme was Space & Time in Data Science, and panelists shared stories and nuggets of wisdom for the audience of geographers, geographic information scientists, computer scientists, statisticians, data scientists, and others. Upon prompting for a show of hands about who fell into the different disciplinary categories, many confessed to wearing multiple hats among those roles. Which I think was one point of this event: to foster multi-disciplinary conversations in a place where there aren’t enough going on naturally.

Some of the more noteworthy comments were from:

  • Francisca Dominici, a biostatistician and co-Director of Harvard’s Data Science Initiative, whilst talking about methods for causal inference and scientific reproducibility, wondering whether in fact there exists *anything* that we can really control so we can make inferences about today’s world. She described the CGA as an entity able to help connect the data science talents across campus.
  • Peter Fox, from RPI. He shared the success that the knowledge network behind the Deep Carbon Observatory has been and was refreshingly forthcoming in his description of how attempts at a University Network of Things hasn’t worked. I am increasingly interested in research infrastructure, and knowledge networks are an important component. As an aside, they have a GIS for Science class at RPI but nothing from the syllabus distinguishes it from basic intro GIS course that uses open-source software and apps.
  • Amelia McNamara who had a fountain of ideas I liked, including the notion of an “interactive essay” – like this one one Exploring Histograms. I will definitely be having my students play with this Spatial-Aggregation Explorer.  How Spatial Polygons Shape Our World (YouTube link) officially makes her an honorary geographer in my book. Except I’m not sure she wants to be one. She’s doing just fine with her own disciplines.

I had the second-to-the last slot in the last panel of the day. My own comments focused on the role of strategic communication for strategic bridge building (to better connect GIScience & data scientists). Strategic was to be the key word. I’d say four of my five ideas were reasonably on target but one went up in flames rather spectacularly.

I happen to know one (very bright, very engaged) data scientist who works at a data science company in the Silicon Valley, one that I’d never heard of before (or until recently, since). During a conversation with him earlier this year, I learned that he doesn’t know anything about GIScience AND he’d be interested in knowing more. That was that, and I totally forgot the name of his company until I looked him up again while preparing my talk.

So, on Friday afternoon I said that “data science start-ups might be a good place to broker some worthwhile conversations about GIScience,” and I included a screenshot from the website of the company I’d been holding up as an example, vis a vis their young data scientist who expressed curiosity about GIScience: Palantir.

It was late on a Friday afternoon, at the very end of a long day of intellectual prompts, technical rigor, and gobbledy-gook jargon. Brains were noticeably over-saturated. Time remaining only for a few questions or comments for the panelists. The first person who spoke is a GIScientist known for her critical (i.e., in the academic sense) observations. At that moment I really had no idea what she was saying. Her language may have seemed extra circuitous because my brain was tired or she was politely trying to be less direct. The only thing I really heard was her final emphatic statement that “… we’re not going to work with Palantir!”

Wait, what? She knows the company too? Yup, that Palantir. That’s the one. The one that I suggested to a crowd at Harvard that we GIScientists ought to play more with in the sandbox. Maybe not so strategic after all.

I was nicely wisened up by a few folks as we were departing the conference. In the big scheme of things, as we say in Portuguese, não faz mal.

But I’m left with a bunch of conflicted feelings. I still think that conversations with data scientists at start-ups are a good thing. Not everyone working at Company P is mal-intentioned and sneaky, especially and definitely not my data scientist friend. Life is what you do, not what you say, so we let our actions speak for themselves. I spend way too much time sitting in a small home office by myself in a centrally-isolated patch of land in upstate New York. I crave the chance to develop and brainstorm ideas for talks with colleagues and within a community of practice. I sometimes learn from my mistakes.

Why I’ll Be at Bates College Next Week

I’m a geographer by training, specifically a geographic information scientist. For about 20 yrs I’ve been teaching people how to make maps (via GIS and other digital mapping techniques). Though now I mostly teach undergraduate and graduate students, I’ve also had the pleasure of running almost 100 different professional development workshops for fellow faculty, academic staff, librarians, the general public, and the occasional group of children.

The faculty that I’ve worked with – especially during my years with the National Institute for Technology & Liberal Education (NITLE, 2003 – 2007), and then as the Director of Spatial Curriculum & Research at the University of Redlands (2007 – 2011) – represent a very wide range of disciplines, from probably almost 20 different academic departments. What they all have in common is that they are NOT geographers, and virtually all of them would say they are unfamiliar with a geographic way of looking at the world. So especially during the first few years I was very curious as to why they were all so keen to learn how to use GIS. Though several knew enough to say “spatial analysis,” the overwhelming response was “visualization.”  They wanted to see the patterns of their data, and overlay them with a myriad of other layers of information.

At some point, someone also said to me, maybe back in 2004 or so, that they found “spatial thinking” to be very powerful. I wasn’t even sure what those words meant together, and I was a geographer.  So began my lengthy quest to understand “spatial thinking” better. I started reading the research done by psychologists who specialized in “spatial cognition,” and talking with them at conferences. I sought to understand what and how their assessment of mentally rotating 3-dimensional objects, in abstract or table space, had anything to do with my use of geographical data in landscape-level space. By the time the National Research Council published the Learning to Think Spatially report (National Academies Press, 2006), I’d discovered my tribe. It’s filled with people from all different backgrounds (geography, geosciences, STEM, psychology, engineering, architecture, art, design, dentistry, etc.) with a passion for how spatial informs our world. Together with a few friends, I wrote The People’s Guide to Spatial Thinking (NCGE, 2013), as an attempt to communicate these ideas as broadly as possible.

One dimension of this (no pun intended) that intrigues me is how frequently the term “visual” is used in situations where, to me, it’s clearly a “spatial” situation.  And this is what I’ll be exploring more during a talk I’ll be giving next week at a Gordon Research Conference on Visualization in Science and Education, which Bates is hosting.

In the absence of visual impairment, our sense of sight is how we perceive the majority of information from the external world. So when someone says to me, “I’m a visual learner,” I can’t help but wonder what exactly they mean by that.  If they show me a sketch they’ve just made of how their Cousin Earl fits into the family tree, or a set of Ikea instructions, or a graph of recent economic data, or a bracket diagram of basketball teams at the end of a season, or a map of how Ebola infections spread over time, it’s actually the SPATIAL arrangement of information through which meaning is extracted, not just the fact that you’re using your eyesight to access the image or representation. Visual thinking, in that you need to write down someone’s name or phone number, and look at it, to give yourself any chance of remembering it, versus just having them say it out loud to you once?  Yes. Visual trumps aural.  But sketching a little diagram on the back of an envelope, to explain something?  Spatial, enabled by vision.

Spatial thinking is an ability to visualize and interpret location, position, distance, directions, relationships, change, and movement through space. STEM learners constantly need to extract meaning through, and communicate with, these internal and external representations, and the spatial thinking necessary to do that well is chronically under-recognized, under-valued, and under-taught.

Sharing Ideas at EdUC

It’s that time of year again, July in San Diego with a whole lot of other people, all talking about GIS.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  This year I’ll be in two sessions, the first on our ROGTAL project, Research on Geospatial Technologies and Learning, a group effort in which I’m honored to be a member.  You’ll hear about our proposed research agenda and recommendations for this field.  Saturday afternoon, in the 3:15-4:30pm session titled Meeting Education Mandates, La Costa Room.

Then on Sunday morning (early!, before the Plenary!  Set your alarms and bring your coffee!) I’ll be leading a session on Cultivating Spatial Thinking & Problem Solving with SpatiaLABS.  8:30am, Leucadia Room.  Don’t know about Esri’s SpatiaLABS yet?   This is your chance to get all the insider information on this FREE resource, get a sneak preview at a new search-and-sort website, get your questions answered by the series editor, and find out how you too could become a (paid) contributor!  Don’t snooze, come schmooze instead.


Final thoughts on the STACC Conference

Basically, here’s where I think some of the tensions emerged during and after the December 2012 Spatial Thinking Across the College Curriculum gathering.

Tension #1: Thinking about spatial thinking – within higher education –  is actually a livelihood for some people. It’s not a curiosity or a hypothetical situation, it’s actually a mainstay. A central tendency. A constant.  The whole enchilada. The full monty.  Whatever your metaphor, folks (like me) who spend 8-10 hrs/day at this aren’t always the most effective ones to slowly and patiently consider the options. We want to move forward ambitiously with plans, especially when we work at an institution that drinks the koolaid.

While, for a bulk of the people at most institutions, these ideas really are just a curiosity and a hypothetical. The ideas take place in a vacuum, whilst away at a lovely conference, and they won’t likely be grappling with the thorns of actual implementation.

Tension #2:  Reaching consensus about exactly *what* we’re talking about always seems insurmountable, so we agree that proceeding in the absence of common definitions isn’t a problem, but in the end, it always is.  The psychologists need measurable assessment of definable tasks in replicable situations in manageable spaces with willing volunteers. The geographers delight in the fact that their knowledge and skills can be grouped under the umbrella of spatial thinking, but their practices don’t align with the unfamiliar tasks being researched by the psychologists.  The typical usage of GIS in educational settings supports some practices of spatial thinking, when we define it to include reasoning about and through patterns, distances, scales, associations, spatial dependencies, etc., but – in reality – infrequently overlaps with the primary areas that spatial cognition psychologists actually study (mental rotation, disembedding, spatial perception, etc.).

Basically, we still haven’t reconciled that these spatial relations, as called by Reg Golledge, are still the most interesting practices for geographers, and the least likely ones to become measurable tasks that are studied by psychologists.

Do I think that there’s a possibility for spatial thinking to play a significant role across a college campus?  You bet I do. But we can’t be intimidated by the task of  creating working definitions, and applying them.  Spatial thinking includes the mental rotation that is happening in physics and studio art classes. It includes the drafting of sheet music and seating charts that is happening in music classrooms and catering offices. When applied in geographic space, it can become the competent and confident knowledge of why there is plastic garbage accruing in the North Pacific Ocean and why Atlanta annually gets more rain than Seattle and why Jerusalem is such a complicated city.

So I think this is the crux of the matter: we can’t agree on the scale and extent of the knowledge, skills, and practices of “spatial thinking” and, therefore, how one would pursue its agenda in higher ed.  Geospatial is distinctive from spatial, and while most or all of geography involves spatial thinking, no card carrying engineer or architect would identify the spatial nature of their practices being aligned with the practices of a geographer.  Really, people, distance is distance.

Stay tuned for the published official report on the conference.

a few more thoughts on our Spatial Thinking across the Curriculum conference

During that first day of our Spatial Thinking conference, we had some discussions about *what* spatial content should (could? would?) be covered in these efforts.  As we considered that need, Lynn Liben reminded us to be systematic in our decision-making, to have goals that were generative and aimed at the meta-cognitive level. Her meta-cognitive criterion resonated strongly with me.  This is about habits of mind, and we feel the implications for this way of thinking go far beyond any individual task.  Given the need to work collaboratively and effectively through partnerships, she envisioned a possible new profession of “spatial curriculum specialist,” someone who would work work with educators to “identify and respond to learner needs for specific content.”  [Editor’s note: how well does a typical GIS Specialist fill this role?  How many have a broad enough perspective to couch their instructional expertise within a spatial thinking framework? What would help them be more confident and competent in that area?]

Mike Goodchild began with some of his regular stories: 1) the unnecessary complexity of ArcToolbox, a collection that is poorly and unevenly constructed and organized, and in no way intuitive for someone using a spatial thinking “filter” to anticipate or find the tools (contributing to perpetual user frustration); and 2) the unsuitability of US counties as areas for unit analysis, based largely on their variability in size and inconsistent geographies over time.

But Mike’s most powerful message was his singling out spatial dependence and spatial heterogeneity as the two linchpins for the power of space, setting up an intellectual imperative for why spatial thinking must not be ignored or trivialized.  He set up the argument by drawing comparisons with science and statistics.  Science is only possible when generalizations can (eventually) be made, and (parametric) statistics is only possible when one can assume data independence.  If one fails to understand those two ideas, then any resulting scientific and statistical analyses will necessarily be flawed.

However, heterogeneity and dependence, two significant truths of our spatial world, are in conflict with generalization and independence, by definition.  Thus, if one fails to understand and account for those two ideas, then any resulting spatial analyses will necessarily be flawed.

An underlying, ulterior motive for this Conference was to evaluate whether a compelling and competitive proposal can be made to the National Science Foundation to support spatial thinking educational efforts, and Mike was building up the research rationale.

Kim Kastens, my geoscience/spatial hero, encouraged us to consider two fronts of attack: specialization and alliances.  By specialization, she suggested that spatial thinking is too broad and ambiguous for *all* schools to consider it interesting.  Build up a few with very strong reputations, have them able to “pull” students to this area of specialized content, and see what happens after that.  We wondered whether Southern California might become this kind of Mecca, with Redlands, UCSB, and USC all within a sunny day’s drive of one another, and all with initiatives in this area.

Kim also urged the group to consider a spatial thinking / critical thinking alliance.  Specifically, the critical thinking audience has invested heavily in generating a “valid” assessment instrument, and we should follow their lead in this area.

And, Kim was the first to talk out-loud at this meeting about a MOOC on spatial thinking.  What a concept!

David DiBiase introduced the notion of “micro-insertions” as a strategy for promoting spatial thinking.  As examples of how to act small but think big, he highlighted examples of the numerous places where maps, or geographically-enhanced charts, or spatial analyses, would be natural fits into two of the most widely used psychology and economics textbooks in the United States, reaching tens of thousands of students each semester.  Easy, straight-forward, non-confrontational ideas in theory, with a potentially very large audience, though uncertain that implementation would have the easy button on its side.

My thoughts on Dave’s ideas are from the assessment perspective. All of Dave’s ideas are “geography” as connections.  Yes, we can make all of these changes. To convince the authors and publishers, we have to say why. How can we tell if it would make any difference to the learning of economics?  If students and faculty saw these maps, instead of graphs and tables,  how would it affect the learning?  Affective – because people would enjoy looking at the maps longer?  Would they learn the content differently?

Though it would have made the meeting even more contentious than it was, we could have benefited from a few true skeptics in the room. Or not just skeptics, but clueless newcomers.  We weren’t just preaching to the choir, but we’ve been all members of the choir for so long that we don’t even know how to tell people why we’re singing any longer.  It’s just the sound that comes out when we open our mouths.  Spatial thinking “makes a difference;” making new content “greatly deepens” our understanding.  Really? Why? How? Show me, don’t just tell me.

Intellectual imperatives can’t be faith-based alone, or rely on anecdotes exclusively, as much as we all love a good story.

Next: final thoughts on the STACC conference.

Spatial Thinking across the College Curriculum, first round of thoughts

Earlier this week I was part of a 2-day conference on Spatial Thinking across the College Curriculum, in Santa Barbara.  There were about 46 of us, a broad mix of largely comprised of geographers and psychologists, with a few scattered from other disciplines (landscape architecture, anthropology, physics, chemistry, computer science, history).

In organizing this event, we’d laid out a series of questions that we thought we might be able to tackle.

  • What are best current practices in spatial education at the college level?
  • What is the role of technologies, such as geographic information systems and virtual environment technologies, in developing spatial thinking skills?
  • Can we identify a set of general spatial skills that are relevant to spatial thinking across several disciplines?
  • Are spatial skills best trained in the context of a discipline or in a domain of general knowledge? For example, if a student is taught to imagine cross sections in the context of a geology course, does this skill transfer to imagining sections in engineering or biology?
  • What are the connections between “spatial thinking” courses and curricula organized for disciplines? For example, do all geography or geometry courses naturally or automatically support spatial thinking processes?
  • What are learning outcomes for spatial thinking curricula, and what form should assessment take?
  • What are the administrative challenges and opportunities for implementing spatial thinking courses and programs at the college level?

But, in the end, our conversation was a bit too far ranging to discuss many of these with specificity.

For most people the meeting’s topic could only be imagined in the hypothetical. Their own institutions have little or no interest in these topics, and their own interests, be they spatial cognition or geography education, are just that – their own interests.

Others of us live and breathe this topic every day. We’ve thought through many of these questions before, and may even already have prototypical implementations of curricula in place.  So it was difficult to launch into new areas of conversation without having to catch others up, to back fill, or to explain first. And it wasn’t just explaining methods or techniques.  At times we were starting at square one, seeming to question the validity of the premise itself – that spatial learning and thinking is significant enough that it merits a much more substantial place within our formal educational environments.

Roger Downs led off the discussion on Day 1, challenging the group to develop a Case Statement. A case statement has a rationale and justification for the campaign; focuses on problems to be fixed or solved, identifies a proposed solution; and anticipates the major questions. Why us?  Why now? among others.

The goal he proposed we consider was that every student should graduate with a working understanding (understand = know + do) of the theory and practice of spatial thinking.

Rationale #1: Spatial thinking is an essential underpinning to life in the physical and virtual world.

Rationale #2: Geospatial tools and technologies are integral to everyday life, business, research and government.  Really, they’re inescapable.

Rationale #3: Students must be informed, wise, and ethical in their use of a wide range of spatial tools.

Roger also laid out challenges, among which included the “deceptive obviousness” of spatial thinking.  An unresolved question remains that if this is all really so important, why have we not paid attention to it before?  What has happened in the world because we have NOT been thinking as spatially as we all could have been?  (I’m still collecting these anecdotes for publication in my forthcoming book.)

Really, these were some of the most cogent and powerful points of the whole conference.  I’ll share my reflections on some of the other highlights soon.

New York State GeoSpatial Summit this week

and I’m speaking between Roger Tomlinson and Ed Parsons.  Good heavens, not too intimidating! Gulp.

the oh-so-mysterious and possibly-fascinating but maybe-only-hype WWW conference?

Will take place at Esri’s headquarters next week. How interestingly unusual, this WWW conference.

“If among all the buttons on your remote control there was one button called truth, wouldn’t you push that button?

WWW is designed to metaphorically provide such a button and create a setting that will allow truth to be revealed.”

Yes! I want that button! Would that I had an extra $16,000 for one of the golden tickets.

Mapping People Symposium: October 31 at Univ of Redlands

We’re gearing up for our first (annual?) Symposium on Mapping People.  Join us for this one-day event on October 31. We’ll explore the joys and challenges of mapping social and cultural data, learning about innovative approaches and projects.  Ian Gregory will be our keynote speaker. We’re seeking submissions of abstracts for lightning talks and posters.  Awards will be given for the top grad student and undergrad student presentations!

The event is free, sponsored through our grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation.  But space is limited so register soon!

ideas at EdUC: spatial thinking, open educational resources, ArcGIS Online

Day 1 of the 2012 Esri GIS Educational Conference begins shortly. Yours truly will have the honor of speaking on the stage with my colleague, Joseph Kerski. Since I was privy to the other plenaries at our rehearsal yesterday, I know you’ll hear the phrase “spatial thinking” in almost everyone’s presentation, and ArcGIS Online will figure prominently this year as well.

JJK and I will be talking about “open educational resources.”  Open is a word that can be construed in many ways, and that’s okay. Such definitions are not always mutually exclusive. I’ll be using “open” as both an adjective and a verb, like my friend Jeremy Crampton does too. I look forward to the lively discussion.