Category Archives: politics

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.

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Considering Spatial Citizenship

I’ve just completed Day 1 of a SPACIT meeting, the semi-annual gathering of partners working on this Comenius funded project. Very interesting ideas coupled with very ambitious plans! Combining GIS&T, geography, philosophy, politics, the act of “participating” – or engagement, pedagogy and teacher professional development, communication, and other technology, especially via geomedia. Here’s a recent paper, GI and Spatial Citizenship (pdf) authored by 3 of the lead partners, Inga Gryl, Thomas Jekel, and Karl Donert.

I’m contributing on behalf of NCGE, and I have much to learn from these discussions. And did I mention we’ve gathered in Salzburg, Austria, at the university where the GI Forum and AGIT is about to happen?  Geo everywhere.

Linking geography to culture through language: does shape matter?

The first geography course I ever took was Political Geography, in 1987 (taught by Ron Leibowitz, who has since left the geography classroom in favor of administrative duties). The class changed the trajectory of my academic life and left a tremendous impression on me, introducing me to ideas and theories that I’d never considered before.  I remember writing a paper on Finlandization and gaining great insights in the actions of the Soviet Union, a topic of particular relevance in the ’80s.

Then sometime in the last decade I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and was again struck my his arguments about the role of physical geography in affecting social dynamics and development, and political infrastructure.  Plus it was great fodder for collegial discussion with our anthropology and political science friends, who respectfully disagreed with all of the premises.

Yesterday I caught up on blog reading and came across this recent Nature article about country shapes and languages.  The study suggests that long and narrow countries that span across many latitudes (like Chile) have been able to maintain greater linguistic diversity than countries broader and which cross greater longitudes (like Turkey). Of course, there are a finite number of countries suitable to test, and by treating the countries as “independent” samples in this case, we raise other issues. Every country has its own internal geographies that affect cultural development, plus individual histories and situations (or not) amongst neighbors that cannot be ignored. Plus, I agree that language may be a weak proxy for culture, though it’s a place to start.  Quantifiable measures of culture are, by definition, ambiguous and complicated, and capturing this for map use is an ongoing challenge.

Still, I appreciate the study and will keep track of it for our ongoing effort to provide evidence of geography’s import.

I continue to work on my Mapping People Visual Library Catalog, which one day may inspire new directions for social and cultural mapping.

H/t to Cultural Geography for the Nature article.

the Wicked Witch of Finance

I have absolutely no formal background in international economics, politics, or finance, but at some point I came across the blog of Chris Blattman and  have been a faithful follower ever since.  I like his explanations, his humility, his dedication to teaching, and his sense of humor.   Like today’s entry in which he likens the world of finance to cruel and unusual acts of violence.

politics & geography

Most days, I’d rank the problems surrounding STEM teaching and learning as one of the most important, if not the most important, in the educational front. But my cynical side says that it’s folly to worry about such topics because before such implications are fully realized, we’ll be at the mercy of our global decision-makers. Under-appreciation of political geography is a problem on an entirely different scale. When “war teaches us geography” – it’s too late.

Topical cartoon from xkcd.

>Striking Farmers

>I’m finally beginning to understand the story behind the strike that’s been going on across the country in the last few weeks. There is no shortage of opportunities to hear the news, but I guess I spend too much time sitting in my house working on a computer and connecting to the States and not enough time reading the Argentine newspapers or having conversations on the street. My step-father Fred even experienced the traffic associated with the strikers blocking a main highway but we still didn’t understand the whole story.

Now I’ve pieced together the threads with the helpful perspectives of the lady who owns the lavandería (laundromat) down the street and Mari, the woman who cleans our house. The government is imposing higher tariffs on grain exports, much of which go to China. Argentina competes with Brazil and the US for those Chinese dollars and it’s a cut-throat market. Argentina is the world’s 2nd largest corn exporter and 3rd for soybeans. President Kirchner has many ideas for how that tax revenue could be used, but many don’t think it will help those who need it most, including the (huge) agricultural sector. In protest, many farmers and transporters (truckers) went on a 16-day strike. With no truckers trucking, the shelves at stores grew emptier and emptier. Prices for meat (and milk, and other foods) are already very high here, and it’s hard to imagine an Argentine meal without meat. Last night I went to the carnecería to shop for tonight’s parilla and the butcher reminded me to get all I’d need for the weekend, as he expected to be sold out by noon today. At a market this morning, Chris said the sale of milk was limited to two boxes, sugar to two bags, and no meat could be had.

Last night the strike may have ended, good news for everyone except the cattle of the country. English accounts of the story from this Al Jazeera (!) source and the BBC report.