AAG New York City: Tribes or Tensions?

I had a good time at AAG, and found it a solid if not remarkable conference. The word on the street during the conference was that it was the largest ever, at over 9,000 people. That’s pretty big league. We used to gasp at the Esri User Conference being so huge at 13,000, which it is, or the MLA at 10,000. Partly this is location, with its East Coast time zone and accessibility to Europe. Next year is LA so we’ll see.

One of the more interesting discussions came up at the Iron Sheep debriefing session (described here). It was mentioned that VGI/geoweb/web mapping services and “traditional” GIS were two tribes, and that for today’s upcoming graduate students while VGI/geoweb was innovative and interesting, it was the “wrong” tribe (Renee Sieber).

I’m not sure this is the right way to think about it though. It diverts attention to the dichotomy of the right vs. wrong tribes in which to belong. Rather, as I argued in my book, we can think of the situation as the play of tensions across the field of cartography, as illustrated here.

Upcoming graduate students and others are being pulled in two or more directions, and do not wholly belong in one tribe or another. The idea of separate and opposing tribes is too simple. (Parallel cases are C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures, or Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”).

One is situated at different positions on the field, or different squares of the chessboard if you prefer, at different moments. (If it wasn’t 7am in the morning following a restless night I would say something profound here about the inevitability of power meeting its own resistance.) At some times, you will be using Big GIS like an Esri product. At others you will using MapQuest-OSM tiles with open source map rendering. While the allure of these newer more open tools is attractive, it is also premature I think to speak of the “democratization” of mapping and geography.

As Muki Haklay pointed out in one of the best papers I saw at the conference, most of what these tools provide here are for–and by–the “outliers.” The 1 percent if you like, of users. (His talk was basically an extension of the “long tail” hypothesis.)

This applies not only to the geoweb, but to Big GIS as well. The challenge then as always, is to smooth out the long tail and, to use Muki’s phrase decrease “digital inequality.”

6 responses to “AAG New York City: Tribes or Tensions?

  1. THANK YOU! I’m also thinking that one of these “tribes” is having an increasing amount of pull in the world in which we live. I think encouraging students to remain within their disciplinary boundaries is to shut oneself off to a way in which the world functions.

  2. Pingback: AAG reflections | Progressive Geographies

  3. Though I’ve been using the tools of the “geoweb” since the 1990s, the concept of web GIS and geoweb applications is relatively new to me. I blame (?) this in large part to being a busy grad student who learned the crap out of ArcGIS, but was not much exposed to the fundamentals of geoweb apps by neither instructors, colleagues, nor peers (that is, I’ve come to realize the potential of geoweb apps and web GIS largely *outside* of academia). I feel strongly the resistance to its incorporation in the classroom, and it’s here where I find myself standing between two “tribes”.

    I liken the difference to when photography moved from developing film in a darkroom to having to learn photoshop on a computer. Same industry – completely different methods. (I’m curious about this transition. Were professional photographers resistant to the change left in the dark or was everyone happy to jump on board?)

    For GIS, it was/is learning ArcGIS desktop or the equivalent (i.e. the GIS “darkroom”) and now it’s that (and not that), but also learning how to code, how to use web services, APIs, etc. I’m learning the lingo, but I still don’t know how to do much of this stuff, nor do I have much time (but I’m trying!)

    *My* fear is being left behind if room isn’t made for this stuff in the academic institution. Are instructors who ARE teaching it (and theorizing it) ahead of the curve and revolutionary, or IS learning the geoweb not that critical? Is it mostly young (youthful) and innovative participants just having “fun”, or is it something more? (After having attended the session “Does VGI have a future?” I am especially thinking it is something more…)

    In any case, I really have no idea what I’m talking about! But these are just some of the questions I raise to myself over the issue. This is how I interpreted the “tribe” conversation at the IronSheep session, but I’d love to know if I’m on the right tract here, or not…

  4. I think it’s worth considering the current tensions in the context of past “two-tribe” battles in the history of the profession: raster vs. vector, computer vs. traditional cartography, etching vs. lithography, printing presses vs. scribes, papyrus vs. clay tablets… I’m willing to bet that, for better or worse, the whole debate will evaporate when ESRI releases VGI Analyst. And they will.

  5. Pingback: Bucknell GIS brings home an IronSheep

  6. we have to look from both the sides,as tribes they are people can stay but if we look from other side.they create lot of tensions


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