Tag Archives: geography

AAG 2015


Just back from this year’s annual geography conference in Chicago. It was only my second time to Chicago and I got to see more of the city this time. Although the conference was held right downtown at the Hyatt this was an easy walk to the area around N. Michigan Avenue (Magnificent Mile) and amazing places like Eaterly with its two floors of quality food. I tried the coffee (shown above) and some excellent gelato. Also their olive oil selection:


But I started the week off at the UIC Jane Addams Hull House at a workshop on Big Data, and so saw a slightly different neighborhood. There were also must-do trips to the Art Institute and Millennium Park:


Chagall Windows at the Art Institute.


Nice venue they gave me for my paper but sparsely attended! (Actually the Millennium Park Pritzker Pavilion).

I’ll be posting about the more academic side of the conference in another post, but just to say here that there were some very good presentations and talks. There are so many exciting scholars in geography these days!

Zombie GIS

Ask most people what is GIS and they’ll not be able to tell you. Ask most people in a GIS class (such as the Intro GIS class I am teaching this spring), in a geography or allied field, and they’ll likely tell you a bunch of things that would have heads nodding at Esri: it is software, data, visualization, mapping and analytic capabilities for spatially referenced data. (Here’s Esri’s own answer.) If I ask most of our graduate students in our department (famously grounded in social theory as it is) they’ll likely tell me it is something like ArcGIS: Big GIS, costing thousands of dollars, hard to learn, for specialists only.

All of these, in different ways, are wrong to the point of dangerousness. Some are out of date. Some are irrelevant to the realities on the ground (hem-hem, including those of our grad students). All of them, it seems to me, refer to something that may as well be considered dead, but won’t die: zombie GIS. So who killed it?

To answer that question, a clarification is in order. I am not saying that the things we used to call “GIS” are no longer relevant, critical, or worth pursuing as a career. Quite the opposite in fact: GIS has gone viral. It has been injected into the body politic and infected nearly everything from the economy, to politics, to everyday activities such as going to the shops. In doing so, however, it can no longer be called GIS. Much like the walking dead, it is not what it once was, but doesn’t seem to know it: call it “zombie GIS” a phrase I confess to having just made up. (Fans of zombies have sometimes studied them using GIS, as these great projects illustrate. However, that’s not what I’m saying–I’m saying GIS is a zombie.)

So what has it become? Putting aside whether it has evolved or simply been replaced by other developments, here are some new key terms I think we need to come to grips with:

–software-sorting of geography, or, code/space
–geolocational (privacy | tracking | surveillance)
–geopolitical digital economy
–cyber materialities
–geolocatable knowledge economy
–Big Data biographies, the “spatial self”
–Internet of Things, smart city
–“lively” Big Data
–algorithms and calculability
–governmentality of “data derivatives,” data shadow, data-image, metadata

And so on. It would be interesting to put together an “Intro GIS” course syllabus that delved into these topics; a couple of weeks on the genealogy of the algorithm, say, followed by practical exercises in tracing how value is produced, extracted and enhanced as a geopolitical assemblage, capped off by a project creating geoweb-based mappings, CartoCSS and mobile-collected data. Even if the Chair of my department wouldn’t balk at such a proposal, perhaps it would be pointed out that this isn’t GIS. Exactly. But such a notion sustains something that’s dead; hence a zombie.

Zombies are interesting to many writers because they’re neither one thing nor the other. They occupy a liminal, in-between state, and as such you don’t have to close off possibilities by choosing one thing (life) over the other (dead). In fact, the one thing may allow the other. (Think dialectics.) Thus for the Slovenian philosopher Zizek, zombies are paradoxically both creatures of habit and yet illustrative of the freedoms we can attain due to those constraints. Like when we speak by learning rules of language, this then allows us to write poetry (or blog entries). Zizek says:

What this means is that what Hegel says about habits has to be applied to zombies: at the most elementary level of our human identity, we are all zombies, and our “higher” and “free” human activities can only take place insofar as they are founded on the reliable functioning of our zombie-habits: being-a-zombie is a zero-level of humanity, the inhuman/mechanical core of humanity.

If this is true, then perhaps the “rote” and “habitual” aspects of zombie GIS are what have prompted the list of developments I give above! So perhaps we might not have CartoDB if ArcGIS had any kind of real web capabilities.

(Another reason for the attractiveness of zombies to critical theorists: it echoes the ghost-talk of the famous opening line of the Communist Manifesto: “there’s a spectre haunting Europe…” which in turn feeds off Shakespeare. Derrida made so much of this it became a subdiscipline: “hauntology.”)

So what are these things in the list doing, and in what sense do they attract our attention? One place to begin is with assemblage, a term I’m using fairly straightforwardly here to indicate a mess of intersecting interests, practices, policies, epistemologies and so on. Fortunately Rob Kitchin offers us a look at a data assemblage in his new book The Data Revolution:


As you can see, there’s quite a mix of things here. the best article I’ve found so far to guide through these issues is Jason Dittmer’s “Geopolitical Assemblages and Complexity” paper. Drawing on assemblage theory (Deleuze, DeLanda, Latour), Dittmer argues that we need a more “materialist” approach, specifically that of assemblages. These are conceived as “wholes characterised by relations of exteriority.”

There are two things which are useful about this in terms of the list above. First, it implies the necessity of not just looking at the component parts. Second, Dittmer says that what’s important is not so much object with properties (how GIS sees the world, a basically Aristotelian logic) but parts with capacities to do work in the world (“actants”). This is sometimes known as critical realism.

As Thrift pointed out in his book of collected writings on capitalism published ten years ago, the modern knowledge economy can be traced back to the late eighteenth century. This coincides with what Foucault called the rise of the “disciplines” organized sets of knowledge with rules on what counted as data, ways of explaining (whether correct by today’s standards or not) and practices of disavowel (eg of the abnormal). For Thrift, what’s interesting about capitalism today is that these knowledges have been bent back to apply to capitalism itself. (Ian Hacking has described this “looping” effect in other contexts of knowledge about people.) So we get business schools and Masters degrees in finance; topics which are not traditionally academic subjects. (GEOINT Certificates may be understood in this context as the nearest equivalent in geography.)

This turn to materialism could be read as a turn away from discourse, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Let’s say that it creates a space for a new discursive materialism. This is important because one often hears people talking about “cyber” in the same way (that’s it’s non-material). But cyberwarfare, for example, has real material effects (computers explode, freeze or send hacked info to the attackers). So, this theoretical perspective is useful for “geospatial” (as a lot of people call what used to be called GIS).

I am not an assemblage fanboy. I don’t really like Latour, I’ve only recently started reading DeLanda and I don’t particularly “get” Deleuze–although I hope to read Thousand Plateaus more thoroughly for a seminar I’ve proposed with my colleague Jeff Peters (on “Big Data Narratives”).

However, it seems to offer some useful approaches, and, if you can cut through the (relatively sparse) thickets of French social theory speak, some suggestions for research projects. The one weakness of it is avoiding what Thrift calls “slab theory” or the temptation to use assemblages to study everything, at all scales. If the geoweb (to take an example relevant here) is political, economic, legal, geopolitical, performative, embodied, etc., well–you can see the task becomes very daunting and complex (see Dittmer again on complexity).

One of the few people working in this vein is Agnieszka Leszczynski (eg., “Situating the Geoweb in Political Economy,” Progress in Human Geography 2012)Leszczynski argues that the geoweb (the collection of geospatial services and technologies online) is more than just new forms of technology (web 2.0) but actually what she calls “technoscientific capitalism” which if not an assemblage is certainly a cross-cutting point of view. Or again in her most recent article, she insists:

There is a pressing need, therefore, for theoretical, empirical, and conceptual apparatuses for apprehending and evaluating the implications of and extent to which networked location-aware devices and spatial content have assumed pervasive presences in individuals’ daily lives, and of the material effects of associated spatial big data-based productions of living.

This is the notion that reality is always the product of the myriad intersections and mutual constitution of technology, society, and space relations that are themselves the products, or effects, of mediation.

Notice the everyday level of her focus on “techno-socio-spatial-relations” (p. 4). According to her, understanding these developments as media(ted) gives:

a position from which to not only engage with these presences as inherently material, but also to divest ourselves of GIS as an epistemology for ‘reading’ emergent technologies by designating how particular software, hardware, and information artifacts are being brought together in ways that are more-than, and other-than, GIS.

I think this is right for reasons I’ve been saying above. Zombie GIS, undead as it is, cannot provide the epistemological ground for apprehending what we’re interested in. Nevertheless, out of habit, GIS lumbers on!

Flying our drone [pictures, video]

Yesterday Ate Poorthuis and I had some practice in flying our new drone or quadcopter. This was the first time for me, although Ate had had some previous practice, and has been working on getting the drone to a flight operational status.

When it arrived, it came mostly pre-assembled.

Unfortunately you can’t just lift it out of the box and flip the “on” switch. Besides a few technical hitches (the landing legs were delayed in shipping, the battery recharger had to be reordered, etc) there was the question of figuring out how it works. This I left to the techno-savvy Ate, which he did admirably. He can go into the details of the process, hopefully as a research note for PLOTS.

Around lunchtime we started to put it together and hook everything up. Ate gave me a short demo of the flight data you can receive form the unit while it’s in flight, although we didn’t try this part during the flight testing (there are already too many joysticks and switches on the remote controller for the novice to worry about!).

With the RC unit:

See what I mean? The left joystick controls throttle and arms/disarms the rotors, and the right one the pitch and yaw.

There’s quite a lot of instrumentation on board, including GPS, sonar, but not as yet a camera as we are still putting in the flight time hours to get better control of it.

Here the rotor blades have been attached:

Here we are ready to launch:

Here’s the first flight test:

Here’s a second attempt. We tried a metal grating as a launch pad as the legs were sticking slightly in the grass:

We’ll be flying it some more in the near future. We’ll be able to attach a camera in order to take imagery from the air and composite it together to make maps and visualizations (eg using Dronemapper.com). We can also program the GPS to fly it to certain spots, or to have it “loiter” in one area, taking imagery. We hope to be using this in the classroom and also for research as part of our New Maps initiative.

Update. I’ve added the kmz of our flights here.

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.”

Distance and punish

I was thinking recently about the deliberate strategy of using distance to punish. I thought initially of the everyday occurrence when driving and somebody cuts you off. Some people then hang back from the offending car, placing a bit of distance between them as if to say to the world, stay away, this guy’s a bad driver! Of course, I’ve never done that or had it done to me! But you’re using distancing to punish and even shame someone.

Then yesterday I was out on the sidewalk in front of my house retrieving my wheely-bin (or Herbies as they’re called here). A guy was coming down the street who looked like he might be homeless (though I don’t know). Anyway he deliberately stopped walking toward me quite some way away and looked up into the air. I smiled at him but he wouldn’t meet my eye. After I wheeled the bin up the driveway he gradually resumed and continued walking along the sidewalk in front of my house. Could be liberal guilt of course but I was wondering if it wasn’t also a strategy of deliberate distancing to highlight…well I’m not quite sure. Neither of us knew each other so whatever it was it wasn’t personal.

There are probably lots of other examples of this this that might occur to you.