Friday, November 21, 2014

Geography: from the stimulating to exhilarating

                                     everything has to do with geography

Related links to Spatialworlds
GeogSplace (a teaching blog for Year 12 geography)
Spatialworlds website

Australian Geography Teachers' Association website

Where am I??

Adelaide, Australia: S: 34º 55' E: 138º 36'


“I’m a geographer, frankly, I’m proud of that fact even if I have to explain when I meet someone exactly what it is a geographer does.”
Associate Professor Andrew Shears (a fascinating geography blog to check out from Andrew)

As frequently mentioned on this blog, there is a disconnect between what geographers think geography is and what the community and non-geographer educators think geography is. In fact, there is even arguments on the matter between geographers i.e. the physical geography versus human geography debate. Whilst the perception of geography varies enormously, one of the good things coming out of the implementation of the Australian Curriculum: Geography is that  geographers are working with teachers and parents to enunciate what they see geography as. I was amused by the following example of a typical discussion geographers tend to have with those trying to get a grasp of what geography is in the 21st Century - an exhausting, but necessary role for us geographers as the curriculum is implemented!

Imagine the poor geographer trying to explain to someone exactly what it is he or she studies.

“Geography is Greek for ‘writing about the earth.’ We study the Earth.”
“Right, like geologists.”
“Well, yes, but we’re interested in the whole world, not just the rocky bits.  Geographers also study oceans, lakes, the water cycle…”
“So, it’s like oceanography or hydrology.”
“And the atmosphere.”
“Meteorology, climatology…”
“It’s broader than just physical geography.  We’re also interested in how humans relate to their planet.”
“How is that different from ecology or environmental science?”
“Well, it encompasses them.  Aspects of them.  But we also study the social and economic and cultural and geopolitical sides of–
“Sociology, economics, cultural studies, political science.”
“Some geographers specialise in different world regions.”
“Ah, right, we have Asian and African and Latin American studies programs here.  But I didn’t know they were part of the geography department.”
“They’re not.”
(Long pause.)
“So, uh, what is it that you do study then?”
―    Ken Jennings 

Just to emphasise the difficulty for many to get a purchase on what is geography, I thought it would be fun in this posting to pick a mixed-bag of sites, from the stimulating to exhilarating to show the diversity of topics studied under the banner of geography. As Judy Martz is quoted as saying in the image at the top of the posting,  everything can be studied in geography, as long as it is studied geographically!  What does that mean? With the Australian Curriculum: Geography it means to look at what we study through the lens of the seven key concepts of place, space, environment, scale, environment, sustainability, interconnection and change - to think geographically on a topic/area of study is what makes geography geography.  Now just enjoy these amazing examples of geography and geographical thinking!

The stimulating!

* A Meandering stream

* Visualising global urban growth 

An interactive data visual covering all cities with 500,000-plus inhabitants – illustrates the scale and speed of urban transformation that research by the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) has sought to document and describe. A guide to its use can be found underneath the visual.

* Who lives where in Europe? Nationalities across the continent mapped

People of many different countries are now living in Europe, with the continent's residents coming everywhere from Jamaica to Tuvalu. Using data from 2011 censuses this interactive maps the prevalence of different nationalities across the European continent. Pick a country and the map will tell you how many people from that country live in each* European state

* Women's rights: country by country

Which countries have laws preventing violence? Which legislate for gender equality? And which countries allow abortion? Using World Bank and UN data this interactive offers a snapshot of women's rights across the globe

* Instant thematic maps on demographics 

 A great resource to make demographic geography interactive. Index Mundi is home of the Internet's most complete country profiles. The site also contains detailed country statistics, charts, and maps compiled from multiple sources.

* The geography of stolen cars: why the difference from place to place must be the geographical question?

* Worldometer 

Live world statistics on population, government and economics, society and media, environment, food, water, energy and health.

* Mapping children's chances 

Excellent maps displaying the standard of living available to children around the world. These maps help us to understand the quality of life present in different countries around the world. This is the biggest ever global picture of children’s well-being, education and family life has been assembled into a series of maps by the University of California, Los Angeles. "When you look at a map, everyone's eyes go straight to where they live," says Dr Jody Heymann, director of the university's World Policy Analysis Centre.

... and the exhilarating!

* Norway, a time lapse adventure

* Climbing Mount Everest in 3D

Monday, November 17, 2014

The quest for GIS in the classroom = QGIS


Image above: An animated map of global wind and weather.


The quest for a GIS solution for the classroom: QGIS

Over the years the introduction of GIS into the classroom has been impeded by a range of factors, such as cost, software complexity, network compatibility and the general hassles for teachers in getting to know a new software. From 1996-2006 schools were engaging with ESRI's ArcView 3x  and all was going well until the inevitable next generation of programs was forced upon schools. ESRI's updated ArcGIS program was just too complex for many classroom teachers, especially with the cheap school price not coming with technical support. The classroom teacher was dependent on a co-operative and GIS savvy techie in their school - somewhat problematical in many schools. As a result the uptake of using GIS in the classroom has not progressed in recent years, if not gone backwards. This posting is dedicated to the free GIS software called Quantum GIS or QGIS. The software is user friendly and does most of what a classroom teaching with basic GIS skills would need to use. The following links and information will help you decide if you also want to embark on the QGIS learning curve. I am using the software in my workshops with teachers and with my students and it seems to be a really good option to introduce GIS into the classroom in a cheap and achievable way. Over the next few months I hope to translate some my GIS skill development course using ESRI ArcGIS into the program. With the use of spatial technology written into the Inquiry and Skills Strand of the Australian Curriculum: Geography, it is important that teachers of geography are able to access a simple, meaningful and achievable GIS software to use with their students. I hope to use QGIS in a more coordinate fashion with teachers next year during ICT workshops to ensure students are exposed to 21st Century geographical technology when they study the Australian Curriculum Geography.

You can download QGIS for free at

QGIS background

QGIS is a free user friendly Open Source Geographic Information System (GIS) licensed under the GNU General Public License. QGIS is an official project of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo). It runs on Linux, Unix, Mac OSX, Windows and Android and supports numerous vector, raster, and database formats and functionalities.  QGIS provides a continuously growing number of capabilities provided by core functions and plugins. You can visualise, manage, edit, analyse data, and compose printable maps. Get a first impression with a more detailed feature list.

* Go on the tour of QGIS at

There is some excellent background on the capabilities and capacity of QGIS on the Boundless blog

"QGIS is easy-to-install, integrates with OpenGeo Suite, and has reliable support offerings, making it a viable alternative to proprietary desktop GIS software such as Esri ArcGIS for Desktop."
Gretchen concludes that QGIS is "easy and straightforward to create maps with".

Here are just some of Gretchens writings on QGIS - scroll down on the Boundless blog and read all of these really useful contributions on QGIS.

Creating Shapefiles

To start off with, the simple act of creating a new shapefile is actually a bit easier in QGIS than in other software. For example, in ArcGIS the typical workflow is to open a folder catalog to locate a folder, then right-clicking and choosing New > Shapefile. The workflow in QGIS is to simply click the New shapefile layer button (a), put in some of the details, and then save it in a standard Save As dialog. Adding new features to the new layer is straightforward in QGIS. When the new shapefile is added you click the toggle editing button (b) and then add a new feature with the Add feature button (c).


Once digitizing of the new feature is complete, you must right-click to finish the feature. This triggers a pop-up window that displays the attributes of the new shapefile and allows you to fill in the attributes. This prompting for attributes after each completed feature could be cumbersome for some workflows, especially those that involve many features that will all have the same attributes, but it is more intuitive for smaller, simpler jobs. A little sleuthing, however, uncovers a setting for suppressing this pop-up under Settings > Options > Digitizing.


Working with Vectors

In proprietary GIS software, converting lines to polygons is typically only possible in advanced versions of the software but QGIS makes it easy to accomplish. It is fairly straightforward to use the Lines to polygons tool that comes out-of-the-box in QGIS under the Vector menu. Tracing existing features is also possible via the QGIS plugin called AutoTrace.


Conclusion on editing capacity of QGIS

QGIS editing capacity has been outstanding. If the basic tools aren’t enough, the plugins come to the rescue with advanced functionality. As  with visualization, cartography and  analysis, it’s clear that the QGIS developers are cognizant of the demands that GIS professionals put on software in terms of needing exacting, fool-proof, and robust editing tools and they have made great progress in meeting those needs.

Text and Image Elements

Placing text and images is as easy as finding the Add new label and Add image buttons on the left-hand side of the print composer (a). Once you add a text box or any other element, the Item properties tab on the right-hand side of the print composer gives you most of the complex options that you’d find in any layout or commercial GIS software such as alignment, display, and rotation (b). You can also align these elements by using the Align selected items button in the main button bar (c).

 Map Elements

Adding the map to the layout is a little more difficult if you are used to commercial GIS software. You have to use the Add new map button (the wording of which I found to be confusing since it somehow implies a new map rather than the existing map in your project), which adds the map from the main QGISItem properties: one to update the preview and the other to set the map extent. The former updates the map if a new map layer has been added or the symbology has changed but only the latter updates the map if it has been panned or zoomed. These, however, are minor quibbles.

Conclusion about the cartographic capabilities of QGIS

The cartographic capabilities of QGIS are sufficient to produce almost all the common map layout components with an adequate amount of advanced capabilities and even some options, like the color blending modes, that aren’t typically found elsewhere. Cartography is where many people think that QGIS falls short.  The QGIS Map Gallery is worth a look for some great map examples using QGIS. Gretchen goes on to say that "her experience with QGIS has been that the visualization and cartography functions of QGIS have matured to the point where GIS professionals of all types can’t afford not to strongly consider adopting it."

Some final things to know about QGIS

* Your techie would like to know that QGIS has no associated licensing costs as it is licensed under the GNU General Public License. QGIS is an official project of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo).

* The latest release of QGIS version 2.4 is now available for download from the QGIS website. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Visualising: at the heart of geographical representation

 Image above: An animated map of global wind and weather.


 Visualisations of interest

This posting is another opportunity to show some great visualisations to enhance student understanding and stimulate discussion on spatial technology. As mentioned on previous postings, an important skills of geography are visual and spatial literacy. Geographers love turning spatial data, statistics and information into visuals to make uncluttered sense of geographical happenings and phenomena. We are a very visual discipline - not only about the creation of visualisations such as graphs and maps but most importantly the interpretation and analysis of such representations. In the Australian Curriculum: Geography such skills are an important part of the Inquiry process i.e.

Inquiry Stage 2: Collecting, recording, evaluating and representing data

Inquiry Stage 3: Interpreting, analysing and concluding
Only by such interpretation and analysis of visualisations can geographers be problem solvers and decision makers based on geographical information and evidence.

Here are some sites to support this thinking:

* Mapping Ebola
Excellent case study on mapping Ebola to solve the developing problem. The website is the world’s leading source of reliable and authoritative news, views and analysis on information about science and technology for global development. Here is another interactive site mapping the distribution of Ebola.

GIS practitioners are volunteering time to map
This site also has a nice pdf/digital presentation to use in class.

* Spatial comparison site
 A great site to show spatial comparisons between countries.

* Map fight: This simple WebApp allows the user to compare areas that are hard to compare on a map or globe because of distance or the map projection. This site helps strengthen student's mental maps and their ability to make regional comparisons. 

* When Google Earth gets it wrong
 Amazing distortions shown on Google Earth. 

* A powerful visualisation of world population
 A dot for every person on Earth - growing in front of your eyes.

* Animated map of global wind and weather
 Seen in this visualisation are the dual menaces, Cyclone Hudhud and Typhoon Vongfong (as seen from ISS). This visualisation of global weather conditions is updated every three hours from supercomputer data projections.  Click on the 'earth' text in the lower left-hand corner to customize the display.  For examining the wind patterns and oceans currents, this is much more useful than Google Earth.

Monday, October 27, 2014

You said what? The spatial variance of language across Oz.

 Image above: Mapping bather language.

 Everything can be mapped

A consistent message on Spatialworlds over the years has been that you can map anything and everything. Some may say such maps (often called Map Porn) are a trivial waste of time and not worthy of geographical study.  But are they trivial? Who is to say what use a map map can be! Surely they may be useful to someone somewhere!! For example the map of lust across the US would have a use to someone, possibly!


So much of this type of social geography mapping is US based. Spatialworlds postings on spatial variance showed fascinating variance across space in the US on a very diverse and eclectic selection of 'things'. For example we can even map something like happiness in the US (see below). What would be the happiest place in Australia if we did such a map? 

This posting highlights a few such 'trivial' social geography maps, this time from Australia. The maps relate to the variance of language use across Australia, that is different places use different words for the same things. For example, scallops or potato cakes? Swimmers, cozzies or togs? Slippery dip or slippery slide? 

In Australia there is little regional variation in accents as shown in the above regional accents map. Most people are familiar with the long “a” used by some South Australians versus the short “a” used elsewhere. However there are larger differences in vocabulary, with a number of regionally specific words. For example, an oval-shaped piece of potato that has been battered and deep-fried. These are known as potato scallops or scallops in north-eastern Australia, potato cakes in south-eastern Australia, and potato fritters in South Australia.

The article and associated maps showcased on this posting involve the creation of some maps based on the PhD thesis published in 1992 by Pauline Bryant . Bryant surveyed the word or words used to describe 72 things across all states. From the results, she identified four main regions of “lexical usage”.

Here is another two of the fascinating maps on Australian language, this time on the names of a type of processed sausage and a water dispenser.

Thanks to David Butler for directing Spatialworlds to this interesting spatial take on language.

* Whilst on about spatial variance of language in Australia, it is also worth looking at the Australian Word Map produced jointly by the ABC and the Macquarie Dictionary.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Landsat and the power of seeing from above

Image above:  A Fantastic Landsat flyby of EarthThe Landsat program is the longest continuous global record of the Earth's surface, and continues to deliver both visually stunning and scientifically valuable images of our planet. This short video highlights Landsat's many benefits to society.

Like a bird!

This posting follows on from the recent Spatialworlds postings called ' From above' and 'Like a Bird'. In these postings I discussed the changes brought about by satellite imagery and the modern remote sensing capacity to see the Earth from above. 

"The technology of the 20th Century set in motion the age of seeing the Earth from above in all its spatial glory, an age which has changed the population’s perception of the Earth they live on."

This posting showcases the amazing imagery gathered by NASA's Landsat program. In particular the power of Landsat to map and show change over time. With Change being one of the key concepts of the Australian Curriculum: Geography, I thought it was opportune to remind us of the wonderful images provided by NASA for the geography classroom.

The Landsat program is the longest running enterprise for the acquisition of satellite imagery of the Earth. On July 23, 1972 the Earth Resources Technology Satellite was launched. This was eventually renamed to Landsat. The most recent, Landsat 8, was launched on February 11, 2013. The instruments on the Landsat satellites have acquired millions of images. The images, archived in the United States and at Landsat receiving stations around the world, are a unique resource for global change research and applications in agriculture, cartography, geology, forestry, regional planning, surveillance and education, and can be viewed through the USGS 'EarthExplorer' website. Landsat 7 data has eight spectral bands with spatial resolutions ranging from 15 to 60 meters; the temporal resolution is 16 days.

Here are some great Youtubes involving the Landsat program:

Celebrating this anniversary, this video is a "greatest hits" montage of Landsat data. Throughout the decades, Landsat satellites have given us a detailed view of the changes to Earth's land surface. By collecting data in multiple wavelength regions, including thermal infrared wavelengths, the Landsat fleet has allowed us to study natural disasters, urban change, water quality and water usage, agriculture development, glaciers and ice sheets, and forest health. 

This video examines two uses of Landsat data to monitor agriculture. Both wineries and timber companies rely on Landsat data to check whether their vines and trees are getting enough (or too much) water and fertilizer. The small resolution and regular repeat cycle of the satellite data is crucial to monitoring the health of their crops.

* Earth from the ISS: Watch along with Expedition 38 crew members Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio as they look at various cities across the globe from the vantage point of the Cupola on-board the International Space Station 

* NASA Earth Day 2012

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

To go forth and explore - famous geographers

Image above: Famous geographers - what criteria? How many can you pick?

Related links to Spatialworlds
GeogSplace (a teaching blog for Year 12 geography)
Spatialworlds website

Australian Geography Teachers' Association website

Where am I??

Adelaide, Australia: S: 34º 55' E: 138º 36'

To explore and discover to be geographically famous

The importance of the term explore in geography is fundamental to the spirit of geography.  In the Australian Curriculum: Geography it appears often and quite purposely as an important component of 'doing' geography.  As is said in the Rationale of the curriculum:

"Geography is a structured way of exploring, analysing and understanding the characteristics of the places that make up our world..."

I often ask participants in my workshops  to name a famous geographer. I am usually met with blank looks, and then they hook into the explorers. Yes but no is usually my answer. This posting focuses on who are the recognised famous geographers and who are the famous who have done amazing geographical things. 

"Things like natural ecosystems, physical features, migration patterns, ethnic distribution patterns, and other facets of human-environment interaction are all the province of the geographer. Today, not many people could name a famous geographer. In the past, when much of the world was still exotic and unexplored, geographers occupied a crucial role in society."                                 Caitlin Dempsey Morais, Editor of ESRI's GIS Loungewebsite

The following site is an interesting starting point for us to explore the famous geographer.

* List of famous geographers  

This list of notable geographers is in alphabetical order enabling sorting from reputable, prominent, and well known geographers to the lesser known geographers of today.  If you want to answer the question, "Who are the most famous geographers ever?" start your search . Regardless of this search facility, few of the names are in everyday currency in the general population, let alone with young people. The names normally forwarded when people are asked to list famous geographers tend to be famous explorers such as Cook, Mawson, Magellan, Dampier etc (none of who appear on the famous geographers list). These men were either adventurers, scientists, navigators, or surveyors (in the case of William Dampier, a pirate!). By not calling them recognised geographers is not denigrating their achievements but even they would not call themselves geographers. Regardless of the classification of their expertise or background, they most definitely did geographical things using amazing geographical knowledge and skills in their pursuits.  

One such person was Alexander Von Humboldt, who was a scientist. Humboldt set off and did some amazing geographical exploration and discoveries contributing to the geographical knowledge of the world.  Humboldt, the geologist turned geographer and South American explorer was a bit of an 18th century super scientist, traveling over 24,000 miles to understand the relationship between nature and habitat. In the video, George Mehler details Humboldt’s major accomplishments and why we should care about them today.  Also have  a look at the TEDEd lesson plan to accompany the video

* Another one of my geographical heroes is the 19th Century Russian, Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay - a name that never appears on the famous geographer list - in fact his name rarely appears anywhere! He really did some amazing exploration on the cultural geography front in New Guinea, Australia and Malaysia. Miklouho-Maclay was an explorer, ethnologist, anthropologist and biologist who became famous as the first scientist to settle among and study people who had never seen a white man. Miklouho-Maclay spent the major part of his life travelling and conducted research in the Middle East, Australia, New Guinea, Melanesia and Polynesia. His geographical story for such a short life (1846-88) is truly rivetting. 

Such scientists, explorers and adventurers from the past are certainly worthy of the famous geographer tag! They don't often turn up in the famous geographer lists but they added enormously to our geographical knowledge of the world. They are heroes for students to know about and admire in the spirit of geographical exploration. These are just two of thousands of biographical stories of geographical heroes. We should be profiling them in our geography classes as real life 'Indiana Jones' types, with incredible geographical adventures to capture the exploration imagination of our students.

* Here is another list which provides further insight into the famous geographers

* ESRI have another take on famous geographers

* By the way, the most famous former geography student is Prince William (the Duke of Cambridge) of the United Kingdom who studied geography at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland; having switched from studying the history of art. Yes, a future King Of England (and Australia unless...) will be a geography. Some other interesting famous geographers facts can be found on the University of Florida site (never knew that Mother Theresa was a geography teacher).

* The greatest journeys: Whilst on about exploration, here is an interesting interactive site which maps history's greatest journeys. This site is a great connecting history and geography resource.

The opposite side of the coin: the geographically inept and challenged

* Geography gaffes - certainly not geographers of fame - some amazing media geographical bloopers

  * Everyone should be able to read a map
New research suggests that map reading is a dying skill in the age of the smartphone.