Physical Systems

Day three, time to get physical with the next two standards which fall under Element 3, Physical Geography. This element covers quite a bit – everything from climatology to geomorphology is fair game for Physical Geography. While only two US Geography standards are specifically Physical Geography, these are essential parts of Geography and we shouldn’t underestimate Physical Geography’s importance to our understanding of the world.

7 ) The Physical Processes That Shape the Patterns of Earth’s Surface

8 ) The Characteristics and Spatial Distribution of Ecosystems on Earth’s Surface

The Earth is a dynamic environment which is made up of a number of elements. National Geographic’s Xpeditions page lies out four categories:

“those operating in the atmosphere (i.e., climate and meteorology), those operating in the lithosphere (e.g., plate tectonics, erosion, and soil formation), those operating in the hydrosphere (e.g., the circulation of the oceans and the hydrologic cycle), and those operating in the biosphere (e.g., plant and animal communities and ecosystems).”

It is important to understand the interactions between these categories in order to appreciate their impact on the world around us. Examples of the more extreme end of these impacts include earthquakes which originate in the lithosphere, hurricanes and typhoons which are tied to both the atmosphere and the hydrosphere, and wild fires which come out the biosphere. Other examples have a less ominous aspect such as having an idea of what areas are the best for skiers, knowing where not to build a house (stay out of the flood plains), and even knowing what areas are best for growing strawberries. As GI Joe said, “knowing is half the battle” and by knowing about the physical processes that impact the Earth and the people that inhabit its surface, we can better understand the world we live in and even help make it better.

Standard 8 looks at specific types of physical regions on the the Earth’s surface. Ecosystems are diverse assemblages of plants and animals that share an environment. These assemblages evolve from a distinct mixture of climate, terrain, soils, etc… and are relatively stable unless impacted by a significant external force such as drought or fires. Human effects on ecosystems can also be far-reaching and it is important for students to understand the reciprocal nature of the human/environment interaction. While we have often discussed the importance of sustainability in terms of the impact of human actions on resources that we need, but sustainability is just as important to maintaining the balance within existing ecosystems.

While Physical Geography may not often get the attention that Human Geography or GIS do, it is still an essential component in the discipline of Geography as a whole, and it is important that we promote it as well.

Places and Regions

So, today I wanted to talk about the second element in the The US Geography Standards, Places and Regions (If you’d like to take a look at them yourself, The Standards were printed in 1994 under the title Geography for Life by Roger Downs). Place continues to be a central theme in Geography, and regional geography has been a focus of geographic studies since the early part of the twentieth century. Within the theme of Places and Regions, there are three standards:

4) The Physical and Human Characteristics of Places

5) That People Create Regions to Interpret Earth’s Complexity

6) How Culture and Experience Influence People’s Perceptions of Places and Regions

As we have talked about before on the podcast, place can be defined as a location that has some meaning and/or relevance to a person (people), but it is really much more than that. Standard 4 seeks to ensure that students understand the importance of place and how place impacts them through interaction or change. The make up of a place is just as important, with both physical and human elements key in understanding a place. Whether the place of interest is a house, a state, or even a planet, this multiscalar concept is part of our identity and worldview, and helps us make decisions and interpretations about the spaces we live in every day.

While place is often seen in terms of local and individual scales, the concept of region is generally used a identify an area (Standard 5). The definitions of regions are often subjective and may vary based on who is defining it. The area included in a region is usually distinct in some way such as ecological regions (desert, forest, grassland…), but can also be a social creation (MSAs, counties, ethnic regions). Thus, regions can be dynamic and are open for interpretation which sometimes make them challenging as units of study, however the notion of regions provide useful ways to abstract information about the world around to make it more usable and regions offer a structure to do just that. They allow us to compartmentalize spatial information in ways that allow us to analyze and understand more readily than considering an area as its component parts.

Standard 6, is much closer to home for me, as its goal is to show how cultural experiences influence perceptions. As an human geographer (who also has a degree in Anthropology) I seek the cultural impact in everything that I research, but I also try to consider how things might have a completely different meaning from a different cultural perspective. However, while culture has a very broad impact on how we look at the world around us, our personal experience also play a crucial role in how we understand the world. As each person has a different set of experiences, some that may overlap with others but many more that do not, we will often take different meanings and ideas away from an event. These differences in perception, both cultural and experiential, are what creates similarities and differences between people and groups. Understanding these similarities and differences can help us to face many of the challenges that arise in a global culture that may lead to strife and war.

A combination of the spatial concepts of Element 1 and human perception of space as outlined in Element 2 are the base that is built upon by the next four elements of the Geography Standards. Be sure to check back tomorrow for Element 3: Physical Systems.

World in Spatial Terms

While it is important to take a bit of time out each year to focus on Geography Awareness, there are 51 other weeks in the year where teachers must attempt to impart an understanding of Geography. An uphill battle to be sure. In the United States there is a set of Geography Standards which came out of the America 2000 – The National Education Goals. In 1994 the National Geography Standards were published made up of six elements (or themes) and eighteen standards. Over the course of the week we are going to handle one element per day of the standards. Today we are going to kick off with “Element 1: The World in Spatial Terms” which includes three standards:

1) How to Use Maps and Other Geographic Representations, Tools, and Technologies to Acquire, Process, and Report Information From a Spatial Perspective

2) How to Use Mental Maps to Organize Information About People, Places, and Environments in a Spatial Context

3) How to Analyze the Spatial Organization of People, Places, and Environments on Earth’s Surface

These three standards are the broadest and lay the groundwork for the other five elements.
I will begin at the beginning with my interpretation/reduction of Standard One which is to learn how to use spatial tools to share information. This is epitomized by work from Dibiase (1990) and MacEachren and Kraak. Dibiase offered up a 2D chart of spatial information which captures the progression from visual thinking to visual communication. This gradient provides a way to use maps and other spatial visualization methods to explore data and to present information. MacEachren and Kraak added an additional dimension which brings human interaction into the equation. As digital cartography, GIS, virtual globes, and other geovisualization tools become truly ubiquitous we can expect Standard One to be easier to teach in concept and practice through hands on examples.

Next up is Standard Two which, in my mind, is somewhat problematic. The goal here is to use spatial awareness to conceptually link information. However, while you can teach people to read a map to some extent, there will always be those individuals who are simply not spatial thinkers. Creating topological relationships of memories and thoughts is for the most part a subconscious action making it difficult to train those who are not prone to spatial thinking. For those that are, the world is of course a more enjoyable place ;-). Mental maps are the way we navigate, the way we connect to places and people, and allow us to make connections between objects.

To round out the first day is Standard Three, or as I like to call it, the standard of GIS. Spatial organization is the way that we understand the location of objects, even locations on our mental maps, in order to contextualize the world around us. As you might imagine spatial organization is what leads us to capture our data in databases and begin to analyze that data to learn about relationships like distance, linkage, and diffusion. These patterns, whether captured using a GIS or simply recognized by the human eye, allow us to make connections that aid us in day-to-day life and research alike.

There are several resources that I have consulted for this series, but I will just mention the National Geographic Society’s XPeditions which offers more descriptive overviews of the National Geography Standards and the National Council for Geographic Education Tutorial on Geography for Life which provides additional information about the standards.

Here, there be dragons

Over the last couple of days I have been reading Here, There Be Dragons by James Owen which can be found in the young adult section of your bookstore (why is it always on the opposite side of the store from Scifi/Fantasy). The thing that grabbed me was a dragon on the cover, but what sucked me in was the subtitle the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica. Besides being a great rainy day read there is a strong geography undercurrent (the Cartographer of Lost Places is great) plus it is great for adult readers because of the allusions to classic literature throughout the book. There is some sample text available on the webpages.

Here, There Be Dragons
by James Owen
Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing
ISBN: 1416912274

Book Review – GIS A to Z by Sommer and Wade (Eds)

A to Z GIS: An Illustrated Dictionary of Geographic Information Systems by Sommer and Wade (Eds), ESRI Press, 2006

As we quickly covered in the Book Corner in Episode 65 of the podcast, ESRI is the first to market with a GIS specific dictionary of terms with their A to Z GIS. Overall, the text offers a quick introduction to the majority of GIS related terms and concepts. It is surprising the number of terms they include with very little oversight. As a text from ESRI Press, written by ESRI employees, however, it does seem to trend toward definitions that fit well with ESRI software. For example, the definition of topology includes a definition that is explicitly linked to ESRI’s Coverage format (admittedly a great format for handling topology).

Perhaps my only true issue with the text is that an industry specific dictionary such as A to Z GIS should be a ready reference for the neophyte, the unsure, and the person in need of a quick reference. However, the definitions in the book are primarily technical, pulled from their discipline of origin, often Math, Statistics, etc, and do not always offer a spatially specific definition that puts the terms in a GIS context. As I suggested in the podcast review, Johnston, et al offers a great model to follow in The Dictionary of Human Geography where leaders in each area were tapped to provide descriptions of each term, along with key references to help the reader build on the information provided. Admittedly most of the definitions in Johnston et al are more extensive than those needed for the terms in A to Z GIS, but it would be nice to see where the authors obtained their definitions.

That said, I do believe that A to Z GIS offers a good source for reference, especially for those who are just getting into GIS or who have been around long enough to begin to forget terms that they once knew. I think it is safe to say that I am not the target audience, but that my students are, although it’s always nice to have a quick reference guide when you need it.

GIS Monitor

Little less action, a little more conversation please

In his blog zen GIS Development, Dave Bouwman asks what I think is a pretty important question – why aren’t we all talking together about GIS? He notes that a natural use of blogs is to facilitate communication and interaction within a community. This isn’t really happening in the GIS community. We pretty much read each others’ blogs and don’t really talk about what we’ve read. Dave things it might have something to do with the relatively small community and the lack of techno-savvy users out there.

I’m not sure he’s got it quite right. I think the small community should, in theory, stimulate conversation rather than repress it. In a community measured in thousands if not tens of thousands like the software development blog community, it becomes extremely hard to keep track of much of anyone. Lots of meaningless garbage can be introduced by nearly anyone at any time. With a smaller community measured in the hundreds, you could actually build some sort of reputation (good or bad). The quantity might not be there, but the quality should improve. Tech chops shouldn’t matter as much either, since obviously those of us already in the blog community should have the skills needed.

If you ask me, I think the reason lies more with the newness of it all. There still aren’t that many GIS/Mapping blogs out there compared to a lot of fields. I think most of us are still trying to find our voices and places in the community. My guess is the readers are interested more in finding information rather than talking. The blogs end up being more of a resource than a community. Perhaps we should, as a community of both blog writers and blog readers, attempt to address this situation. If we talk more, we can collaborate more, overcome problems more effectively, and perhaps save time and resources.

Book Review – Remote Sensing for GIS Managers (Aronoff, 2005)

Recently, we received several books from ESRI Press for reference and review, and first up is Remote Sensing for GIS Managers (2005) edited by Stan Aronoff. Aronoff and his co-authors have provided a comprehensive overview of remote sensing, ranging from the history of remote sensing to types of sensors offering an in-depth and thorough presentation of Remote Sensing.

The title is somewhat misleading since this book would work nicely as a text in an undergraduate remote sensing class, offering general information on aerial and satellite based remote sensing. There is, in fact, very little GIS oriented material aside from a few case studies in one of the later chapters. The text is divided into roughly five sections: Chapters 1-4 offer a general introduction, Chapters 5-9 review different types of sensors, Chapters 10-11 discuss image interpretation, while Chapters 12-13 cover examples of applications and how Remote Sensing fits in organizations. The last section is made up of three appendices that offer very detailed information on georeferencing imagery, individual sensors, and a list of resources.

Each of the sections is well organized, offering information that is relevant and descriptive enough to convey the technical ideas to a broad audience. As should be expected from any book that revolves around imagery, there are several full color reference figures that support the text. These figures represent not only raw data, but data capture and image analysis techniques. Perhaps the most useful portion of the book is also the portion that will eventually date it, the overview of satellites and their relative capabilities. This portion of the text is the most relevant to the title, providing a wide set of information on platform capabilities which is important to GIS managers who are looking for the best, most cost effective imagery or sensor data for a given problem or project. In the end this book is not going to be touted as a landmark in Remote Sensing, but it is a solid reference work.

Overall, this is a strong remote sensing text which is very affordable in comparison to most textbooks at $69.99US. Be wary of this text if you are looking for a quick and dirty introduction to Remote Sensing, which is what I would expect most ‘GIS Managers’ would want. Instead, at nearly 500 pages this text would be a good addition to a reference library if you do not already have an introduction to Remote Sensing style textbook.

Book review of Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling

TweedBookThe American Religious Experience at is an online journal which has been in publication for nearly a decade, which is edited by Briane Turley of WVU. In our continuing effort to support the folks we know, Mike Ferber (a fellow grad student) has recently published a review of Thomas Tweed’s newest book, Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory or Religion. Tweed is one of the first scholars of American religion to utilize a spatial model for interpreting religious diffusion and development in the U.S.

Press Release – January 13, 2006



For information about this announcement, contact:

Jesse Rouse
VerySpatial, LLC
tel: +1-304-756-8125

A VerySpatial Podcast half-year episode featuring interview with Peter Morville

Morgantown, WV, January 13, 2006 – VerySpatial, LLC

VerySpatial, LLC is pleased to announce that we have reached the 26th episode of A VerySpatial Podcast, which features an interview with Peter Morville, noted author and information scientist. A VerySpatial Podcast premiered with its first episode on Geography and geospatial technologies in July 2005. The podcast is intended to be a weekly source of information that is supported by a blog accessible at A VerySpatial Podcast has continued to grow over the last half year and now reaches a global audience of listeners.

The featured guest for Episode 26, Peter Morville, is the author of Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become (2005) and co-author of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-scale Web Sites (2002) both from O’Reilly Media, Inc.

The half-year anniversary episode is not the first interview with a prominent individual from the geospatial community as we have been joined in the past by Rick Lawson, of Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc. and Dr. Tim Warner, a remote sensing specialist from West Virginia University. VerySpatial looks forward to continuing to provide news, discussion, and interviews on a wide range of topics related to Geography and geospatial technologies.

A VerySpatial Podcast is available for direct download from and can be subscribed to through iTunes and other podcast aggregators. More information is available at

VerySpatial, LLC is committed to providing information on Geography and geospatial technologies through audio and web-based technologies. Formed in 2005, VerySpatial, LLC is located in Morgantown, WV.

Book Review – Making Maps (Krygier and Wood, 2005)

One of the main issues in geospatial technologies today is the quality of the output whether it be for a presentation, map in a document or a poster. The underlying issue is the lack of training in digital cartographic concepts, the art that enables the user to convey the science. In Making Maps: A Visual Guide to Map Design for GIS, John Krygier and Denis Wood, both well published Geographers and Cartographers, are cognizant of this duality and have presented a unique mix of visual example and explanatory text that introduces readers to the basic concepts of creating effective maps.

The first impression, before you even begin to read this book, as you are leafing through, is that the authors had a specific objective: to introduce the reader to map design. This is conveyed in the text of course, but the layout of the book is as much an exercise in, and example of, design as the content inside. From chapter headers to the figure layout and captioning, the content works to blend form with function in a way that makes it obvious that this book is separate from most of the current texts on map making. This is definitely an example of practice what you preach.

The actual text may seem overly simplistic at first, especially if you are familiar with cartography texts by MacEachren, Kraak, and others; however, this is deceptive as the format and organization the authors chose allow the reader to get to the heart of the information in an informal yet effective style. In all honesty I was quite critical when I began the book but quickly came to enjoy the book because of its minimal text and graphical approach to the subject matter.

Overall, Making Maps will make a strong textbook for digital cartography classes and a useful text for those of us who have been struggling with map design for representing our analyses. Even seasoned GIS professionals and cartographers will find useful information and design tips in the book. It is almost worth picking up for the glowing cover blurb that Anne Knowles provides alone. The one wish that I have is that it would be great to have a companion CD or website for the book, which could present interactive examples and more examples in color.