Geography 2.0 copy

The unity of all the sciences is found in geography. The significance of geography is that it presents the earth as the enduring home of the occupations of man.(Dewey)


Geography has always been a worthy subject for the middle school years, but now even more so than it was in John Dewey’s day. Big geographic datasets now underlie serious ecological studies across the board.

Geography 2.0: A Participation Sport

Geographic Information Systems (“GIS”) have morphed geography from a spectator sport, global in focus, into a participation sport, playable at the local level. Thanks to GIS, geography is humming with the excitement it had lost in decades past; it now offers an ideal way to introduce Data Science in the middle school years.

Geography 2.0: The Ideal Entrée To the Data Science Age

Data Science is different from Computer Science in that it starts with the data and only brings in programming skills as needed to make use of that data. In its early years Data Science used a language environment, SQL, that was separate from the data itself. All sorts of data, from GIS to business payrolls, has been grist for the SQL mill. Now we are starting to see a second generation of data science environments, where the programming is no longer separate. It is baked right into the data environment, simplifying the whole process. (The description of Data Science Class on this web site introduces the new integrated approach.)

In Geography 2.0 Class, we are using the more traditional SQL approach, where an independent programming environment (Xojo) is applied to geographic data sets. GIS is just one of many disciplines that uses SQL. It remains the primary data language for business. Products like Oracle use SQL. Knowledge of SQL is therefore a valuable job skill in general. Students who aspire to liberal arts studies in college can help pay their tuition with a summer SQL job.

Geography 2.0 and Gov 2.0: "Having a Go"

Geography became a participation sport when government did. The public sector created the vast corpus of GIS data, then looked for ways to tell its story to citizens. Agencies tried to predict, for example, the kinds of maps that the public would want to have, then put them up on their ".gov" web sites. It was, of course, a hopeless task. No matter how many ways they told the data's story, citizens always wanted to hear something else. With the movement to “Gov 2.0” the agencies switched course and simply put the GIS data itself up on their web sites, inviting us to take it in whatever direction we wished.


By releasing data in easy-to-use formats, cities and states hope that people will create sites or applications that use it in ways City Hall never would have considered. source


[W]hen free, machine-readable data becomes available, pretty much anyone can have a go. In America, Britain, and Australia, government agencies have held competitions to encourage small designers or non-profit outfits to find ingenious things to do with the stuff. source


A builder of digital tools that make sense of public information... does not need anybody to supply him with applications. All that he [or she wants] is machine readable data. Once he has facts that can be pulled in to a computer program, he can do the ferreting himself. source


The Data Stories Companion App concludes with an actual example where it was used by a citizen to impact a town zoning decision. 

Data Stories and the Data Stories Companion App

The Data Stories book and its Companion App provide a gentle introduction to this exciting participatory world: Geography 2.0. Big Data can, of course, be intimidating because it really is BIG. How BIG? The genome pioneer Craig Ventner likes to offer to email his genome. He notes, however, that it would take six thousand years to read it. Big Data can also be inscrutable because those who create it assume that down-stream users will know at least the basics of the subject matter. Middle schoolers typically don't have this background because their legacy bricks-and-books curriculum focuses them on the puny-data subjects that can be accessed with pencil-and-paper mathmanship. When a subject requires more than a few bytes of data at a time, it is rarely taught. 

Fortunately, there is one Big Data subject that kids do know: geography. The Big Data about the geography of planet Earth is, as noted above, called “GIS” data, for “Geographic Information System.” There are many GIS apps available, some of them free. The Data Stories Companion App is itself quite a powerful GIS app, but that is not its real point. The Companion App exists to gently teach kids, at the middle school age level, how to tell the stories of Big Data using GIS as the example. Once they have completed the lessons in Data Stories the Book, they will be ready to tackle Big Data in other domains, or to start using professional grade GIS apps. The Companion App actually concludes by briefly introducing one such new domain: the proteins of cell biology.

A huge pedagogical advantage of GIS data is that it is local. The Data Stories lessons focus at the U.S. state level and use Nebraska as the archetypal example, but the data is available, right in the Companion App, for the other forty-seven contiguous states (sorry Barack, sorry Sarah). When the lessons show Nebraska, students are encouraged to use data for their own state instead. (Occasionally, the lessons will pan out to the whole United States, or zoom in to individual cities.)

Starting out, the lessons use GIS files that are bundled right into the app. Once students get the hang of it, however, they can go out onto the internet to get some GIS data of their own from sites like Chances are their home town web site also has a bunch of it. If not, the local GIS person at Town Hall will welcome a visit from an interested student. GIS data has been overwhelmingly created in the public sector and hence is available for free.

Even though every student should be procedurally literate by the middle school years, the initial lessons in Data Stories involve no programming. Programming comes in only at the end, as students learn how to combine data from more than one internet site. The old Machine Age test of a successful middle school experience was the ability to factor a polynomial or to “take” a square root. A 21st century test of a successful middle school experience is the ability to join two data bases.

To think ecologically, we must all bring together, in our minds, differing perspectives and points of view of planet Earth. The Big Data parallel is the ability to bring together GIS data sets created from differing perspectives. Students at the college level cannot last a day in ecology classes without being GIS jockeys. What are you, or your child, waiting for?