Every Wednesday, @GeogChat hosts a fireside tweet-fest. Two enthusiastic geography teachers welcome all-comers to discuss the challenges of teaching geography. Recently, the subject veered toward literacy: the problems of handling basic gaps in KS3 and KS4 students’ vocabulary. How can you teach a subject, any subject, if children don’t understand the words you’re using to explain it? The answer might be etymology. Teachers who refer to etymology across the curriculum – on a whiteboard or with flashcards – will find students make much faster progress with new concepts.
Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way their meanings have changed over time. If children can see how words have connections, they usually pick up a subject much faster. I like to think of etymology as ‘mental velcro’. It’s all about breaking words down to a hook level. Take the etymology of ‘geography’, for example. Geography starts with the Greek, gē, meaning ‘earth’. We then add –graphia, meaning ‘description of’. Geography is a subject that seeks out greater understanding – every-improving descriptions – of the world around us. Beautifully simple. Physical geography is about the dynamics of our environment; human geography is about the dynamics of cultures, societies and economies within those many landscapes.
Now consider the etymology of ‘geospatial’… and take a deep breath.
Is it geographic or geospatial?
For four years or so, one of GIS Lounge’s pages has been a top Google hit for “what is the difference between geographic information and geospatial information?” Grown adults try to explain this without the use of alcohol. I’ve seen them do it. If we use etymology to substantiate a position on one side of the bar or the other (and we do sub-consciously analyse words in this way every day without realising it), then you’ll see why many people get confused.
The word ‘geospatial’ comprises gē, from the Greek meaning ‘earth’, with ‘spatial’ from the Latin, spatium, and the adjectival suffix ‘–al’ tacked on for good measure. Break that down and we have ‘earth’ and ‘of or relating to space’. And yet the ‘earth relating to space’ definition doesn’t deliver on most people’s understanding of ‘geospatial’. I’m not out of line here: there’s a loose agreement that – ‘while something geographic is something relating to geography, something geospatial is something (usually a piece of information) that relates, in itself, to a specific geographic location. It’s data with an element of geographic information in it…’
Geography on the inside, data on the outside. No space at all, anywhere in between.
We can agree, it’s okay to disagree
Geography is geography. Geographic information is geographic information. But if you ask a room full of geographers, or data scientists of any ilk, how they’d define ‘geospatial information‘ – they’ll all try to land a slightly different definition.
Some of the nearly-not-quite examples I’ve come across range from LINZ’s ‘geospatial information, also known as location information, is information describing the location and names of features beneath, on or above the earth’s surface’, to the UN-GGIM’s, ‘geospatial information describes the physical location of geographic features and their relationship to other features and associated statistical information’.
A version by the US’s Federal Geographic Data Committee reckons that, ‘geospatial information is information concerning phenomena implicitly or explicitly associated with a location relative to the Earth’s surface’, but then again, the FGDC also insists that ‘geospatial data is data with implicit or explicit reference to a location relative to the Earth’s surface’ – which doesn’t make things easier. NASA does a neat sidestep. It classes a GIS as a ‘computerized relational database management system for capture, storage, retrieval, analysis, and display of spatial (locationally defined) data’ – proving once and for all, the closer you get to space, the less you need geospatial at all. And then there’s Wikipedia’s view on things, which, basically, involves completely ignoring the bar-room brawl.
Believe it or not, Wikipedia takes us on a round-trip of redirects from geospatial information to geographic data and back again (although it does agree that a GIS is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present spatial or geographic information) – without settling on a clear definition at any point, anywhere. The edit history doesn’t help.
ISO/TC 211, however, is insistent. It’s in league with the FGDC. The standard’s multi-lingual glossary spreadsheet tells us, ‘geographic information is information concerning phenomena implicitly or explicitly associated with a location relative to the Earth’s surface’ – and then it does a liberal sprinkling of ‘geospatial’ in half a dozen cells without a definition for geospatial to be seen anywhere … so yes, your guess is as good as mine there.
Do we need a definitive definition?
I understand the reasons why there are so many definitions for ‘geospatial information’. But this does go to show, the geospatial industry is its own worst enemy. We overcomplicate things ( – don’t get me started on complicated and complex), and this lack of clarity makes life unnecessarily hard for teachers.
It’s tough enough to make the leap from geography as a subject to working with spatial data as a career choice. If teachers can’t refer to agreed definitions for simple things, like “What is the official definition of geospatial information, please?” in lesson one, then students aren’t getting the help they need, either. The need for a new, stronger, more-informed geospatial cohort is increasing; industry must skill-up – and that means making sure the next generation isn’t hampered by multiple definitions and a vague curriculum.
I can’t think of any better way to illustrate how much work is needed here than to highlight TES’s resource library. Do a quick search for ‘English’. In return, you’ll be given a list of 243,492 resources. ‘Maths’ throws up 69,503 pieces of collateral, and ‘geography’, a very impressive 45,208. Now type ‘geospatial’ into the search bar. There are just 10 geospatial resources in TES’s library – and two of those are PPTs on how best to teach French.
Can’t we say, ‘geospatial information’ when we mean ‘geographic information’ or vice versa? What are the official definitions for those terms? Does any of this really matter, in a fast-paced txt-spkng wrld? Yes, it does matter. For me, the difference is clear. Geography is the study of the earth; geographic information is that knowledge in understandable context; geospatial information is an insight that depends on geographic information to any extent.
The thinking behind geospatialink-ing
I say “geo” when I don’t want to start a fight, but I try to get it right, in writing. ‘Geospatialink’ happens to be a good search term, based on a dry sense of humour and some etymological thinking. Geo. Writing. Inking. Linking. Geospatialink – making the connections for geo, in writing.
My preference for clients? The best option is often the worst of all worlds; avoiding the issue altogether and using the term ‘location data’ instead. ‘Location’ disassociates itself from the geography classroom but still conveys the meaning without the danger of ambiguity (and angst). Data is concise. It’s short and to the point, and it’s a lot easier to squeeze the word ‘data’ into a tweet than it is to write, ‘information’. MInd you, supporting my thinking – particularly for new audiences – I do like this ngram, which runs the gamut of inclusions in English texts from 1900 to 2000.
It’ll be interesting to see how that ngram changes over the next few years. It’ll be reassuring if we see ‘geospatial’ anywhere in the curriculum.