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It’s Not Just Who You Know–It’s Where: The Geospatial Revolution

An intersection of computing power and mapping techniques allows location to become an ever more important attribute of the data we generate and utilize.

Since the Golden State Warriors are the hottest team in the NBA, fans are thrilled to be at the arena on game day. If they have the Warriors app installed on their mobile devices, they get even more when they enter the arena: information, special promotions, and real-time seat upgrade offers. This is enabled by mobile beacons mounted around the arena, which emit low-energy bluetooth signals. This type of proximity-based marketing is an example of ‘geo-fencing’, and it is starting to be used in more places.

Dr. Anthony Robinson calls the greater availability and use of location data via technology, the ‘geospatial revolution’. 

Clearly, technology is incorporating location more than ever. How many of us rely on Google Maps for driving directions? Uber to get a lift? Yelp to pick a nearby restaurant? And you would be surprised at how much the success of Wal-Mart, Amazon, FedEx, or UPS depends on cutting-edge location based technologies. Dr. Anthony Robinson calls this greater availability and use of location data via technology, the ‘geospatial revolution’.

Dr. Robinson is the Lead Faculty for Penn State University’s Online Geospatial Education program, from the Department of Geography. He teaches a course on Coursera, Maps and the Geospatial Revolution, which just started on March 25.

Location is Not Just About Physical Space

‘Location’ can apply to other attributes as well, for example, sentiment. 

As exciting as the new applications for physical location are, Prof. Robinson points out that ‘location’ can apply to other attributes as well, such as sentiment. Let’s say you are looking for a place to enjoy happy hour after work, wouldn’t it be nice to see on a digital map happy hour locations color-coded with a real-time indicator of the cumulative excitement level at each location? Capturing additional attributes allows for a richer description of place. Another example of combining sentiment and location is the popular impromptu social app Tinder. The possibilities are endless, and this is what makes the geospatial revolution so exciting. Prof. Robinson offered his first mapping course on Coursera in the summer of 2013 so that more people can get exposed to these possibilities.

A Course to Make Your Own Maps

The first course had 49,000 people sign up from 200 different countries, making it the largest class on cartography ever held. It is a good time to learn about this topic, because creating digital maps just recently came within reach of the general population. As Prof. Robinson says:

“The ability for a non-expert to create their own maps is a very recent thing in my field” 

In the class, learners will create maps of their own using a free trial version of ArcGIS Online (one of several programs available to create maps). The idea is to create a map that tells a story using data, which can be very personal, perhaps locations of one’s favorite coffee shops or routes of favorite hikes. One woman in the class put together a story map of her father’s journeys around the Pacific Ocean in World War II, embedding scanned pictures and descriptions of places along the way. With this power of mapping at our fingertips, we’re able to create and easily incorporate them into our social web.

“It took me from knowing nothing to being able to create maps using ArcGIS “
– Review by Class Central User 

Location Concerns and Opportunities

Others “don’t seem to have a perception of location being a private thing”. 

Are there downsides to all of this location-based information? There are issues related to privacy, a topic that Prof. Robinson covers in his course. He notes that people hold hold a range of opinions: some are very concerned about privacy and try to disable location information when possible, while others “don’t seem to have a perception of location being a private thing”. There will certainly be new privacy questions society will have to consider and address.

But the geospatial revolution also results in a growing number of career opportunities. For example, these are some areas where people where people can utilize their digital cartography skills:

•  Digital map producers, e.g. Google, Apple, Uber, Yelp, Tinder
•  Data analytics on spatial-related data (e.g. retail flow, market analysis, etc.)
•  Government agencies working in homeland security & emergency management
•  City and urban planning
•  Natural resource management (e.g. energy, water)
•  Wildlife conservation efforts

Many of these areas may require additional skills in programming, database operations, data science, etc., but all can benefit from being able to work with spatial information.

The Future of Education Across Locations

There is something fitting about a Geography professor teaching a MOOC, s breaking down distance is one of the purposes of a MOOC. Prof. Robinson notes that expanding educational reach is essential in the future, so online channels will need to play a big part. But we should not see online as a poor substitute for in-person learning. Properly designed online courses can be just as effective. Also, Prof. Robinson notes that an increasing amount of workplace collaboration occurs across boundaries:

“Most of us are working now at a distance with all, all kinds of people all around the world” 

Learning in a networked online environment can provide collaboration experience that will help us in the working world of the future.

It is projected that within five years over half the world’s population will own smartphones. That is a lot of computing power and spatial information, ready to be leveraged by amazing future applications yet to be made. Ironically, space will become both less and more important. Less important because we will be able to break down geographic barriers and shrink physical space, and more important because we will be able to create “new spaces” in which to interact and engage with each other. Welcome to the geospatial revolution.

If you are interested in taking Prof. Robinson’s course, Maps and the Geospatial Revolution, which just started, you can sign up today.


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