Encoding Geography

Stretched view of globe on semicircle with glowing lines radiating upward from countries for network concept

An AAG initiative to increase diversity and computational literacy among all geographers to strengthen our discipline for the future.

Goals of the initiative

Under the Encoding Geography initiative, the American Association of Geographers (AAG) will lead long-term and synergistic efforts to equip all geographers with a sufficient level of literacy in computational thinking and, in doing so, aim for a more diverse participation in our discipline. These efforts will ensure that current and future generations of geographers remain at the forefront of discovery, exploration and understanding of the Earth within an era that is undeniably technological and in which we are interconnected as much through computer code as in other ways.

How will this initiative benefit all geographers?

To broaden the diversity of geographers and to equip them with computational skills is to safeguard our discipline’s continued contributions to the national innovative ecosystem. While it may be true that not everyone needs to know how to write extensive code, geographers who understand what code can do will be able to build connections to other disciplines such as computer science and engineering and lead the way in idea creation and implementation.  This initiative seeks to increase the vibrancy of geography in the following four ways.

First, geographers will gain productivity in the rapidly growing geospatial technology industry. Jobs in this industry increasingly require basic computer programming skills including the automation of GIS tasks, the extraction of qualitative spatial data from social media, the development and management of real-time geodatabases, the manipulation and analysis of spatial big data and, the development, design and management of web-based GIS and geo-visualizations. A 2017 global impact study on geospatial services estimates that this industry creates approximately 4 million direct jobs and generates 400 billion U.S. dollars globally in revenue per year (AlphaBeta, 2017).

Second, geographers will be better prepared for graduate school and/or academic careers. In academia, researchers are increasingly using computational skills for data analysis, modeling and/or to develop research-specific applications and software (Merali, 2010). Consequently, computational thinking is becoming necessary as a preparation for graduate school not only because students will have to write code, but also because they will have to understand code.

Third, geographers will be better equipped to develop a commercial and social entrepreneurial mindset. Geographers already possess an interdisciplinary skillset that gives them great potential to lead organizations and/or scientific research in developing innovative geographic analytical technologies for global challenges such as climate change and international migration crises. Computational thinking will foster their entrepreneurial mindset by understanding the capabilities (and limitations) of computer science to implement their innovative geo-ideas and visualizations through code and further disseminate them through the web.

Fourth, geographers that are more diverse and inclusive will boost the advancement of geographic knowledge and innovation of geospatial data and technologies. Given the evidence that the underrepresentation of women and minorities in geography translate into the workforce (Mazur & Albrecht, 2016) and limits our advancement of geographic and scientific knowledge (Stephens, 2013), broadening their participation will leverage currently untapped potential for innovation in terms of talent and labor force.

How will this initiative benefit society at large?

The social and environmental challenges we are facing are complex and interrelated and addressing them will require continued innovation within our discipline to further advance geographic knowledge. Geographers’ expertise is necessary, particularly their expertise in geographic information, training in spatial thinking and knowledge of the unique challenges associated with spatial data. This expertise is crucial in the analysis of new sources of qualitative and quantitative spatial data, such as those from social media and from high precision remote sensing. Associated with these new sources of data is the automation of tasks and geospatial analyses, which have triggered an increase in the demand for graduates with training in both geographic information and computer programming, but they are hard to find. As a consequence, employers across the public and private sectors face the dilemma to either hire a geographer with limited or no computational skills, or a computer science graduate with limited or no expertise in geographic information or training in spatial thinking. Courses that involve computational thinking are only beginning to appear in geography curricula, yet much is unknown about the effectiveness of these courses in preparing students for the rapidly evolving job market or for the social and environmental challenges we are facing. Additionally, much is unknown about the diversity of students in these more technical computational courses and their motivations to enroll in them. There is however, evidence of an overall underrepresentation of women and minorities in geography education. While this initiative is in the early stages of development, a long term goal is to foster coding knowledge and comprehension not just in geography at large, but also to work towards greater inclusion in geography courses and careers as well as a more diverse discipline.

Get with the Program(ing)!

How to get involved

At the AAG 2018 Annual Meeting there will be a series of workshops throughout the week.

Learn more about these workshops.

Events are being continuously added in support of this initiative. For more information or to get involved, contact Coline Dony