On AAG Regions Connect, and the Geographies of Infrastructure

On October 14-16, six out of nine AAG Regional Divisions, the Applied Geography Conference, and the AAG are collaborating to put on an innovative event: a simultaneous, networked conference of annual meetings with in-person, hybrid, and virtual components. Anyone can sign up to give a paper/poster in person at one of the three in-person meetings (the others will be held only virtually due to COVID19), or online, as well as to access virtual content from other regions, virtual professional development workshops organized by AAG, and streamed keynote addresses. This event, AAG Regions Connect: A Joint Climate-Forward Initiative, has two key aims.   

The first goal is to experiment with one potential model for future national AAG meetings, in which participants would be able to take a train, bus, or carpool to a location significantly closer to home than the average national meeting. These would allow for in-person interactions between attendees, while also creating a sense of broader community through streaming of coordinated, higher-profile events such as keynotes and plenaries, happening at different nodes but broadcast to all locations. Current research shows that cars with two or more passengers produce significantly fewer carbon emissions per passenger mile compared to traveling the same distance by commercial flight.   

The possibility of future international nodes could also address barriers to travel across national borders, as well as having very significant CO2 reductions.  In fact, a 2020 commentary published in Nature examined attendance patterns for the 2019 annual American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting. The authors, including AAG member Debbie Hopkins, find that a three-hub meeting held simultaneously in Chicago, Tokyo, and Paris, could, along with 5% virtual attendance, reduce carbon emissions by 79% compared to that meeting (see graphic). Here, the modeled savings are due to the elimination of many intercontinental flights. Indeed 36% of the attendees took intercontinental flights that accounted for about 75% of the 2019 AGU meeting’s travel-related emissions. To see the spatial visualization of attendees’ originating locations, view this graphic by climate physicist Milan Klöwer. 

Image source: Milan Klöwer, “An analysis of ways to decarbonize conference travel after COVID-19,” by Klöwer, Hopkins, Allen, and Higham. Originally published in Nature 583, 356-359 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02057-2.

The second major aim of AAG Regions Connect is to raise the profile of the regional divisions and encourage more North America-based geographers to attend their meetings. The AAG is one of a minority of professional organizations with regional divisions (most, like AGU and the American Anthropological Association have thematic or subfield-based sections; the International Studies Association also has regions, however). Much proverbial ink has been spilled in newsletter columns by former AAG presidents about the benefits of regional meetings and the ways they advance Geography, but also the challenges they face. Recent Past President David Kaplan established a Regional Divisions Task Force to address issues such as governance, related to regions’ dependence on volunteers rather than paid staff; meeting management; lack of recognition for regional leaders’ service; and attendance. The Task Force’s recommendations were accepted by Council and are being implemented, including through AAG Regions Connect.  

Probably the most challenging issue identified by both the task force and many former AAG presidents is the lack of engagement by members of larger departments, particularly those in major research universities, in many regions due to myriad factors including competing demands on time, department cultures that do not prioritize these meetings, and inertia based on past practice. Indeed, I am one of these people; neither my graduate department nor my current department expected or encouraged attendance at regional meetings. As a result, until last year, I have not. As with all conferences, the more people in one’s subfield or professional circle who attend, the more momentum builds, and the more likely attendance is. And yet, there are clearly a lot of inspiring things happening at regional meetings.  

If we as geographers are truly serious about significantly enhancing participation at Regional Division meetings, I believe one of the best ways to do that may be to make such meetings the only option in any given year. That is, attendance at one’s regional divisional meeting, in a networked conference, becomes the national meeting itself, once every two or three years. Of course, this would only be worth trying if Regions are interested – and different Regions may have different stances given their quite varied sizes, histories, and circumstances. There would be many logistical questions to work out, such as whether session organization and calls for papers by specialty groups can be coordinated across regions, and how much content should or could be streamed or virtual versus in-person only. Still, it is one scenario that could build on this year’s AAG Regions Connect initiative to meet dual goals of reducing meeting-related carbon emissions and increasing participation in regional meetings. If you are reading this and haven’t signed up for AAG Regions Connect, I hope you will consider doing so!  

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Virtual and hybrid conferencing are of course dependent, like our entire past year of learning and teaching through the COVID19 pandemic, on digital infrastructure. Yet, we also know that access to basic infrastructure – from indoor plumbing for safe drinking water to the internet – is highly uneven globally and within the United States. As the U.S. House of Representatives debates an infrastructure bill, it seems worth revisiting some basics of the digital divide and discussing how AAG has tried to respond to it.  

Maps highlight the spatiality of the digital divide, including the lack of access to adequate broadband in rural areas and especially in Tribal lands. Indeed, about 27% of households in the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American territory, do not even have access to electricity, making up about 75% of the unelectrified households in the U.S. Over half of Navajo chapters lack broadband access, and more generally about 35% of residents of tribal land in the US do not have access to broadband. Even where it is available, it is significantly more expensive than elsewhere – putting it out of reach for often-impoverished tribal citizens – a result of internet provision being treated as a profit-driven industry rather than as basic infrastructure that is now fundamental to everyday life.   

As an aside, as someone who has done research in a very sparsely populated place (the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in the PRC had an average population density in 2010 of 6.7 people/square miles, comparable to the Navajo nation’s 6.3 people/square miles that year), this seems particularly unacceptable. When I was a graduate student studying Tibetan in Lhasa about two decades ago, dial-up internet was just making an appearance, and was extremely slow and expensive. Today, 99% of TAR villages are covered by 4G, fiber-optic internet with low service fees. I have had better luck being able to access my email traveling around rural Tibet than I have camping not too far from my home in Colorado. Leaving everything else aside, I bring this up simply to state that the current lack of infrastructure in the US is ultimately a choice, not a fact of nature.   

“…the current lack of infrastructure in the US is ultimately a choice, not a fact of nature.”   

Digital inequalities are also severe for Blacks and Latinx Americans, affecting adults and children alike. Disasters such as the COVID19 pandemic both reveal and exacerbate inequality and vulnerability. The switch to remote learning as a result of COVID19 thus produced severe problems for many students at Tribal Colleges & Universities (TCUs), Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs), and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) who do not have access to the computers, software, and internet they need to be able to feasibly complete their coursework.  

This is a national problem that can only be addressed at the national scale. Hopefully, the infrastructure bill currently under consideration, which allocates 65 billion USD (down from the original 100 billion), will make real progress. However, that does not mean there is no role for geographers to play. In mid-2020, AAG Council approved – as one of nine projects selected by the COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force – the Bridging the Digital Divide initiative directed at students most vulnerable to missing out on their geography-related education. This initiative invited faculty who teach Geography classes at TCUs and HBCUs to apply for funding for their students. A small committee, which included faculty from TCUs and HBCUs, selected 23 applications (from 8 TCUs, 14 HBCUs and 1 predominantly Black institution). At a total cost of $238K, the initiative helped students access laptops, internet connections (WIFI hotspots and service), software, and other equipment, while enabling faculty to offer socially distanced classrooms and virtual fieldwork experiences.  

Despite what we all wish, the COVID19 pandemic is far from over, and the first year of the Bridging the Digital Divide initiative confirmed the extensive nature of infrastructural needs. It also demonstrated some other things. Among them, there are very few TCUs or HBCUs with Geography majors. On the other hand, there are many GIS classes and certificates even in the absence of a major or minor, including at 25 out of 37 TCUs. Several faculty members at HBCUs also explicitly articulated the need for more support for geospatial education from college administrators, and observed that the cancellation of internships during COVID19 had a disproportionately significant impact on minority students who cannot rely on other networks for job leads.  

Esri has agreed to partner with AAG to provide additional funding for equipment and licenses through Bridging the Digital Divide. AAG Council has also approved a second round of funding, the call for which will go out soon. Of course, entrenched inequalities are not easily undone, nor can they be approached without humility and reflexivity. Still, as more and more geographers are turning to the study of infrastructure, it is also appropriate for AAG to try to play a part in addressing the digital divide as it concerns geography educators and their students. 

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0100

Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at emily [dot] yeh [at] colorado [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.