Night Light Maps Open Up New Applications

Much has been written lately in the popular press regarding the new set of satellite images released by NASA showing Earth at Night. Few sources provide a clearer view of human settlement patterns contrasting heavily populated and industrialized areas with those less populated and/or less “plugged in”; while Europe and eastern North America gleam, much of Africa is dark despite its high population, although the Nile Valley and Delta sure stand out.

I particularly like the Earth at Night images for illustrating settlement patterns across Canada: high concentrations show up as the urban archipelago across the nation; there are regular, evenly-dispersed populations across the plainsfarmland of southwestern Ontario and, of course, the Prairies; mountain valleys in the west clearly show linear patterns as do the coastal margins of the Martimes and St. Lawrence and along with rail and road corridors across northern Ontario, while much of the rest of the Canadian Shield is dark except for randomly dispersed mining and logging settlements and First Nations’ communities.

I highly recommend spending a few minutes reading this article by the Earth Observatory, as it provides an insightful glimpse of the tech behind these wonderful images – ideal for anyone pursuing remote sensing.

Ploughshares and Conflict Studies

ploughsharesDYK: In one year (2014), the world spent over $1.6 trillion on the military, over 1/3 of which was spent by one country…the United States.

DYK: The United States spends more on their military than the rest of NATO (#2) China(#3), Saudi Arabia (#4), Russia (#5), India and Japan COMBINED!!

Lately, I’ve been working with my Canadian and World Studies students on Conflict Studies. This has come out of our work in Current Affairs classes (once per week) which seems, every week, to revolve around conflicts. There is always, always, always conflicts in the news, but very little understanding around who is actually involved and why it’s happening in the first place. There is only so much a news organization can bring into a 30-second sound bite, which is what so much of the news is made up of.

ploughsharesEnter Project Ploughshares. Project Ploughshares started back in the 1970s. It grew out of a Mennonite Central Committee background and currently operates as an arms-length project of in the Canadian Council of Churches. To quote its website:

Project Ploughshares takes its name and its vision from the ancient biblical vision in the Book of Isaiah in which the material and human wealth consumed by military preparations are transformed into resources for human development, thereby removing the roots of war itself.

“God shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more.” Isaiah 2:4

The value of is many-fold. It is a local organization to us, operating out of Kitchener, Ontario. It is dedicated to bettering the world: “A secure world without war • A just world at peace”. And, equally important, is its unbiased (read: “not churchy”),  authoritative/credible documentation of the numerous conflicts plaguing the planet today. Each year, it produces an Armed Conflict Report with a summary, interactive map and poster, to summarize the various conflicts, locations, combatants and human toll. My students are using the website to create info-posters to help others understand the background of what’s going on around the world.

It has been a real eye-opener for my students. They are beginning to see the complexity of each conflict with multiple layers of historical background and multi-party support of each side. They are also seeing the huge human toll, not just in news clips of a thousand here and 10,000 there, but in terms of the millions of people who have been internally and externally displaced over the years. They have also come to realize there is a whole area of study at the university level called Peace and Conflict Studies. Just one more realization of “what’s out there”.

Weekend Wandering 9: Are you a Gapminder?

GapminderWhat is it about Sweden and global development statistics? I remember first learning of the Demographic Transition model based on birth and death data from a village in Sweden dating back to 1749. Now, along comes Hans Rosling who is perhaps the most important statistician alive today. He is media savvy as evidenced by his numerous TED Talk appearances. But more importantly, he spreads a message of hope for the world that everyone else is missing. As the TED website says:

In Hans Rosling’s hands, data sings.

HansRoslingYou may know of Hans Rosling from the animated bubble charts he walks you through like a sportscaster. If you’re a geographer and you haven’t heard of him, then you must – right now – watch this 10min TED Talk: Global population growth, box by box. It’s classic Hans Rosling and perhaps his most memorable video. But there’s more – much more.

In an effort to reduce world ignorance about statistics, data and how the world has changed, Hans Rosling and his son Ola, have co-founded the Gapminder Foundation. At their website you will find a number of up-to-date videos, animations and resources for better understanding how data is used constructively to show how the world is changing. If you’re an educator, then have a look at the downloadable teachers’ resources: 200 years that changed the world and  the Quiz about Global Development.

What is particularly interesting is their work in Ignorance with the Ignorance Project. Interestingly, they are using an icon of a chimpanzee. If you watch one of their TED Talk videos, you’ll know why. Basically, they ask intelligent people basic, multiple choice questions about the world and compare their answers to the reality. What becomes instantly apparent is how our knowledge of the world, based on our own personal biases and reinforced by media bias, has given us a rather distorted view of the world, so we are, in fact, out-performed by chimpanzees. Hans Rosling makes his point in this short YouTube clip from a Swedish or Danish television discussion (with English subtitles): Don’t use the media to understand the world. This is supported by data he presents in the TED Talk – How not to be ignorant about the world – where the media score no better than the rest of the public on basic world facts.

But there’s much more (I know, this is sounding like a late-night TV infomercial!) Gapminder has made available in their Downloads section, the Gapminder World Offline version for Mac, Windows and Linux. This will let you and your students “play” with the data – a perfect way for it to come alive in the classroom generating discussion and critical thinking. These are the animated bubble charts I referred to earlier, made famous by Hans Rosling’s ground-breaking TED Talk way back in 2006: The best stats you’ve ever seen. Call me a GeoGeek, but I can still remember watching that video for the first time and being amazed at how the same data and concepts I had been teaching for 15 years suddenly came alive. I couldn’t wait to show my classes and colleagues they next day.

Alternatively, you can go to the Gapminder World page and play with the data directly. The landing page shows the Wealth and Health of Nations, but you can select other charts under “Open Graph Menu” or you can directly choose x- and y-axes to create statistical comparisons. There is also a Map view for visualizing trends in one data point over time for geographic countries and regions. Powerful stuff!

Gapminder-CanadaOne trick I’ve just discovered… In Chart mode you can select “Play” to watch how the data changes over time. Run it through once then drag the time slider back to the start. Now here’s the cool part… Before selecting Play again, select a country: hover your cursor over a bubble to reveal the name. Once you’ve found the country you’re looking for, click on it. Now hit “Play” and you can watch the “trail” that country makes through time. I selected “Canada” and what becomes instantly apparent is the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 (and the end of WWI) and the effects of the Great Depression on incomes in the early 1930s. Very powerful stuff!

I’ve posted this as a Weekend Wandering because it’s the kind of website that just might capture your interest for a few hours. Being a holiday weekend (here in North America, anyway), you can spend your Labour Day Monday delving into the world of Gapminder – Enjoy!

Nepal Earthquake

Sermathang playground and school after the nepal earthquake

 Over the past 12 years, our school – St. John’s-Kilmarnock School – has developed a very close relationship with two villages in the Himalayan foothills northeast of Kathmandu: Sermathang and Thakani. Every two years a team of teachers and senior students travel to Nepal to help maintain the schools: building latrines, refurbishing classrooms and playground areas, painting, and, perhaps most importantly, assisting financially with salaries for teachers. The whole school gets behind the fundraising, 100% of which goes directly to assisting the schools (and none towards the trip itself – those fees are entirely paid for by the families involved). This year we raised over $20,000 to assist the schools over the next two years until we return again.

Sermathang school after the earthquake

So, you can imagine our immense sadness to learn of the impact of the earthquake on the two villages. Both villages and their schools have been razed by the initial earthquake and subsequent aftershocks. We have not yet heard news of deaths, however those with whom we’ve formed close relationships have, as far as we know, survived. Sermathang has begun to receive aid: one helicopter drop and very limited supplies via jeep as the road is near impassible. The residents are currently living in makeshift tents. Thakani residents have had no aid as of yet as they seem to be completely cut off. Update: Food supplies to last a week have been air-lifted into Thakani, thank goodness.

As a school, we have begun a re-newed fundraising campaign to assist our friends in Nepal. Their losses have been complete. With so little to rely on for income, they will be destitute before long. As a community, we have the resources to make a significant contribution to their immediate daily needs and to their long-term re-building projects. In fact, members of our Trek Nepal team have already started the process of collecting aid and making arrangements to have it transported, through various connections with airline industry and people in Nepal, to Sermathang, and, hopefully, to Thakani. The best way to contribute is through financial donations, but they have have also been collecting specific items that are inexpensive to transport, for example, servings of dried soup, water purification tablets and tarpaulins.

If you are so moved to assist with the rebuilding of the schools and villages, then please consider a donation. Small or large, every little bit helps. You can donate directly to the SJK Nepal Fund through CanadaHelps. At the web page, please select “Other” and add a note to say the funds are for SJK Nepal Fund. 100% of the money received by SJK will be directed to assisting the two villages, Sermathang and Thekani.

UPDATE: We now have direct link for donations to the Nepal Schools’ Rebuild Fund.

Donations can also be made to the Canadian Red Cross, UNICEF and the Mennonite Central Committee. This money will assist people across Nepal. As well, donations made prior to May 25 will be matched by the Canadian Government. Please be aware, though – the matching funds, while directed to Nepal, are not necessarily given to the agency you donated to. Rather, it is used at the government’s discretion and may be donated to an outside or international charity for work in Nepal.

Please consider helping, if only a little. If everyone in Canada were to give even $1 – that’s $30 million more than our government has pledged! And, let’s face it, how much is $1 or even $10 to the average Canadian? For more information about Sermathang and Thakani, and updated photos, please visit the SJK Trek Nepal Facebook page.

For more information in Earthquakes, please visit > Lithosphere > Earthquakes.

Weekend Wandering 7: 3rd World Farmer

3rdWorldFarmerI, too, cringe at the title as I am working with my students to stop using the term “3rd world” in favour of “Developing” or “Pre-Industrial”. That being said, the interactive “game” 3rd World Farmer has done more for my students towards creating empathy than anything else I have introduced to them. Suddenly, they realize what life is like for over 2.5 billion people each and every day. And those same students remember the experience for years afterwards.

Players become subsistence farmers with a family, a small plot of land and $50 to start with. They then direct their own destiny by choosing crops to grow and by suffering the hardships subsistence farmers in developing countries endure: civil war, drought, crop failures, ill health, etc. But, they also have an opportunity to invest in increasing the quality of their lives by sending their children to school, upgrading their farm with a shed and livestock, provided they earn the money to do so.

Students quickly realize the odds are stacked against them. However, that doesn’t prevent some from being “successful” in that they earn income and keep their family healthy and educated.

I use this with Grade 7s in my World Studies course along with a spreadsheet to allow them to keep track of how well they meet the goals that any family would expect from life. What is particularly interesting is how quickly they realize how different their goals in the West are from the goals of subsistence farmers.

If you like reality checks and light bulbs going on in students’ minds, then try 3rd World Farmer. I’ve added it to both the Development page on and the Agriculture page.


Just added to – Development page

HDII’ve been using HDI now for 20 years – about when it first came out, I believe. This week, as part of the Changing Populations unit in Canadian geography (Ontario), I will be working with students to develop an HDI-like index using 6 different Quality of Life indicators for 18 countries. They will be looking up the values, researching what the indicators mean and using Google Sheets to create spreadsheet of values and rankings to come up with an overall rank.

TZLifeThe goal of all this, in addition to learning the technical skills of spreadsheets, is to use the data to “predict where Canada’s immigrants will be applying from in the future”. I’m liking this new curriculum and how it is much more action-based.

All this prep had me working over the last little while to bolster the links on the Development page under Anthroposphere. The latest HDI link is there plus links to a variety of other indexes of development including the World Happiness Report, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index and, of course, the Economist’s Big Mac Index. You will also find a link on the page to my photos of Tanzanian Life under Explore. This is part of a growing number of images I am making available to students and teachers for educational use.