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.


The Tribes of London: London OAC Supergroups

I’m always amazed at how way leads to way when surfing the Internet.

This morning, I thought I’d have a look at some geography blogs, just to see “what’s out there”. I subscribe to a few different geography magazines – Canadian Geographic, the Geographical, National Geographic – as well as others that relate to geography such as the Alternatives Journal and New Internationalist. But more and more frequently, I’m finding the content of magazines, while interesting, not entirely engaging. And when consumer-oriented geoinformation is engaging, it becomes melodramatic and too focus on the unique (and sometimes outrageous) experiences of a few people. Many travel magazines fall into this last category.

So, more and more, I’m turning to blogs, particularly those being maintained by geographers doing geography. This morning, I came across the blog Geo: Geography and the Environment. It’s an off-shoot of the peer-reviewed journal, Geo. I was pleased to see it is British in origin; from my experience of three years teaching geography in England, I know geography is alive and well – perhaps the strongest geography program in any secondary setting in the world.

The blog has numerous fascinating insights into what is being done in geography today – cutting edge stuff that forces me to think. Yes – that’s the difference. The articles in many consumer-oriented magazines are predictable; the same old same old, re-packaged in a different context, but few insights that are new or thought-provoking.

I started off reading about the “Geographies of Openness and Information” which charts the spatial distribution of national-level domain names. Of even greater interest to me, with my bent towards wildlife populations, was the article following: “Learning from guano: In search of a paleo-seabird proxy“. It was a year ago next month that I led a group of 23 Grade 8s, 9s and 11s to Galápagos to take part in on-the-ground conservation research, so, to see how researchers are making use of seemingly disparate data and concepts of crater lakes, Nitogen isotopes and anchovy populations in an historical and pre-history context, is, to me, fascinating.

I particularly enjoyed “Mapping the Tribes of London“. The title itself is fascinating, but what I found was a new way of imagining and describing different “cultures” across the human landscape. It immediately got me thinking about my own neighbourhood. I also checked out places I am familiar with from my years in England. Based on census data, researchers are able to predict the type of people living in specific areas: urbanites, suburbanites, constrained cits dwellers, multicultural metropolitans, for example. It would be an interesting comparative study of the structurally homogenous neighbourhoods in my city of Guelph, here in Canada, with my former city of Chelmsford, UK, with structurally heterogenous neighbourhoods: how different is the human mix of people in the quite different styles of neighbourhoods? Are heterogenous neighbourhoods “superior” (however that may be defined) to structurally homogenous neighbourhoods of the same age? Sounds like a Masters or PhD thesis in the making.

Of course, the hazard in this approach is that it may over-average groups of people into homogenous pods within a neighbourhood, but it seems their scale is large enough to allow for variability within a neighbourhood. The data has been mapped as “OACs” (Output Area Classifications) for the country, and, within London as London OACs or LOACs. I’ve linked each of these to map views from the Datashine website – which, in itself, is a true Weekend Wandering. It makes our Statistics Canada look downright dinosaurian.

As well, the term “tribe” seems to be ill-used. While there is a certain level of homogeneity within a tribe (bringing in the idea of Tobler’s first law of geography: “All things are related, but nearby things are more related (similar) than far away things”), within a traditional tribe, there would be daily or, at least, regular interactions within the tribe. Whereas, with this use of “tribe” people of the same tribe may never interact even though they live in the same neighbourhood and ride the same train to work – so are they really a “tribe”.

Much exploration here and much thought needed around this idea of breaking down a country or city into “tribes”. Very dangerous from my North American point of view, which causes me to eschew the hierarchies and divisions my ancestors escaped from and tried not to repeat here in Canada. But that’s a whole other topic for discussion.

Weekend Wandering 10: Reading the ABCs from Space


Back in December of last year, one of the most visually interesting of NASA Earth Observatory’s Features was released – Reading the ABCs from Space. Initially, it sounds a bit juvenile, like being back in Primary School, but when you start looking at the satellite images and the captions below, one becomes more and more engrossed (at least, I did!)

It got me thinking about how to use a resource like this for more than its face value. Right now, my students are working through constructive and destructive geologic processes that form the various types of landforms around the world and it occurred to me that they should be able to make some connections between what they are learning and what the various images show. It needs more thought and a more robust framework. but it’s an idea that will simmer quietly in the background between now and when I present the course again next year.

As my wife Laurie said, “There’s a children’s book in this!” Hmmmmmmm.


Improving Your Hallowe’en Haul

Trick or Treat DensityHere’s a take on statistics that will rot your teeth! has created a series of maps that use census data to predict where the best neighbourhoods are for trick or treating tonight. Just visit the Trick-or-Treat Density map, type your city or town into the Search field and away you go! There is also a slightly different version called Trick-or-Treat Onslaught.

It is nothing short of a brilliant implementation and thoughtful use of statistics and GIS (not to mention colour!) using the mapping API from Leaflet. Kids can use geography to predict candy haul based on the density of trick-or-treating-aged kids living in a neighbourhood. To quote

This map shows the number of children of prime trick-or-treating age as defined by Stats Canada per km². In plain terms, we map the percentage of children aged 5 to 14 per area.

CensusMapper Drill DownBe sure to click on a census area for a pop-up with more statistics. And if you are really keen, click on the “more…” button on the pop-up to graphically drill down into the data for that segment – very cool!

Even better, though, at least from an academic perspective, are the myriad other maps has created:

and others that deal a range of topics from religion to young adults living at home. Each map is searchable by place name throughout Canada making comparisons between urban areas and rural and urban areas just a jew clicks away. While many of the topics are beyond Grade 9 Geography, they would be welcome for developing higher-order thinking and conceptualization in senior geography courses.

But in the meantime, hand this over to your kids so they can plan their route for tonight’s Hallowe’en outing. And, while they’re out, have them collect non-perishable food items on behalf of your local food bank and the national We Scare Hunger campaign.

Happy Hallowe’en!

Storytelling with Maps

StoryMapsI’ve been doing some research of late on how to better integrate ArcGIS into my classroom and I came across Story Maps by ESRI. ESRI and their app ArcGIS have been the de facto GIS software for schools (at least here in Ontario) since GIS was first taught in high school in the late 1990s.

I was an early adopter of the technology having taken the summer courses at Wilfred Laurier University since the days of the pixel-based IDRISI platform. I taught the Gr 11 (Ontario) GIS course for two years before taking up a teaching position overseas at a Tanzania school where the technology was unaffordable. Upon moving to the UK, where we taught cutting edge geography concepts and field work, I was quite surprised to find GIS not in the programme and began to rethink the role of GIS in introductory high school geography courses (e.g. Gr 9 Canadian Geography in Ontario). I came to the conclusion that while it was important to introduce the concepts of GIS and the applications available and even have the students work with it, what is more important is for students to understand basic geography first.

What I was seeing from the immersion of high school students in GIS applications was a lot of “recipe” labs where students click buttons and add data and make spectacular maps, with almost no understanding of the geography behind the scenario and with very little in-depth analysis about the causes, effects and solutions of the problems they were addressing with GIS. Often, the basic geography was completely replaced by learning how to use the software – fine for an IT course, but not for geography (in my opinion, anyway).

A few teachers do it very well, but, for the most part it seems, students are following pre-set instructions and not thinking for themselves. Instead of clicking through a recipe, I’d rather my students leave the technology behind and spend the time thinking through causes and effects from a variety of perspectives them coming up with solutions to address the different perspectives. But I seem to be in the minority on this.

Call me an “old fart” but, for the first time in my long teaching career (most of it at the high school level), I’m having my Gr 7 class build 3D landforms this year. For the past three years we have studied landforms using topographic maps (real and online) and Google Earth (3D and profiles), but many of these very bright and engaged (and well-travelled) students still had trouble conceptualizing and truly understanding three-dimensional landscapes from flat maps and screens – so its back to the basics. Besides, imagine the fun we’ll have! And, no, the geography won’t be lost in the activity! The 3D landforms will be a great jumping-off point for topics like mountain-building, volcanism, erosion, flooding, agriculture, etc.

Coming across the concept of storytelling with maps seems to fit more closely with how I view geography in high schools. There are a number of excellent story maps that may be used to teach various concepts in geography, for example:Anthropocene

Many other story maps have been created where geography is the platform for understanding other disciplines such as history, human rights, biology, sporttourism/gardens, and policing.

I’m not saying that students should be producing story maps like this in Gr 9 Geography. While it would be a great outcome and would allow them to integrate the technology with the concepts in s a summative project, once again, the geography is too easily lost in the production. However, as an interdisciplinary unit (e.g. IB MYP Individuals & Societies + Language and Literature or I&S + Design) combining the geography and the story telling would be just about ideal.

Take a few minutes to visit the ESRI Story Map site and, if you’re like me, you’ll be there for a while, exploring and thinking “Hmmm, how can I bring this to the classroom?”

Mercator’s Birthday – Google Doodle

MecatorIn case you missed it, the Google Doodle for today (at least at commemorates the birth of Gerardus Mercator on this day in 1512. Mercator is well known for his new and revolutionary 1569 map of the world. While his projection has, of late, come under criticism for its distortion of the areas further from the Equator, making countries in the northern hemisphere appear more spatially dominant than they are, at the time of its creation, it was essential for sailing ships. With its straight-line grid of latitude and longitude, constant bearings of sailing ships could be shown as straight lines on the map. Due to its importance at the time and for decades (centuries?) thereafter, the Mercator projection is the most common map projection around.

Now, if we can only get Google Maps and Bing Maps and all the other online map companies to move away from the Mercator projection, we might finally get a more realistic view of the world!