I’m a “professional geographer”. Although many people readily understand those words, most don’t often hear them together. So I’m not sure if they really know what the combination means. Most people seem to think that I’ve memorized all the countries and capitals in the world, or know imports and exports and flags. It usually comes out, eventually among my friends, that I really don’t have much of a sense of direction: I get lost easily and I’m absolutely awful at memorizing. I’m good at maps, though, and I’m well acquainted with the details of social relations. After they realize that I don’t really fall into any typical category with what they expect, the question follows: “What do you actually do as a geographer?”
I don’t make maps. I used to say that I did: it was something quick and easy and gave people something to hang on to. But then I realized that it is really a bit misleading. There are many people who make maps a lot better than I do. Cartographers have to be good at graphical arts: and although I enjoy cartography, it doesn’t really take up much of my time. I taught night classes in university-level cartography in the States; my classes focused on a study that has elements of both art and science. There’s an entire branch of geography that is built around the best way to represent objects on a map; what are the best colours and the best symbology to communicate ideas with the minimum of explanation. It takes a lot of effort to make maps easy to follow, and there are few set rules. I help provide map-makers with the tools and information necessary to make maps: but I don’t do a lot of it myself.
I work a lot with computers, with information stored in a variety of formats. One of the biggest challenges in my line of work is relating sets of data that are represented in different ways. But location is always the key. I give non-spatial database systems a geographic component. Sometimes this is straightforward, as when there is a key such as an address or postal code or coordinates. But often I have to link one database system to another without a simple, common key. This “spatial analysis” is an essential element of what I do. The part of the government where I work has been collecting environmental data for years; some datasets stretch back into the early part of the twentieth century. Only in the last decade have they started making that data spatial, and only in the last year or so have they actively given access to the public.
This is one of the reasons I harp on about what we call “metadata” related to a particular dataset. If you’re going to use data prepared by someone else, it is essential to understand how it was collected, for what reasons, as well as dates and units of measure. I remember once, when I was a student at Penn State, I was doing some fairly complex analysis of some county-level data that I had received from an outside source. This was before the days of standardized documentation; I had received the data but had been given only verbal confirmation of what it contained. I did my analysis and wondered why the results were all coming out three times higher than they did in the surrounding states. Then I realized that what I had been told were measured in feet were actually probably measured in yards. I re-did my analysis and everything came out much more in-line: although I never did confirm the units of measure. I don’t know to this day if they had been using yards or metres. This kind of thing is acceptable for a student’s project, but is a problem when working with government or business. That’s one of the reasons it is important to be consistent over time: do the same analysis using the same measurements and the same tests in different times and places. Otherwise they can’t be compared.
So, what do I do? I work with different database systems, relating them together over space and exploring what kinds of relationships can be discovered. I work hard for standardization: so that this process can be done and these databases, even if they are different, can speak the same “language”. I take it a step further and apply those analyses to people and to cultures: to social conditions and to prevailing attitudes. I rarely draw conclusions regarding direct causation, but I often note that conditions are linked. Those links are known to drive my concerns and my writing.
This post was originally published on geographer70.gather.com