GEOG 882
Geographic Foundations of Geospatial Intelligence

1.4 What Is Geography?


People use the word "geography" all the time. And while it has many uses and meanings, most people would be at a loss to define what "geography" is. We are going to examine the definition and scope of geography, but before we do, I want to see how you might define "geography."


Without any research or outside help, please return to Lesson 01 in Canvas and enter your short definition of "geography" in the Lesson 01 - Geography Definitions Discussion Forum. If you see another definition you would like to comment on, feel free to post a reply.

Geography Defined

Let us take the word "geography" apart. The word geography can be broken into the two basic elements of "GEO" and "GRAPHY." Geo comes from the Greek word for Earth (the word Gaea, also meaning earth, derives from the Greek as well). The "ography" part comes from the Greek word graphein, which is literally to write about something. The word "graph" derives from the same basis.

Thus GEO + GRAPHY literally means "to write about the Earth." We have commonly come to understand that the translation might also be taken as to describe and map the earth. The American Heritage dictionary defines geography as "the study of the earth and its features, inhabitants, and phenomena." I agree with the dictionary, but I like to tell my students that geography really is the study of how the world works in terms of the physical and human processes that occur everyday.

So for me, Geography is really about how the world works. That is pretty good knowledge for a geospatial analyst to possess.

Breaking it Down

Understanding how the world works is a pretty tall order, so let us break down the study of geography into some manageable parts. At the most basic level, think of geography as a coin with two sides.

  • HEADS: On one side, we have Physical Geography or the study of the spatial distribution and attributes of naturally occurring phenomena.
  • TAILS: On the other side, we have Human Geography or the study of the spatial distribution and attributes of human induced/engineered phenomena.

Physical geography looks at the natural processes that make the surface of the earth the way it is. Physical geography includes the three major subdisciplines of Geomorphology, Meteorology, and Climatology.

Geomorphology is the study of landforms and landform processes. Geomorphologists want to know:

  • What are the different landforms?
  • Where are the different landforms?
  • Why are they where they are?
  • How do they form?
  • What will happen to them over time?

Meteorology is the study of atmospheric weather processes. Meteorologists want to understand:

  • What are the different atmospheric processes that create our weather?
  • Where do these weather phenomena occur?
  • How and why does the planetary weather system work the way it does?
  • What will happen with the weather in the future so they can forecast the weather?

Climatology is the study of climate, which is basically the long term pattern of temperature and precipitation. Climatology, like meteorology, is a branch of the inter-disciplinary field of Atmospheric Science. Climatologists seek to understand:

  • the different climate types found on earth,
  • the processes that cause these different climate types to occur in specific places (i.e. why are there different climate types),
  • the places where these climates occur,
  • how and why climates change over time,
  • and so that they can forecast the effects of climate change, what will happen to the earth's climate in the future.

Human geography looks at the human activities that make the surface of the earth the way it is. Human geography includes numerous subdisciplines, some of which are:

  • population geography
  • cultural geography
  • economic geography
  • political geography
  • and many others

Human geography is essentially synthesizing a spatial perspective with one of the topical disciplines to come up with new knowledge and a new perspective to understand how the world works.


Can you think of some other human geography subdisciplines by combining a topical approach with a spatial perspective? Please return to Lesson 01 in Canvas and enter your list of other human geography subdisciplines in the Lesson 01 - Human Geography Subdisciplines Discussion Forum. Feel free to post comments to other lists you see in the discussion forum.

Geographic Techniques

The world is fortunate that geographers through the ages have developed a set of spatial tools to help us understand how the world works. These tools are often referred to as the geographic techniques and they include the subdisciplines of:

  • Cartography: The art and science of making maps and the oldest of the geographic techniques.
  • Remote Sensing: The art and science of obtaining information about the earth by study from afar.
  • Geographic Information Systems: A GIS is a computer-based system that collects, stores, analyzes, and displays spatial information to solve problems.
  • Global Positioning Systems: The use of a system of satellites, ground stations, and receivers to obtain precise locational information of phenomena on the earth.

Geospatial intelligence relies heavily on the geographic techniques (collectively known as Geographic Information Science and Techniques (GIS&T or GIScience) for the collection, analysis, and communication of results. Your other coursework will involve very detailed explorations and applications of the geographic techniques.

Penn State Public Broadcasting has produced an amazing series of webisodes on the "Geospatial Revolution."

Please take the time to view Episode One of the Geospatial Revolution Series (13:45 running time) and think about how the revolution applies to this lesson.

Click for Transcript of Geospatial Revolution / Episode One.

[low static humming]

[sprawling atmospheric music]

Welcome to the geospatial revolution.

In a world where everybody's texting, geospatial technology is critical to understanding what's happening at a particular location.

It's the speed of the Internet.

It's the capability of remote sensing satellites.

It's software like Google Earth.

Taken altogether, you have an explosion in the way we view the Earth.

Everybody's somewhere, everything's someplace, and a map is a way of organizing
all of that information.

It's information from aircraft, from satellites.

It can be a collection of information from a tower that you've set up.

We've been using maps for hundreds and hundreds of years to know where we are.

Now that nice lady tells me which way to turn.

Turn right then turn left.

Virtually all of the information that you're sharing with anybody these days has some kind
of geospatial tag on it.

It's really the human element.

There's basically this entire information ecosystem that we have access to now.

I can receive information.

I can transmit information.

I can broadcast my location.

And that is revolutionary.

It's amazing. It's cutting-edge.

It's--well, changing the world.

In 1/10 mile, turn right at stop sign.

Some people will call this a GPS.

It's not. It's a GPS receiver.

It is, I think it's fair to say, a miracle of science and technology.

It's able to collect signals from global positioning satellites far up in space.

Each one of them is, every moment of every day, saying, "This is the location that I'm at in orbit around the Earth."

If you know where you are with respect to three satellite points, you can use mathematics
to determine where you must be on the face of the Earth.

There are millions of coordinates encoded in this box.


And it can take those coordinates and render a map on the screen for you.

Turn left on Whitehall Road.

Then turn left in 0.3 miles.

Where do all those coordinates come from?

Where do those streets come from?

Lots and lots of people driving special cars continuously up and down every single road and digitizing those roads into a database that then can be downloaded into this little box.

[electronic beep]

There's nothing new about mapping.

You can imagine without being able to talk, somebody showing where you're going, and draw a line showing where the river is and an X where they are now and an X where they're gonna go.

Viewing the Earth has really been based on technology.

The Babylonians etched the lay of the land on clay tablets in 2300 B.C.

And then in the 15th century, with the advent of printing, they started making maps
using wooden blocks.

Surveyors would map by making measurements in front of them to a reference point and then back behind to the reference point they had just passed.

That information had to be transcribed into a map.

From in the air, it's as if we sent out thousands of surveyors all at once.

Remotely sensed data provides highly accurate measurements of the Earth and the features upon it.

[rocket rumbling]

We rely on satellites for pictures of the Earth, for communications, for navigation, for weather.

Geospatial technology has become woven throughout the fabric of how we live.

About 50 years ago, people came along and started building on big old mainframes
geographic information systems which would integrate on a map information about culture,
about population, about demographics, about physical environment.

GIS allows us to bring it all together.

I used the first commercial GPS receiver.

Took two men to carry it.

Our antenna was a meter-square piece of aluminum.

We had to have a generator for it, massive batteries.

The census bureau in the United States needed to capture all of the line work for roads, railroads, hydrography, and then boundaries.

That formed the basis of the first TIGER files in the late 1980s in support of the 1990 census.

Tiger was an impetus to technological developments like MapQuest, Yahoo, followed by Google.

Google Earth introduced people to the coolness of place.

"I am here. Where's the nearest Starbucks?"

Or, "Where's the nearest hospital?"

Now we're all carrying around GPS.

We've got really rich interfaces that allow us to do things that we would only imagine

On a mobile device, you are the center of the map, and the city is around you, not you see a city and then look for yourself on the map.

It's putting you in the map.

[electronic tone]

[horn honks]

[phone rings]

Say you find yourself in a location that you don't know very well.

You might want to find a place to have dinner.

Well, what places are around?

And which places have other people rated very highly?

Maybe you want a particular kind of food within a 15-minute walk.

I've got not only a restaurant, but I've got the map.

I can find the reviews of it.

I can find out what the menu is.

We're moving away from me having to actively search for something to now search is telling me what I should check out that might be interesting to me.

These are the things where location and search start to come together.

We're becoming individual sensors.

We're creating this huge sensor network of people holding these mobile devices.

And that information is two-way.

[electronic beeping]

It's not just passive collection, listen to your GPS technology tell you how to get to some place.

You're gonna say, "Wait a minute.

"I see a problem.

"I want to report that problem.

I want to see that someone's going to respond to that."

We were playing basketball.

We see, like, the ground keep on moving.

I see a lot of people, some of them dying, like the ceiling, like, killed them.

I have both extended family members and close family members who live in Haiti, and the first reaction was more, like, surreal, "Is this really happening?"

We needed to know where we could go in, and so we used geospatial technology to prepare the area with information before we even got there.

Approximately 2/3 of the cell towers stayed active.

And aid workers and Haitian nationals were posting information saying that they needed help.

I was watching CNN and immediately called our USHAHIDI tech lead in Atlanta.

I told him that we really need to move and set up an USHAHIDI platform for Haiti.

USHAHIDI is an open-source platform for crowd-sourcing crisis information.

Basically, that means you are following local media, Twitter, Facebook, text messages, any sort of information you can get.

Once you aggregate this information, you map it, you have a real-time picture of the actual situation on the ground.

This information can be used by rescue workers or anyone.

With an USHAHIDI platform, you can decide what kind of map you want to use.

OpenStreetMap uses crowd-sourcing to do street mapping.

And within a few days, OpenStreetMap had the most detailed map of Haiti that was available.

There were maps of Haiti before the earthquake, but they just weren't up-to-date anymore.

So people started using donated satellite imagery to trace in OpenStreetMap collapsed buildings, clinics, hospitals.

Within a week or so, we had trained over 100 individuals at Tufts University to map the incidents and the alerts.

And then a text number, 4636, was set up for reporting.

But these text messages were all going to be in Creole.

So we started getting as many Creole-speaking volunteers as possible.

And you go to...

I found out about the 4636 effort through a friend of mine.

So I got online, started getting involved, basically staying up late after putting the kids to bed, try to translate as many text messages as I could.

Our top priority is Port-au-Prince.

It's good.

It's got translations.

There was this energy.

Today's SMS.

People from basically all over the world creating this sort of, like, support system over the internet.

A soccer stadium was serving as a camp for displaced persons.

But we didn't know it was there.

Through USHAHIDI's mapping ability, we knew that that would be a location to take aid.

We wouldn't have seen it without them.

USHAHIDI alerted the world that if you've got needs in Haiti or you're trapped in a building or you're out of food or you're injured and you need help that you can alert us.

Whether you are that person in Des Moines, Iowa, who's reading Twitter or Facebook or you're a Haitian on the ground, with mobile technology and open-sourcing of information, you're suddenly empowered.

I work from California.

Being able to stay online translating those text messages, and you know that that information will be forwarded directly to a specific aid organization.

That made it feel like almost I was on the ground helping.

A map is worth a million words.

Maps communicate with everybody.

That's powerful.

You know, you can make a difference.

You can look at relationships and patterns and processes and models, help save the world.

I don't think we can project 50 years out, but given what we're seeing today, it's just a fantastic explosion of location technology.

And location-based data.

And now we have the devices to read it and capture it and visualize it.

And that's something that's really helping the geospatial revolution truly explode.

Revolutions rarely end up the way they started.

That's almost the definition of a revolution.

[dramatic musical crescendo]

The Relationship of Physical Geography to Human Geography

In an Introduction to Geography classes (usually for freshmen and sophomores) a fellow instructor likes to stress the point that physical and human geography are completely separate disciplines and that there can be NO mixing between the two. In fact, he makes a big deal that they must write this down and put stars by it in their notes as this important point will most certainly be on the test. He then stops and lets them think about this statement as they dutifully write it down.

Now you might be thinking that this contention that physical and human geography are completely separate and can never be mixed seems nonsensical—and you would be correct. Eventually, a few of the students start to grin and perhaps a bold one might challenge the instructor (not very often though).

The instructor then gets to point out to the students the fallacy of such a contention and makes the point that physical and human geography, like the sides of a coin, are absolutely inseparable. We know that physical systems can have enormous impacts on human systems (ask the survivors of Hurricane Katrina). We also know that human impacts on the environment have been great, as humans have always modified the surface of the planet to scratch out a living or to build great civilizations (western Europe had a climax vegetation of forest—consider the landscape there now—forests are rare, protected, and highly valued).

I think that the geographic subdiscipline of Environmental Geography occupies the space in the center of the coin gluing human and physical geography together. A problem in many modern geography programs is that students specialize in either human or physical geography with inadequate knowledge of the other side of the coin. The even greater problem is for students who specialize in the geographic techniques (I affectionately call them "Techno-Geeks") and lack the necessary background in human and physical geography.

Here is the fundamental contention that justifies this whole course:

All of the geospatial technology in the world can tell you what is happening where and when. It may even tell you something about how it is happening. The technology, however, will NOT tell you why it is happening. To understand the why you must understand how the world works—and that is the value of human and physical geographic knowledge.

Required Reading

Now that you have a basic understanding of the definition and scope of geography, study the Wikipedia article on Geography linked from the Lesson 01 Checklist. Compare and contrast what I have said with the article. Are there any significant differences, and if so, why?

The Four Traditions of Geography

There are some other ways to conceptualize the field of geography. Parkinson suggested that geography has four traditions: The Earth Science Tradition, Culture-Environment Tradition, Locational Tradition, and Area Analysis Tradition. Geographic techniques support these traditions. The chart below shows how selected subdisciplines fit within these four traditions.

Geotechniques: Earth Science (ex Climatology) Culture-Environment (ex Culture) Locational (ex Urban) & area analysis (ex Regional approach)
Figure 1: The Four Traditions of Geography.
Credit: Corson, 2007.
All of the subdisciplines with the exception of the Regional Approach are topical approaches. The regional approach breaks the earth down into areas that share certain uniform cultural and physical characteristics. Regional geographers then study the human and physical geography of that particular region. We typically break the world into the cultural regions of: North America, South America, Europe, Russia and the Slavic World, the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australia and Oceania.

Geographic Systems Theory

Yet another approach to understanding the scope of geography is Geographic Systems Theory. A system is a series of components such that when you add energy to it the components work together to produce an output. Take for example a stereo system. A high-end stereo system  includes multiple components like a tuner, turntable, CD player, amplifier, and speakers (maybe headphones). You must plug the stereo in (add energy to it) to get an output of true hi-fidelity music. Open systems exchange both energy and matter with the outside universe. Closed systems exchange only energy.

The earth is a system. Is it a closed system or an open system? The answer is the earth is a closed system in that it exchanges energy with the universe but it does not exchange any significant amount of matter (space junk and meteorites are insignificant—if earth is destroyed by an asteroid I will admit I was wrong).

According to Geographic Systems Theory the earth has two major sub-subsystems, which are the Physical Subsystem and the Human Subsystem. The Physical Subsystem has four major component subsystems of the Atmosphere, Hydrosphere, Lithosphere, and Biosphere. The Human Subsystem has the three major components of Beliefs, Institutions, and Technologies.

The two major sub-subsystems of the earth. Physical and Human See text above image.
Figure 2: The two major sub-subsystems of the earth.
Credit: Corson, 2007.

The atmosphere is the gaseous envelope that surrounds the earth and sustains air-breathing animals. The lithosphere is the solid rock and soil that comprises the outer solid layer of the planet. The hydrosphere includes all the liquid and solid water (water vapor is in the atmosphere). These three spheres are "abiotic" in that they are non-living. The final sphere is the biosphere containing all life. The biosphere relies on the other three abiotic spheres to function for it to sustain life.

A critical part of systems theory is understanding that if one system is significantly degraded then the system function as a whole degrades. And if one system fails, then the whole system fails. If you consider that Planet Earth is the spaceship for the human race, and that we rely on all of its systems to function properly, you start to contemplate why we do not take better care of it. It is the only spacecraft we have and there are no lifeboats.

Geography as Synthesis

Geography is a synthesizing discipline in that geographers take topical subjects and analyze them through the spatial filter, thus seeing the world in new ways. This synthesis is very exciting and liberating in that geographers have the freedom to explore many different subjects and apply topical, chronological, and spatial approaches while integrating both the human and physical world. No other academic discipline takes such a holistic approach, and that makes geography special.

The Necessity for Geographic Literacy

The world is getting smaller, more crowded, and more integrated as the population expands, resources diminish, and globalization brings us all closer together. The US is a "hyper-power" with unprecedented influence around the globe. For the citizens of such a country that is also a democracy comes a duty to be geographically literate—to understand how this planet works in terms of its physical and human geographies. Geographically illiterate citizens will at best be ignorant of what their government is doing globally, and at worst support their government in making bad decisions that are detrimental to national, regional, and global stability and well being.

Globalization means that America will interact with its global neighbors through combinations of cooperation, competition, and (unfortunately) occasional conflicts. Thus it is essential that American citizens be geographically literate so that they may hopefully cooperate most of the time, compete some of the time, and occasionally engage in conflict. Viewed this way, geographic illiteracy might be seen as a threat to national security. Of course this is true for citizens of other nations as well, however national rankings of geography literacy show that our neighbors abroad understand the importance of geographic knowledge and do not suffer our illiteracy.

Geographic literacy for intelligence professionals (especially analysts and managers) is especially important. The geospatial intelligence professional must be geographically literate to fully leverage the power of geographic techniques. To reiterate the fundamental and rationale for this course:

All of the geospatial technology in the world can tell you what is happening where and when. It may even tell you something about how it is happening. The technology, however, will NOT tell you why it is happening. To understand the why, you must understand how the world works—and that is the value of human and physical geographic knowledge.

A geographically illiterate analyst or manager is likely to produce flawed analysis and poor decisions. In the national security arena, this could result in disastrous policy decisions. In the disaster relief/international humanitarian aid arena, this might result in wasted resources and lost lives.

If you get the feeling I am passionate about this topic—you are right. I am on a mission to stamp out geographic illiteracy one classroom full of ignorant people at time. That is a major motivation for me to teach this course to current and future geospatial intelligence professionals.

Required Reading

Why Geography Matters More than Ever (De Blij, Harm J.)

I now want you to read your second reading assignment by the noted geographer Dr. Harm de Blij. Dr. de Blij is an especially well known public figure because he served as the resident geographer of ABC's Good Morning America for several seasons. His book on Why Geography Matters More than Ever is worth your time to read. For our purposes, you will only read chapter one, but if it piques your interest I encourage you to read the whole book.

Registered students can access a PDF of the reading in Lesson 01 in Canvas.

Click the following link to access a PowerPoint Presentation with a review of the Definition, Nature, and Scope of Geography.