Five converging global trends

Five converging global trends may present geography with unprecedented world attention: geo-awareness, geo-enablement, geotechnologies, citizen science and storytelling. Each of these is transforming the audience for geography and the way geography is taught and perceived.

Figure 1: Five converging global trends that present geography with new global opportunities. (Kerski, 2016)

1. Geo-awareness

The world faces complex challenges that are global in nature but also increasingly affect individuals’ everyday lives. Not a few hours pass without the impact of seismic or weather-related hazards on human populations. Changing birth rates, immigration, energy and political instability are issues that impact the politics and economics of nations and the social fabric of local communities. Epidemics impact the entire planet in significant ways. Sustaining agriculture and fisheries are critical to food supplies. The transportation of people and products consume massive amounts of time and energy. Water quality and quantity are fundamental to the existence of humanity.

These challenges, long fundamental to what geographers studied, have now become a part of the public consciousness and everyday conversation. A heightened awareness exists that these issues are serious, affect individuals’ everyday lives and need to be solved. There is also growing realization that they occur somewhere, at multiple scales, with specific spatial distributions, patterns, temporal components and linkages.

2. Geo-enablement

Societies are rapidly moving to an era where everything in everyday life will be geo-enabled. From smartphones to tablets, from webcams recording traffic, bird counts or parking spaces, from Earth-imaging satellites to sensors recording water quality, seismicity and weather, these devices transmit location. As geo-enabling extends to thermostats and appliances in homes, the Internet of Things and smart cities are built. As these measurements become mapped within GIS and remote sensing environments, they become, as Jack Dangermond has said, a “nervous system” for the planet.

3. Geotechnologies

Until recently, geospatial data and related tools, methods and data were used largely by those in GIS and scientific fields. Today, millions of maps and satellite images are viewed hourly. Like music, graphics, Microsoft Office and other tools, GIS is migrating to a cloud-based Software as a Service model. Geographic tools, maps and spatial data have become instantly available in the field, in vehicles, in research labs and just about everywhere. These digital maps have become among the most common type of 21st century media. As data from geo-enabled devices and objects is mapped, the public is becoming conscious of the value of maps in their everyday lives.

4. Citizen Science

The largest part of the Internet of Things' sensor network is not the electronic sensors but the general public.  The public has long been engaged in contributing observations about phenology and birds. Web-based GIS encourages them to contribute data. Information fed to cloud-based services offers to make life more efficient and interesting. Examples include connecting with others through fitness apps, recommending products matching purchasing history and feeding individuals’ current speed to real-time traffic maps so that motorists can avoid snarls. The movements and observations of people, who make up a seven billion strong sensor network, are providing information about the planet as has never been gathered before.

5. Storytelling

For centuries, maps have been valued because they provide a large amount of detail in a small amount of space, and because of their capacity for telling a story. Telling stories through maps began with describing explored lands in great detail against terra incognita. Today, geographic tools, data and multimedia on the web expand the ability and audience for storytelling through maps. Any person with a smartphone or computer can use maps to tell his or her own multimedia-enriched story. These maps span scale, theme and purpose, from Napoleon’s march to this year’s hurricanes, from China’s new highways to where food originates.

During World War II and during the Space Race, a heightened awareness of global affairs translated into calls for increased frequency and rigor in geography and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics education. However, these periods were short-lived and accompanied by setbacks, such as the closure of geography departments. Will the five trends occurring today be enough to generate and sustain the interest of the general public, policymakers and educational administrators? Will this enable geography to become a fundamental, funded, respected subject throughout education and in decision-making throughout society?


Each of today’s issues of concern to the public is fundamentally a geographic one, tied to space and place. To grapple with these issues requires a geoliterate populace that can use geographic information to make wise decisions. To William Pattison, in 1964, geoliteracy included four traditions: spatial, area studies, man-land and earth science. In 1984, researchers Natoli, Boehm, Kracht, Lanegran, Monk and Morrill identified five themes: movement, region, human-environment interaction, location and place. In 2012, Daniel Edelson stated that geoliteracy should include how our world works, how our world is connected, and how to make well-reasoned decisions. I believe that geoliteracy requires cultivation on each of three legs of the stool of geographic literacy: core content, skills in using geographic tools and the geographic perspective. 

Figure 2: Geoliteracy can be conceptualized as being supported by content knowledge, skills, and the geographic perspective. (Kerski, 2016)


Core Content is important, yet often maligned, because it is often equated with memorization of facts. Geography’s core content is richer than facts, involving systems thinking: ecosystems, climate, culture, watersheds, oceans, land use, governments and Earth-Sun relationships. Core content includes natural phenomena (how ocean currents affect climate) and cultural phenomena (sense of place).

Skills include the effective use of geographic tools. While some skills are map-focused (analyzing remotely sensed imagery), others are not (critical thinking, assessing data quality, organizing data, fieldwork, and communications).

Fundamental to skill building is the geographic inquiry process of asking geographic questions, acquiring geographic information, exploring and analyzing data and acting on knowledge gained. Researchers and practitioners advocate that geography should be taught often and deeply, in problem-based learning environments, using difficult to solve “wicked problems.” Fact-based worksheets are minimized; hands-on work, discussion, and communication are maximized. Inquiry includes tackling real issues–landfills, urban greenways, pros and cons of fossil fuels extraction, and implications of population growth and decline. In each case, mapping is seen as the key to understanding patterns, relationships and trends.

The geographic perspective begins with spatial thinking. Geographers see the world through dynamic spatial relationships, operating from the scale of soil chemical bonds to commuting patterns, seasonal variation, and Earth-Sun relationships. The geographic perspective seeks to discover why processes and phenomena occur where they do, including scale, region, diffusion and spatio-temporal relationships. The perspective also includes critical thinking — questioning where data come from, how to manage uncertainty, how problems are framed and the scale at which problems are addressed.

Is geoliteracy becoming increasingly valued?

Each of the five global trends offer geographers unique opportunities to advance the core tenets of the discipline. But is this advancement occurring? Evidence points to increased attention and funding for geoliteracy, such as the National Science Foundation's Road Map for 21st Century Geography Education Project and the community college GeoTech Center, which resulted in the Geospatial Technology Competency Model. The GTCM is clear that successful use of geospatial technologies relies not only on software skills, but upon personal effectiveness competencies (integrity, initiative, and lifelong learning), academic competencies (communications, geography, mathematics, science, and engineering), and workplace competencies (teamwork, creative thinking, problem solving, working with technology, and business fundamentals). The National Academy of Sciences’ Learning to Think Spatially report advocated for intentional teaching of spatial thinking often and early. The Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center and the Spatial Literacy in Teaching initiatives focused on enhancing spatial literacy in higher education.

Seizing the moment: stepping forward

How can the geography and GIS communities seize the opportunity that these trends offer to actively promote the inclusion of geographic content knowledge, skills and perspectives throughout education and society? I offer the following suggestions.  

Explain to the public why geography matters, and how it can help society grapple with key issues. Don’t just talk with people in your own comfort zone, but engage with other disciplines. Demonstrate how maps go beyond indicating the locations of things — they are tools enabling discovery about the world and communities in which we live. Show how digital maps are more useful than paper maps. Demonstrate how maps are essential tools to solve problems throughout society, such as for epidemiologists, climatologists, and business persons.

Show the citizen science community how phenomena can be understood more completely when it is mapped. Cultivate a culture of civic engagement where volunteer efforts are made more visible and local. Take advantage of the longstanding interest that people have for maps, and storytelling traditions, to use web-based dynamic mapping tools. Develop educational activities demonstrably anchored in content standards. Focus on workforce needs, using the Geographic Information Science and Technology Body of Knowledge, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Geospatial Technology Competency Model as guides. Be a geomentor to educators and students. Engage with the research community and the educational policymakers. Show how geotechnologies foster outdoor and place-based education.

Anchor the role that GIS has in understanding how to wisely use 21st Century tools in developing data fluency— its capabilities and limitations. Tell people that geoscientists are well-suited to separate the trivial from the important, and to consider the implications of information on society. Educators are more rapidly adopting geospatial tools due to the advent of web-based GIS tools and a focus on inquiry. Take advantage of these web-based GIS tools to promote analysis, not just visualization.

There is, quite simply, too much at stake to ignore the opportunities that these five forces present.

Getting started

ArcGIS Online: Maps, apps, tools, and data that allow for investigating local to global issues on any device.

StoryMaps: Choose from the thousands available or create your own.

GapMinder: Examine trends in demography, health and economics by country and over time with dynamic graphs and data.

The Urban Observatory: Compare population density, land use and other variables for dozens of the world’s urban areas.

Milson, Andrew, Demirci, Ali, and Kerski, Joseph J. 2012. International Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS in Secondary Schools. Springer, 353 pp. Discover how schools in 33 countries are using geotechnologies.

Esri Education Community blog: Connect to the global community in GIS in education: data, tools, best practices and professional development.

Geography Channel: Place, space, geotechnologies, fieldwork, geography and STEM education with over 3,000 videos.

REFERENCES for "Five Forces Catapulting Geography onto the World Stage"