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Have a Spatial New Year!

2013 December 29

Why GeoSpatial is special!

Even at a recent osgeonl event the question whether Geospatial is any Special at all arose. It is a question which never arises at other events I attend, e.g. is (open) innovation special? are science and education special? are startups special (yes, they are awesome). But in the geospatial realm it is a frequent occurrence. We even wonder publicly whether we will exist in a few years’ time.

GeoSpatial is not Special

Geospatial in this sense refers broadly to anything related to geography, geographic information, location, place. Geospatial as a term and a tautology always requires some extra explanation: the Geo-prefix refers to the part of spatial which is ‘on earth’. I assume this is in contrast with SpaceSpatial – the spatial part which takes place in space. The word special refers to the opposite of normal, meaning that it requires a different from normal treatment or a different kind of attention, if you will.

The context and the questions and subsequent remarks regarding why GeoSpatial is not special vary. Sometimes the remarks relate to database technology (geo is just another data type) or web standards (there are all the same as standard IT), or software (a GIS is just like any other information system), processes, people, yep, even to a magazine. From my personal perspective and experience, everyone (I meet) has an interest in maps, geography, location. Most startup ideas involve a location if not a map, most mobile phone conversations start with ‘where are you’ or ‘I am on a train’ and most –many- people anxiously stare at maps, ready to explore them. To claim that GeoSpatial is not Special is to me as if you claim that an atlas is just like a textbook, a photobook or a comic book, but I don’t expect that to be a compelling argument as to why GeoSpatial IS Special to anyone.


A thought experiment

The following thought experiment has helped me to give others a perspective on ‘why Geospatial is special’. I have used this experiment several times with groups of professionals and students (an overlapping qualification, I know). Closing your eyes may help your imagination, but you will need someone to help you through the experiment, by reading the steps below.

Just any object!

Step 1: Imagine an object

Imagine an object, just any object. It may be a fixed object (like a barn) or a movable object (a chair). It even may be a living object (a friend), a subject if you will. Got one?

Step 2: When I say “go”

Next time I say “go”, describe some characteristics of that chosen object. But first: I am telling you that the object you have chosen does *not* have a place. It cannot be found anywhere, not in this world, not in infinity, nor beyond, not even in your mind. Think about that for a second. And now: “go”

Step 3: Describe the object

Please list some characteristics of the object, which does not exist anywhere. Kind of hard? In my experience, we cannot even imagine objects, which have no place. We cannot imagine objects, like a  barn, a chair, a friend, which do not exist anywhere.*


Have a Spatial New Year!

We can imagine a world without (open) innovation (rather boring), science (no knowledge building), education (difficult, but possible), startups, yet we cannot imagine one single object which does not have a place. This is what makes GeoSpatial special.. in a world of objects, place or location is an essential characteristic of objects. And hence an essential part of our world as well. I trust this is a comforting thought for those who think GeoSpatial is about to disappear!

Have a Spatial New Year. I know it will be a special one as well!

…stuff people blog about where they are not working and not supposed to be thinking geographically (it turns out to be rather hard to switch that off).


*the keen observer may notice that ‘time’ is also such an essential characteristic.
I am aware I need to better structure the -valid- argument in order to convince the reasonable agnostic.


2 Responses leave one →
  1. May 7, 2016

    Interesting thought experiment, but surely if we can’t imagine anything physical existing unless it has a location only further establishes the normalcy of spatial attributes. Everything is spatial, so spatial is not special.

    • Jw permalink*
      May 10, 2016

      Thank you for your comment and the opportunity to revisit this topic. I have to admit I have not looked into this for a while, nor have I used that experiment. I use this kind of thought experiment only to get a discussion going, which did work a few times.

      There are severals flaws with this thought experiment and it does not support “spatial is special”. One is that if we cannot imagine objects-without-location (in just a few seconds, or even longer), it does not follow that they cannot exist. If one cannot imagine a footstep on the moon, it does not mean it cannot exist. Also, what if we replace “location” by “colour” or “size”? Can we imagine objects without size? Should we conclude that ‘size is special’, because of that? 

      – I better work on an updated version in order to “convince the reasonable agnostic”. Towards the end of the year seems good timing. Keep on mapping!

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