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January 8th, 2011
Why ‘Where’ Matters

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whywheremattersGeospatial technologies have evolved to become not only widely popular but necessary for those seeking to generate an economic advantage. Individuals, businesses and governments can all gain the benefits of location based applications. ‘Why ‘Where’ Matters: Understanding and Profiting from GPS, GIS and Remote Sensing’ is written so anyone can understand location-based tools and other geospatial technologies under new economic circumstances.  

Why ‘Where’ Matters: Understanding and Profiting from GPS, GIS and Remote Sensing

Practical Advice for Individuals, Communities, Companies and Countries


Dr. Bob Ryerson


Dr. Stan Aronoff

KIM Geomatics Corporation

ISBN: 9780986637605   2010   379 pages


Review by Jeff Thurston

It has been estimated that around 80% of everything that occurs will have a location tied to it. This has been known by the geospatial community (and many others) for a long time. The importance of location is the heart and foundation of location-based services – many of which are more fully being recognised by the general community only recently. However, the ‘why’ part of the equation, and understanding the rationale behind their use is less well understood – and exploited.  The authors of this book attempt to explain some of the mystery surrounding that importance, and to explain how the pieces link together from technologies to applications. 

The authors begin on a historic note, explaining the history of geography and various location elements. Opening on the topic of GeoEconomy and pointing out the connection of economy to geography, the book quickly moves to discussing the work of Jared Diamond who postulated that some osrt of geo-luck was involved the evolution of different human developments are the world. In other words, favorably agricultural environments (climate, soil, disease, water) led to the development of advanced agrarian societies. Alternatively, societies oriented toward military endeavor were unlucky to have conflict ridden associations nearby – perhaps shortages of water, food or some other factor. 

They attempt to explain why the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain as compared to the United States Geological Survey has developed. The book outlines the relationship of the state in relation to development, noting in the case of China, that the country’s land use was fully mapped in 1984 through the use of satellite technology. 

Several interesting pictures, both in black and white as well as color, accompany the text. Readers will find these images a bit on the small side, but nevertheless interesting. Images from the work of Ian McHarg’s ‘Design with Nature’ are provided and lend insight to the discussion of land use palnning and geographic information systems (GIS) – which the authors point out, are best exploited through the use of GIS.

The GeoEconomy originates in the declaration of the United Nations of 1999 that stipulated the importance of geospatial knowledge and technology toward the building of national spatial data infrastructures (SDI). While many countries now have SDI, the linkages to economic development remain tenuous in many places, requiring greater promotion and comittment, many of us would observe.  However, work is proceeding where efforts in the U.S. are connecting to the national government and the European development of INSPIRE (European SDI) has a Directive in place that was passed by the European Union. 

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are described, thankfully not repeating the basics, but moreso through describing their use in agriculture, emergency and field data gathering technique. The authors mention that in the early 1980’s reports existed that indicated the market for GPS was likely not to grow beyond 25,000 units or so. Today of course we know that to be well off the mark, with the market currently including mobile phones, OEM boards in a myriad of devices and well beyond 5 million and growing wildly. 

“Remote sensing is the canary in the coal mine” the authors say. That in reference to the fact that the technology is one of few that can so dramatically detect landscape change, highlighting the value of remotely sensed imagery. Several satellite based sensors and companies are presented including ERS-1, ITRES, HyVista, RADARSAT, GeoEye, DigitalGlobe, LandSAT, NASA JPL, MERIS, TerraSAR-X and SRTM. A section on LiDAR is available that describes what the technology is, how it works and where it is being applied.  I found myself wanting more examples on the use of these technologies and less talk about the sensors, since, much of that material is available elsewhere and already known. This raises the issue of the book theme – knowing why ‘where’ matters – and what remote sensing contributes to that. 

As Canada’s National Atlas became 100 years old, the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing convinced the government to include an old map and a RADARSAT image on the back of the $100 Canadian note. This of course led to differences of scale, making the Vancouver Islands appear connected to the mainland – which everyone knew was not the case.  The furor subsided only with discussion what a map versus a representation is – pretty basic communication, although not in political circles. The book is filled with anecdotes like this. 

The book provides insight into how people think about value as it relates to maps, charts and visual representation. While including mention of the Open Geospatial Consortium, and the need for standards, the book addresses more pragmatic issues like “who gets sued for using wrong data?” We all ask that daily, and it is a valid question, particularly given that we have no published standards that specifically say certain kinds of geospatial data may be used for specific applications and situations. The authors plant the seed in our mind though, work needs to be done still.

Throughout the text the word ‘Implication’ arises. What are the implications for industry in using remote sensing? What are the implications for the individual using GIS? What are the implications for governments?. Each time the text asks, and answers these questions or includes highlight points, readers recalibrate their thoughts, bring thoughts into awareness and ponder the technology a bit deeper. Thus, the approach of using questions is effective. 

“Organizations came to realize that they no longer had the option of whether or not to use geospatial data and related technology – it was only a question of what would be the best strategy to adopt it.”

“The GeoEconomy has been joined – the GeoEconomy has left the station. Those who use geospatial data inefficiently (or not at all) will be left behind.”

These are points that those who ‘get it’ easily see and know about. But I suspect that many people who work with spatial data, are well intentioned, and would dearly like to board the train, but are hindered by ancient government thinkers, organizational boundaries and budgetary constraints. I found myself staring into the book, gritting my teeth, and wondering how can we get these people into situations that harness all this goodness – the scope of what the authors are talking about? A more holistic view is mentioned. Raising expectations may be another route and greater transparency (so we can see definitively where it is NOT working), may be other options.

“The education system system generally teaches so little about maps, let alone other geospatial tools, that most students graduate university never having learned this means for communicating information. It is as naive as believing everything that is written in a book or seen in commercial message.” This point may be true I suppose, though many would suggest that the purpose of education is to teach critical thinking. Perhaps, the question is “how can we use map technologies to teach and augment critical thinking skills?” In my book teaching tools alone is training. 

I like this book. It causes the reader to scratch his or her head and begin to think of new possibilities for applying geospatial technologies. Those unfamiliar with geospatial technologies, particularly in large organizations and governments will find that this book helps them to see a bigger picture – one where they can see what they are doing might fit in. For individuals it raises the questions around the basic use of geospatial technologies and how they might be applied in daily tasks and work flows. 

Although many people past and present have discussed the geo-advantage and the return-on-investment angle of geotechnologies to the enterprise, Ryerson and Aronoff neatly weave the technology basics into an interesting, thought provoking pattern of heightened awareness linking individuals to global scale possibilities for improving the world. This book goes a long way toward answering Why ‘Where’ Matters.  

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