At the Intersection of Physical and Human Geography

Climate change requires us to think in new ways about how physical and human geographies intersect: how does the one impact the other?  How do human artifacts built for one set of circumstances react to the change in conditions?

Simon Dixon notes on Geography Directions:

We are undeniably living in the age of humankind, the “Anthropocene”, but we are still coming to terms with what this means for the planet and for ourselves. Researchers and policy makers have begun to consider the social and environmental impacts of our increased urbanisation. There are also efforts to understand the impact human activity is having on the surface of the earth more broadly – for example, through the creation of anthropogenic landforms like open-cast mines, and by changing erosion processes in rivers through human activity. However, so far there has been little attention paid to the way earth surface processes are slowly altering and morphing the fabric of our cities to create new, startling and potentially dangerous features.

As his blog post illustrates, using the subject of urban sinkholes, climate change is also a fruitful area of research for geographers and social scientists, because these processes are also happening at/impacting human artifacts and structures.  Remember the giant sinkhole in Japan late last year?

Hakataekimae Avenue near Hakata Station caved in on November 8, 2016, Hakata Ward, Fukuoka City, Fukuoka, Japan. The sinkhole is filled with water. Wikimedia Commons user: Muyo took this photo at the rooftop of Hakata Station JR Hakata City. CCA-SA 4.0

As this post was being written, the nightmare of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey began to unfold, as did the unusually intense monsoon rains in South Asia.  As it affects literally millions of people simultaneously, these events are an even more powerful reminder that physical and human geography intersect in ways that are increasingly unfamiliar.

Houston is a very flat city, as is explained in WorldView Software’s World Geography Case Study: Human Migration: Texas.  Its prosperity has come from the way humans have modified this surface, with railroads, ship channels, and pavement.  However, this makes it prone to flooding when its bayous cannot empty into the Gulf of Mexico.  In a prophetic 2016 series, Pro Publica and the Texas Tribune teamed up to explain why Houston was going to be in dire straits sooner rather than later:

As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes…

This lack of zoning regulations is one of the factors that made Houston America’s fourth-largest city, attracting builders to the area.  But zoning and environmental planning can be useful in a disaster: see WorldView Software’s Civics and U.S. Government Project: Environmental Impact Statements.  As Ian Bogost writes in The Atlantic,

The natural system is very good at accepting rainfall. But when water hits pavement, it creates runoff immediately. That water has to go somewhere. So it flows wherever the grade takes it. To account for that runoff, people engineer systems to move the water away from where it is originally deposited, or to house it in situ, or even to reuse it. This process—the policy, planning, engineering, implementation, and maintenance of urban water systems—is called stormwater management.

On top of that, climate change enters into the picture when it raises the water temperature of the Gulf: higher temperatures make it easier for the air to contain more moisture and for storms to generate more power.  For example, precipitation totals have demonstrably risen the past several decades in the North Atlantic.

The intersection of geographies raises many questions that your students will have to answer in their lifetimes.  How would you deal with a disaster? Check out World Geography‘s Internet Project: The Devastation of Katrina for starting points on imagining yourself in a crisis.  Because the sooner we start imagining the unimaginable, the safer we can make our future.

[See this list compiled by The New York Times for reputable organizations if you want to help the Harvey victims.]


BulbgraphOnOffHelp ELL students acquire vocabulary by using the glossary’s audio files. Definitions + pronunciation = oral and textual word recognition.


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The Top 5 Missed Opportunities

Want to get your class thinking critically about history and politics in hurry? Try this question from the wonderful, unscientific poll of readers of The Neighborhood, conducted by Kendall F. Person:

What is the greatest missed opportunity, that could have altered the reality of race, as our foremost identity, before the idea of identifying ourselves and seeing others as Americans first?

Click the link to see their answers.

Resource Highlight: Libraries+ Network

Had enough of “big data”?  Check out the consortium effort to rescue “small data” created by the U.S. federal government data at the site Libraries+ Network.

The Libraries+ Network is a nascent consortium of research libraries, library organizations, and open data communities with a shared interest in saving, preserving, and making accessible born-digital federal government information upon which researchers, citizens, and communities rely.

The effort is particularly focused on federal agencies who’ve had their funding cut (or are proposed to be eliminated altogether).  Their videos and blog are a terrific way to introduce students to the issues in data gathering, storing, and accessing.

Resource Highlight: Fragile States Index Data

Data used in the Fragile States Index from The Fund for Peace can be used to create many different kinds of visualizations and explorations: scores and rankings, country dashboards, comparative analyses, trend analysis, FSI heat maps, and so on.  Use it to see which indicators FFP says are getting better or worse in a country, to argue over the political importance/relevance of those indicators, and to spark discussions about methodology.

For example, the United States is a stable country, but according to the index it has been worsening over the years:

Data from the U.S. country dashboard

(One irritating thing about the site is that it’s not responsive, so you will have to enlarge the window until the whole thing fits if you don’t want to continually scroll side-to-side.)

Next Generation Civics Education

As Americans gear up to celebrate the 4th of July, we face some unsettling questions about the state of our polity.  One of the most interesting is: What should the next generation of civics education look like?   A recent essay series at The Atlantic offers some ideas about how we can prepare future generations for public participation in a democracy, in particular a democracy that exists in an era of rapid technological change.  This post discusses some of their ideas, and how they can be implemented in the classroom using WorldView Software’s Civics program.In the introduction to the series, Adrienne LaFrance, Irina Raicu, and Eric Goldman write:

Everyone who participated in this series believes there is hope yet—for democracy, and for the institutions that support it. They also believe that technology can help, though it will take time and money to make it so. Democracy can still thrive in this uncertain age, they argue, but not without deliberate and immediate action from the people who believe it is worth protecting.

Debbie Chachra, a professor at Olin College of Engineering, writes in Gratitude for Invisible Systems about the complexity of the systems that undergird modern life, and the need for raising awareness of how systems both physical and regulatory work to fulfill the bottom layers of the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; to keep us safe, fed, and housed as well as informed and connected:

When we think about caring for our neighbors, we think about local churches, and charities—systems embedded in our communities. But I see these technological systems [infrastructure] as one of the main ways that we take care of each other at scale…If I were to make a suggestion for how technology could be used to improve our democracy, I would want to make these systems more visible, understandable, and valued by the general public.

Any course of study in civics has to study how national institutions such as the constellation of bureaucracies work, but also how non-government linking institutions such as the media and political parties work.  All of these institutions are complex creatures, worthy of lifetimes devoted to their study.  But a good outline, such as in WorldView Software’s Civics program — with chapters on each national institution — is a good place to start.

Alexander B. Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, makes the point in Protecting the Public Commons that civics education is inherently about active participation:

Every member of civil society and institution has a role in informing communities about how government works. A core component of a high school education should include teaching people how to judge risk, statistical literacy, and how to exercise our rights to access public information.

WorldView’s Civics starts students on the right path with projects requiring students to track down public data, and case studies demonstrating the kind of risks that are easiest to personalize, such as insurance, fraud, and consumer rights.screen capture of civics title page

Finally, in the essay Lessons From Isaac Asimov’s Multivac, Shannon Vallor, a professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University writes that

Technology’s threat to democracy is not, at its root, that of poorly designed systems (though certainly design improvements can be made). The real threat is when technical progress is relied upon as a substitute for moral progress in cultivating the civic virtues, norms, and values that sustain functional democracies.

A related point is made over at The Scholarly Kitchen, where blogger Kent Anderson draws our attention to the algorithms that impact both what information is aggregated and what information we receive.  Filter bubbles are just part of that picture, possibly even worse is the way algorithms act and interact:

…we have helped to create an information space that is controlled in ways we can only guess at. Algorithms that even their creators don’t fully understand are increasingly exerting control over what we know and believe to be true.

Vallor recommends that platforms such as social media stop assuming users possess civic virtues such as “integrity, courage, empathy, perspective, benevolence, and respect for truth” and start trying to cultivate them. Anderson warns us to be careful there as well: reasserting a human moral compass may require some version of Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” updated for algorithms.

Educators can encourage the growth of these traits as well: WorldView’s Civics program has a theme called “Participating in Public Life” which gathers together materials (overview sections, art images, projects, etc.) that illustrate and/or require students to demonstrate civic virtues through active participation in politics and government, whether local or national, virtual or in-real-life.


BulbgraphOnOffUse the outline page in guided essays to spark in-class discussion on using supporting evidence. Click on “Hint” for ideas.


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Resource Highlight: National Repository of Online Courses (NROC)

The National Repository of Online Courses (NROC) is a library of online course content for students and faculty in higher education, high school and Advanced Placement. It’s a non-profit project of the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education, an education think tank that is well-funded by competency-based education advocates like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  It also receives funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and from NROC member institutions.

Hippocampus.org has video presentations and interactive activities called simulations available in history, government, sociology, and economics.  These are openly available, and the content collections come from Chattanooga State University, National Geographic, Dallas Learning Solutions, the Virginia Historical Society, and Tom Christian and Thorp School District.

Marked as “contributor content” are the Statistics course and Religions of the World course.  These are available to NROC members only.

Resource Highlight: USAFacts.org

We’ve posted before about sources of U.S. government data, but there’s a new kid on the block: USAFacts, the brainchild of Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer. The new site takes publicly available data and makes it easier to query.

Endgadget’s review is mostly glowing: “Oh, and perhaps the most important thing: it’s just beautiful, thanks to help from Seattle-based design firm Artefact. True accessibility requires elegance and simplicity, and USAFacts has it.”

Apparently Ballmer found the existing plethora of resources frustrating according to Recode: “There’s no — at least, I couldn’t find an — integrated source of data, because to me integrated is important. If everything is integrated, everything has to add to 100 percent, no numbers can be taken out of context.”  He wanted something like the 10K report that companies file with the SEC, which is a comprehensive summary report of a company’s performance through financial statements.

CNN says he’s already spent $10 million on researchers in Seattle and at the University of Pennsylvania.  Furthermore, Endgadget reports that he’s willing to spend “several million dollars a year” to keep the service up and running — an important consideration when many transparency initiatives wither after the initial burst of enthusiasm and funding.

But TechDirt notes that the site is not without problems:

“The problem with Ballmer’s site is that it’s not properly open. There isn’t (enough) linking back to source data; there aren’t ways to examine how conclusions are reached; you can’t, in most cases, download their data…In many ways, it’s a black box – it tells you what they say the numbers say, but if you want to be certain, you don’t have any way to query the data properly…It’s a useful start, but it’s honestly hard to see it as $10m worth of a start. Three things that would improve it at once: 1) link back to the source material for each dataset; 2) show the working (and any conflicts in the data; 3) make the datasets downloadable in something other than PDF.

We recommend the site as a way of getting your students’ feet wet with data.  For deeper dives, there are more complete sources, where you can also see how the data were generated and download the datasets.


BulbgraphOnOffClicking on “Questions for Thought” in the overview brings up questions to focus poor readers on the section’s content.


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