Blog Post

Geography and 21st Century Literacies

This is one of a series of posts from the HASTAC Scholars Geography working group, in which my colleagues and I are sharing some ways we make sense of the connections between geographic and digital modes of learning and creating knowledge.

What I’d like to do in this post is flesh out a bit what geographic literacy consists of, using as a reference point Cathy Davidson’s list of 21st Century literacies (an expanded version in the appendix to her book, Now You See It).  Along the way I provide a few accessible resources for folks who want to teach and learn geographic literacy in our digital age.

The term geo-literacy has been defined by the National Geographic Society as "the ability to use geographic understanding and geographic reasoning to make decisions.”  In this post I am thinking about one particular aspect of geographic literacy, cartographic literacy.  That is, what does it mean to make or use maps in the digital age?  Map-making, map-reading, mapping technologies have all been drastically transformed in the digital age.  What skills and practices need to be honed in order to be geographically or cartographically literate in the 21st Century?

Geographic and cartographic literacy overlap with many literacies on the 21st Century literacies list, and below I suggest how one might use cartography as a framing to teach two of these literacies: Design and Digital Divides, Digital Participation.

But first I propose an addition to the list of literacies: Context and Embeddedness.

Context and Embeddedness:  What are the particular social, biophysical, political-economic, and historical contexts in which our digital tools are embedded?  Even though the digital realm is often framed as placeless and non-physical, what are the material aspects of the digital?

I propose Context and Embeddedness as an addition to the list of 21st Century Literacies, because, although it overlaps with many others on the list (for example:  Network Awareness, Global Consciousness, Data Mining, Sustainability, Ethics), this skill makes more explicit the importance of connecting the digital with social-physical-historical relationships on-the-ground.  In other words, it urges us to ask, how is the digital geographical?

Online maps, like those on paper (perhaps even moreso), are powerful ways of representing reality, regardless of their accuracy, and they serve – among other purposes – as navigational and political tools.  It’s important to know the material implications of mapping and mapping technologies. 

A good place to start may be becoming familiar with the origins of popularly available mapping technologies that pervade our lives and our experience of space.  How did they come to be, how do they work, how are they different than previous technologies, who benefits from them and in what ways? 

Here are a few starting points in terms of basic readings/resources:

-Google's roadmap to global domination NYT Magazine, December 2013. A thought-provoking piece that chronicles the emergence of Google Maps and potential challengers to Google’s “cartographic hegemony” like OpenStreetMap, how street view and “ground-truthing” works, etc. 

-Apple and Google compete to build, maintain a more perfect digital mapping system PBS News hour story, October 2012. On the competition between Apple and Google maps

-Map collector David Rumsey on the on the cartographic continuum between old paper maps and new digital maps

Design:  How is information conveyed differently, effectively, and beautifully in diverse digital forms?  Aesthetics form a key part of digital communication.  How do we understand and practice the elements of good design as part of our communication and interactive practices? (from the Appendix of Now You See It)

Cartographic literacy is a form of visual literacy, and thus maps a tool by which to teach visual literacy and elements of design. 

Here’s an instructive resource to get started on exploring design aspects of maps in the classroom from the Commission on Map Design:

(1) Examples of map design excellence.  Results of a survey that asked for the most expertly designed maps and descriptions of why they illustrate design excellence


(2) Blogging one map a day during 2014, with descriptions   

Teaching elements of map design can be combined with practicing another literacy, Critical Consumption of Information.  As my fellow HASTAC scholar describes in this post, maps make great texts to analyze with students in terms of analyzing the geo-grapher's rhetorical choices, arguments, and how they represent place.

Digital Divides, Digital Participation:  What divisions still remain in digital culture?  Who is included and who is excluded? How do basic aspects of economics and culture dictate not only who participates in the digital age but how they participate? (from the Appendix of Now You See It

In terms of making/using maps, it’s worth asking who is doing the mapping, what is being mapped, and what are the implications of this? Howcan one make digital maps if he or she is not trained to do so, or has fewer resources?

Here are some resources to start exploring these questions:

-Making maps DIY cartography resource blog

-Geocommons open repository for acquiring and sharing maps and data

-TileMill open source design studio for making web maps

-Walking Papers a way to edit OpenStreetMap

…. with more to come from my Geography group colleagues – stay tuned!


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