Probing Question: What is the geospatial revolution?

map of New York traffic patterns

Map overlays are available to pinpoint the location of everything ranging from works of art to the best available parking space.

The next time you find yourself endlessly circling the block trying to find parking, you might pull out your smartphone and run Google's Open Spot. You might also try Spotswitch or Primospot—two more of the dozen or so applications that use the global positioning system (GPS) to help you find a parking space.

While easier parking sounds like a trivial convenience, GPS allows anyone to know his or her precise position at any time, anywhere on earth. Previously unimaginable, now almost commonplace, this capability has such far-reaching effects that some researchers call it "the geospatial revolution."

So what, exactly, is this revolution and how is it changing our daily lives?

The geospatial revolution really has two parts, explains Adena Schutzberg, senior lecturer in the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute at Penn State. The first is the technology: the GPS system consists of 24 satellites orbiting the earth. "This constellation of satellites sends radio signals to a GPS receiver that it can use to determine its position," Schutzberg explains. Those receivers, once primarily used by the military, have recently begun to appear in cell phones and cameras. Inexpensive and easy to manufacture, they've become ubiquitous.

The second aspect is access to the information the technology gathers. For instance, everyday users now have greater access to geographical information systems (GIS)—ways of using and representing location data—than ever before. The GPS receiver in your phone, in conjunction with Google Maps (a geographical information system) can show you exactly where you are on a worldwide map. Photographs uploaded to photo-sharing website Flickr can include location data, accurate down to a few meters. And location-aware apps like Yelp can display users reviews of nearby restaurants.

With the variety of online and mobile tools available—some from government entities, but many from private companies—"there are few five-year-olds in the developed world who haven't touched GIS," notes Schutzberg.

Widespread use has changed attitudes, as well, she adds. People have recognized that "an interactive map is not only valuable for answering practical questions such as "Is the road to my child's school plowed yet?" but is something people can master and use in other ways. " For example, games such as Foursquare allow friends to share locations and reward players for "checking in" at GPS-defined venues, and Scvngr (pronounced Scavenger) is a physical challenge and exploration application. Harvard and M.I.T. use Scvngr to introduce students to campus in an involving, high-tech way.

Of course, data-rich maps have a long history, and not just for playing games. Schutzberg offers the example of Dr. John Snow: "In 1854 he mapped out where the cases of cholera were in London. They were clustered around one water pump. He took action and encouraged the local council to remove the handle of the water pump."

Today, Google Flu Trends maps flu outbreaks based on the frequency of flu-related search terms, with surprising accuracy. And aid agencies have used geographical information systems in responding to natural disasters such as the Haiti earthquake.

To Schutzberg, this is the most important aspect of the geospatial revolution: it makes the world a little smaller and easier to understand. "Some of the most revolutionary things are really the simplest," she says, "Collecting the right data and asking the right questions can change the world. Where are the people who do not have food and water? Or who need medical care? How do we get it to them? Those are the most important questions and challenges we face."

Adena Schutzberg, M.S., is a Senior Lecturer in the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute, College of Earth and Mineral Science. She's also the Executive Editor of Directions magazine. She can be reached at abs15@psu.edu.

Last Updated September 14, 2010