Geographic Perspectives with Jack Dangermond

This post was written by Dr. Vicki Phillips.

As students are challenged with 21st-century issues, geography is a skill, insight, and vision that allows learners to better understand the interconnected world. Given the complex social, environmental, and political challenges today’s learners will inherit, we must leverage the power of geography to teach them to measure the impact of our actions. 

That’s why I’m thrilled to continue our conversation series in which I’m asking various educators, thought leaders, and other experts in the field for their take on geography, exploring its many layers, complexities, and applications. Through leaning into the importance and full understanding of geography, we aim to inspire both educators and students to better illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. 

This week’s conversation partner is Jack Dangermond, a long-time member of the National Geographic family and the CEO of Esri. Esri builds tools to help people, and its focus is geographic tools, mapping tools, and spatial analysis tools. Here’s what geography means — in all its iterations — to Jack:

Vicki Phillips (VP): One of the things I know we have in common, Jack, is a love of geography. So let’s start by having you tell us what geography means to you.

Jack Dangermond (JD): As a young graduate student, I was flying home from Minnesota to California. I opened the shade on the windows, I looked out and I saw geography in action. I could see patterns and relationships and processes. And as it got later in the evening, the lights went on and I could see cities as patterns and relationships and processes and systems. This just fascinated me as a kid. I came to realize that geography is the love of my life. It organizes all the content of our world.

Geography is the science of our world. And it’s an organizing principle for all other sciences. I can overlay biology on top of geography. I can overlay human patterns like land uses or where different people live on top of geography. I can see it all together as an integrated whole.

VP: Tell us a little more about how you see geography building bridges and creating connections in your and Esri’s work?

JD: We have thousands of software engineers who build tools to put geographic information into the computer and tools to make maps. And these aren’t just normal maps, like a street map, they’re maps of all the different scientific information, and then tools that allow us to overlay these maps and look through the maps at patterns. Why does a certain disease happen here and not there? Why does a certain plant grow here and not there? You can tell stories about these patterns and their relationships, but in digital geography, we try to abstract the information of observation or measurement into the computer so we can digitally explore and tell stories based on these digital relationships. I’m excited because I can see how things can be interconnected and woven together through this powerful science and the technology of GIS that brings it to life.

VP: As a former teacher, students used to ask me often why they should learn something and geography is such an important discipline in this 21st century. How is it relevant to current thinking? And what is it that you are seeing us be able to do differently with geography in mind?

JD: The summer issue of the National Geographic Magazine described how the world is in trouble and challenged in many ways. Currently, COVID-19 is challenging us and our health. And we’re seeing through the lens of geography the patterns of how that disease is spread. We’re seeing the patterns of how it’s connected to healthcare facilities like hospitals or treatment facilities. We’re seeing where we’re over capacity or under capacity with respect to resources for those particular hospitals. We’re also facing the issues of overpopulation, loss of biodiversity, and climate change, which is challenging our very existence. 

If we’re going to address these challenges and have a healthy planet, we’ve got to use all of our best science, and geography is the organizing science to bring it together. We need to use all of our best technology, and GIS technology is one of the elements of that technology, computing. We’re also going to have to tell stories. We’re going to have to use our best storytelling talent to help people understand what’s going on. And then we’re going to have to use our best design and thinking work to create more sustainable futures.

Geography is a fundamental science for kids of the 21st century. They’ve got to learn how to conserve, they’re going to have to learn how to do things more efficiently, how to create more sustainable patterns. They need geographic education. That doesn’t mean studying geography; it means bringing geographic science and geographic thinking into virtually everything that we do. 

Editor’s note: Vicki wrote about why geography should be part of every 21st-century education; to read her post, click here .

VP: One of the things geography can do, particularly for young people, is to help arm them to take action. What should young people also be thinking about as they think about geography in relation to relevant topics in their lives today?

JD: As context to this, I might say when I started 50 years ago, we were doing little projects like locating a new town in the jungles or picking up the best place for a power plant that avoided environmental disruption. These projects were big, expensive, and took a long time. Gradually these tools got much simpler and cheaper. They became pervasive. Today there are between five and 10 million people that are using these tools to support their profession. GIS is a profession by itself, but it’s also a profession that supports engineering and epidemiology. It supports biological science, it supports hydrography, it supports climate science. So the tools have started to disappear and become enabling for better understanding across all the different activities.

Core to creating a sustainable future and being able to operate in the 21st century is this idea of understanding how things are interconnected. A couple of months ago when COVID started, people didn’t really understand the patterns and relationships of diseases. John Hopkins University in Baltimore started making a little map showing where COVID was emerging in China and then how it jumped and spread virtually to the entire planet. People looked at that map over a trillion times. In other words, half of the world’s population has looked at that map from time to time. Some people look at it every day like they look at the weather report. And this has changed people’s understanding of how things are interrelated and they’ve changed how we understand how disease works, how social interaction works, how social distancing needs to work to combat it. And so that little map, which is a manifestation or a language of geography, changed the world’s perception of how we’re interconnected. 

So what are the other relevant news stories? Climate change, loss of biodiversity. These haven’t shown up at the same level and with the same pattern as COVID did because it’s not yet hitting the consumers right where it hurts. The economy will change over the next year, and there’ll be certain areas that are impacted more than others. And climate change — already we can see through the lens of geography that certain geographies like in Northern Alaska or California are affected more than other places. Geojournalism (geographic thinking in the news and public communication), one of the things that the National Geographic Society has been doing for over a century, will become mainstream in terms of telling stories that people can actually understand.

VP: National Geographic has a big commitment to this generation that we affectionately call #GenGeo. From your perspective, how do we help them make these connections between geographic thinking and finding solutions to the world’s most pressing problems?

JD: I think geographic thinking is innate in all of us. We think spatially, we understand the relationships in space and time. We as professionals optimize how we get to work more efficiently. We pick a place to live. So to answer your question more directly, everybody does operate in a spatial world and some of us are more right-brained than others. They are more spatial, but generally, I think it’s intuitive.

So making the connection between very specific things that each of us does and the broader challenges that the world is facing spatially is a way to communicate. But those examples that I just shared how my users are locating things more efficiently, conserving resources, creating a better world, understanding the relationships between activities, these are things that we have to get people to understand. And we have to create that #GenGeo generation to grow up and be spatially native and geo native, not just digitally native. 

VP: Geography affects us every day in ways big and small, and at National Geographic we’re certainly on a quest to give young people, educators, and others, a more expansive view of geography today. And I can’t thank you enough for sharing your insights. I do have one final question for you, which is, what geography fact fascinates you the most, and why? 

JD: Alaska is the most northern state, it’s the most western state, but did you know it’s the most eastern state also? It has a bunch of islands that are across the Meridian. So there are three dimensions to Alaska. 

Intellectually, the more interesting one to me is that the closer things are in space, the higher probability that they will connect. And this is a law that comes from physics, it’s called gravity modeling. So the size of A, and the size of B, and the probability of them interacting is disproportionate to how far apart they are. This principle applies to virtually everything geographic. I love the idea that things in space interact more frequently, such as “birds of a feather flock together.” All these funny little sayings, they’re all based on geographic or spatial dimensioning. This is the most exciting thing that I can think about in geography.

Read other Geographic Perspectives conversations here. Looking for more stories, ideas, and lesson plans about teaching geography? Click here! And share your definitions of geography on social media — use #ThatsGeography and tag @NatGeoEducation to join the conversation.

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