Neogeography - towards a definition

Over the past day there has been a large discussion about "what is neogeography" in the geoblogosphere. (more posts). It's apparent that, given the quick and large-scale response to the original impetus, that this question has been brewing in the minds of many geo-types.

There are many analogies to draw here - and typical to the geoworld they see their situation as newly evolved, yet the same thing has happened in other, less specialist realms for much longer. Look at journalism vs. blogging, movies vs. television, or any number of other field that has had its identity questioned. My feelings are that GIS and Neogeography are in fact different things - but that doesn't mean they are mutually exclusive.

They have different goals and purposes. Their tools may often overlap, or even be the same in many cases, but probably with much different use cases. As technology advances in a field, and becomes more wide spread, easy to use, and powerful, then tools show up in the general market that enable a broader range of users that don't have the same experience and values as the original audience. This happened when supercomputers came to your pocket so you could figure out the right tip at dinner or check sports scores. I doubt that's what Turing had in mind, but that doesn't make the purpose less important.

An Analogy Extended

A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation at the University of Kansas on just this topic (slides). One parallel I drew was the concept of potentially emerging field of "Neoeconomics". You're an average consumer, planning your family budget. You probably don't buy GEMODEL 3.2 to figure out how much you can spend on travel. Instead, you pull up a spreadsheet program like Excel and pound away entering numbers. You use the right tool for your job.

However, extend that a little further, what if economists could in fact aggregate everyone's private budget together and use this information to forecast purchasing trends, GDP and inflation? They would know expected money flow from the general populace. And now, what if, Economists could syndicate that information back down to everyone to utilized in correcting their budgets based on real expectations. There would be a better estimate of your salary, raise, cost of goods, and general economy. Things you care about for you and your family.

This is what is happening in the geospatial community right now. Neogeographers are creating tools and data for their use and goals, and mashing them up and doing all sorts of new (and not so new) activites with these powerful tools. GIS experts are then utilizing these data and tools for analysis, coordination, and decision support. See the power of a mixture of tools like Google MyMaps, Twitter, Flickr, and MODIS satellite data (one of these things isn't like the others) when put together by a GIS expert for disaster response in the San Diego Fires. Neogeographers, public, and GIS experts working together smoothly. It almost makes me giddy.

So it's not REST, or GoogleEarth, or any data format, single tool, company, or title that makes something GIS or Neogeography. But that gets back to the question, "What is Neogeography"?

The Definition

In doing research for the GISDay 2007 presentation, I looked at the etymology of other terms with neo- prefix and similar terms like colloquial. Also, in my experience writing the book, giving talks, writing geo-tools, consulting, advising, assisting, chatting, and mapping - and most importantly as part of a complete career shift for me from my previous work, I spent a lot of time pondering the concept of Neogeography.

Based on my above thoughts, it has a kinship with the concept of "GIS" but also has different purposes and goals. So it is necessary to demarcate itself from GIS. To this end, I propose a definition.

neogeography |nē'ō-jē-ŏg'rə-fē|

geographical techniques and tools used for personal activities or for utilization by a non-expert group of users; not formal or analytical.

[Greek, from neos, new. and Latin geōgraphia, from Greek geōgraphiā]

neogeographer ne'o·ge·og'ra·pher n.

At least it's a succint phrasing of a concept that we can all collectively discuss. And finally, for just a small illustration: If you're using Tagzania to measure biodiversity of the cuddle-fish, you're doing GIS - if you're using ArcGIS to make a map of your summer vacation, you're doing neogeography.

PS. lazyweb, make me a 'You might be a neogeographer if...' like game for this

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About the Author

Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.