Magazine article Geographical

Learning to Code

Magazine article Geographical

Learning to Code

Article excerpt

IN MY OPINION, a geography curriculum should require students to learn how to code, ensuring that they're equipped for a changed job market that's increasingly detached from geographic information systems (GIS) as they were originally conceived.

The ability to code relates to basic programming and database skills that enable students to manipulate large and small geographic data sets, and to analyse them in automated and transparent ways. Although it might seem odd for a geographer to want to learn programming languages, we only have to look at geography curriculums from the 1980s to realise that these skills used to be taught.

For example, it wouldn't have been unusual for an undergraduate geographer to learn how to programme a basic statistical model (for example, regression) from base principles in Fortran (a programming language popular at the time) as part of a methods course.

But during the 1990s, the popularisation of graphical user interfaces in software design enabled many statistical, spatial-analysis and mapping operations to be wrapped up within visual and menu-driven interfaces, which were designed to lower the barriers of entry for users of these techniques. Gradually, much GIS teaching has transformed into learning how these software systems operate, albeit within a framework of geographic information science (GISc) concerned with the social and ethical considerations of building representations from geographic data. Some Masters degrees in GISc still require students to code, but few undergraduate courses do so.

The good news is that it's never been more exciting to be a geographer. Huge volumes of spatial data about how the world looks and functions are being collected and disseminated. However, translating such data safely into useful information is a complex task.

During the past ten years, there has been an explosion in new platforms through which geographic data can be processed and visualised. For example, the advent of services such as Google Maps has made it easier for people to create geographical representations online.

However, both the analysis of large volumes of data and the use of these new methods of representation or analysis do require some level of basic programming ability. Furthermore, many of these developments haven't been led by geographers, and there's a real danger that our skill set will be seen as superfluous to these activities in the future without some level of intervention.

Indeed, it's a sobering experience to look through the pages of job advertisements for GIS-type roles in the UK and internationally. …

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