Explaining the Whys of Where at TED

03-23-2018 01:05 AM
Esri Notable Contributor
5 2 1,953

I recently gave a presentation on The Whys of Where at a TEDx event.  The presentation, available here, focused on these core messages: 

1.  Maps help us understand our world--past and present, and help us plan for a sustainable future.

2.  Maps make our world smarter, healthier, and happier.

3.  Maps have always been rich sources of information but are more relevant than ever to our 21st Century world. 

4.  The digital mapping revolution through GIS affects our everyday lives--how we travel, what we eat, energy, water, health care, supply chain management, and much more.  Web maps produced with GIS have become the common language of the planet. 

5.  Maps are not just "where" things are but "why things are where they are"--relationships, patterns, and trends.  Maps are the "whys of where!"

The call to action in this presentation is:  The world’s problems require spatial thinking and geotechnologies in order to solve them.  Promote problem based learning, spatial thinking, and working with geotechnologies in your school, youth clubs, community colleges, and universities to empower our future decision makers to think critically and spatially.

It was a great honor to be asked to present at TEDx; I did so at the Vail event.  Over the 12 months of preparing for this event, I met visionary and inspiring people from all walks of life from all over the world.  I am now working with several of them to help them integrate mapping technologies to further their own work in humanitarian relief efforts, business, environmental filmmaking, and in additional fields. 

Before the event began, I participated in an event that sought to create solutions for hunger in local areas, including the Eagle-Vail valley in Colorado, called Race4Good.  I created a series of map layers on demographics, food distribution facilities, routes, maps of community gardens, and others, in ArcGIS Online and Business Analyst Web.  I think that mapping tools and data could be very useful in these efforts.  Just as importantly, our groups brought some viable solutions to the community; read more here.  And the best part was working with my fellow TEDx presenters and meeting the founder of Race4Good, Linda Cruse, a relief worker, great humanitarian, and inspirational human being. 

The complete text of my presentation is below along with the slide that I showed with each statement.  I hope the presentation is useful in your own efforts to promote the value of spatial thinking and geotechnologies in education and society.  I look forward to hearing your comments. 


Joseph Kerski appearing in front of a map

More than just about anything else in our modern world, maps are all around us.


An airport map

Maps are something that people are willing to look at long enough…


A route to Vail map

… to learn something from …


A bus system map

… and even prompt them to take action.


Belize students research results on a map

Maps engage, maps inform, maps inspire.


Clay tablet map

Maps have always been rich sources of data, communicating a large amount of information in a small amount of space—whether that space was—in the past, stone tablets…


UK geologic map by William Smith

.. in the dirt, on wood blocks…


Von Humboldt North American Map

… paper, film, and now, in digital form--on our tablets, laptops, phones, in our cars, on our buses, …


Map on a streetside Kiosk

in our neighborhoods.



Joseph shows paper map and slide of paper map

How many of you have lots of paper maps at home?  I do.  Paper maps are useful, but limited.  We cannot easily update them, add information to them, or change their scale.  They aren’t easily transported. 


Show map on phone

Today’s digital maps are much more useful, mobile, and versatile.  They are revolutionizing how we navigate our world…


Map of airport

…how we understand our world…


3D terrain map

and how we can better enable our world for the future. 


City of Rocks in New Mexico

Paper maps are still handy in the field, though, because technology can fail!


A Hurricane map

Maps don’t just tell us WHERE things are, but help us understand WHY they are where they are.   Why do hurricanes occur where they do?


A flood swipe story map

Why do landslides occur more frequently along certain slopes?  How high are the floodwaters down the street from my home right now? 


A zebra mussels map

Why are invasive species like zebra mussels spreading in these directions?


A geo-database.

Today’s maps are not just graphics floating in cyberspace—they are tied to a powerful computer database—a geodatabase—a Geographic Information SYSTEM.


Bio-Nano-Geo Technology graphic

The US Department of Labor identified 3 fast-growing, key fields for the 21st Century:  Biotechnologies, nanotechnologies, and geotechnologies.   Today’s maps are part of geotechnologies.  Geotechnologies include GIS (Geographic Information Systems), GPS (Global Positioning Systems), Remote Sensing, and Web Mapping. 


GIS network graphic

GIS is like an elevator—it works behind the scenes -- you don’t think about it; you just use it.  GIS ensures that your phone got assembled with the right parts:  Supply Chain Management.   GIS ensures that your package got delivered to you and millions of others today the safest, most fuel-efficient manner possible.  GIS allows you to pull up an app that says that Bus F will be at your stop in Vail in 4 Minutes 30 seconds.


Plate Tectonics 1

Let’s examine the world’s plate boundaries, volcanoes, and the last 30 days of earthquakes, asking the “whys of where” questions as we investigate.  What are the reasons for this pattern?  What is the relationship between earthquake locations and magnitude?


Plate Tectonics 2

What is the relationship of earthquake locations and depth?


Plate Tectonics 3

What is the relationship of earthquake locations to volcanoes and to plate boundaries?  How many major cities are within 50 km of these earthquakes?  How many occur in the oceans?  Why should we care?  Tsunamis?


Plate Tectonics 4

We live in a 3D world so we have created 3D GIS tools, here, symbolizing magnitudes as cylinders.


Demographics 1

Let’s investigate population characteristics—demographics—at  scales from national to local.  Median age:  Blue, older.  Red, younger.  Why is Maine older than Texas?


Demographics 2

Scale matters!  When we enlarge the scale, we see different patterns.  Why are the Great Plains older than the West?


Demographics 3

.. and now at the census tract or neighborhood level.  Why is this neighborhood in Vail older than those to the north and west?


Demographics 4

We can add other variables including those that are crowd sourced - such as median income or commuting patterns – to plan effective services, housing, transportation.  The goal?  Sustainable communities.  We are asking a lot of questions, aren’t we?  A good map teaches you to ask a better question.


Map of TEDxVail attendees.

Let’s map where everyone attending this TED talk is from.  Is this the pattern you expected? 


Thanks to a web GIS called ArcGIS Online, this took me all of 5 minutes to create AND share.  


Discuss global challenges

What would be in your Top 10 list of serious challenges facing our world?  Water quality and quantity, Natural hazards, climate, crime

Energy, migration, Political instability  human health, 

Economic inequality   biodiversity loss


They all have a geographic component.  Hence they can be understood using GIS.  We can use our “Whys of Where” investigations to solve these global problems that increasingly affect our everyday lives.


A CDC map of disease patterns

Here, the CDC is using GIS to examine the pattern of health variables not just to treat patients, but to build wellness.


GIS is becoming the  language of the planet

By applying GIS to solve problems in an ever-expanding number of disciplines, maps through GIS are becoming the common language of the planet.   Even in your local government! – Zoning working with assessors, transportation, parks and recreation – around a common set of mapped data. The goal?  A smart city.


Web GIS platform-data-maps-but: -PEOPLE are most important component.

But data and technology are only 2 parts of it.  For PEOPLE to effectively use these tools – we need a population that can:


  • think spatially and critically,
  • that have been immersed in deep and rich field experiences,
  • that can think holistically and across disciplinary boundaries.


Joseph teaching geography Class

Think of your last geography course.  It may bring memories of mind numbing memorization—what are the major exports of Peru?  The capital of North Dakota?   Conversely, it may have sparked your interest in our world.    I hope this was your experience.


Educators working with GIS.

But if geography is fundamental to understanding the world through these mapping tools, why is geography so neglected?


Students working with GIS/GPS outside.

Our high-stakes assessment-focused, subject-divided school system leaves little room for the type of problem-based learning that GIS is a part of.   That’s what these Native students and I were doing on the Santo Domingo Pueblo.  In a semiarid region where soil is a precious resource, they measured gully erosion rates with GIS and GPS.


Map of schools using GIS in USA.

But by working closely with faculty, students, parents, and administrators, schools are now using web-based mapping and field apps in history, geography, language arts, science, technology, engineering, and math classrooms.    

The education community needs your help in turning these thousands of schools using GIS mapped here into TENS of thousands of schools.


Image:  A mentor with student.

Geomentoring is one way to assist a school in their use of mapping technologies. 


Image:  Working together

Your expertise in advocating for and modelling deep learning in schools, after-school clubs, and universities is needed. 


Image – Joseph with question and map.

Maps are the WHYS of WHERE. 

Maps are more relevant than ever before. 

 Will you be a champion for mapping and spatial analysis in education and society? 

How do I end this talk?  I don’t … you do.

 Joseph Kerski at the TEDx event.

It was a great honor to present at TEDx about the Whys of Where.

About the Author
I believe that spatial thinking can transform education and society through the application of Geographic Information Systems for instruction, research, administration, and policy. I hold 3 degrees in Geography, have served at NOAA, the US Census Bureau, and USGS as a cartographer and geographer, and teach a variety of F2F (Face to Face) (including T3G) and online courses. I have authored a variety of books and textbooks about the environment, STEM, GIS, and education. These include "Interpreting Our World", "Essentials of the Environment", "Tribal GIS", "The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data", "International Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS In Secondary Education", "Spatial Mathematics" and others. I write for 2 blogs, 2 monthly podcasts, and a variety of journals, and have created over 5,000 videos on the Our Earth YouTube channel. Yet, as time passes, the more I realize my own limitations and that this is a lifelong learning endeavor and thus I actively seek mentors and collaborators.