Technical geography is the branch of geography that involves using, studying, and creating tools to obtain, analyze, interpret, understand, and communicate spatial information.[1][2][3][4]

The other branches of geography, most commonly limited to human geography and physical geography, can usually apply the concepts and techniques of technical geography.[2][3][5] However, the methods and theory are distinct, and a technical geographer may be more concerned with the technological and theoretical concepts than the nature of the data.[6][7] Further, a technical geographer may explore the relationship between the spatial technology and the end users to improve upon the technology and better understand the impact of the technology on human behavior.[8] Thus, the spatial data types a technical geographer employs may vary widely, including human and physical geography topics, with the common thread being the techniques and philosophies employed.[9][10] To accomplish this, technical geographers often create their own software or scripts, which can then be applied more broadly by others.[11] They may also explore applying techniques developed for one application to another unrelated topic, such as applying Kriging, originally developed for mining, to disciplines as diverse as real-estate prices.[12][13]

In teaching technical geography, instructors often need to fall back on examples from human and physical geography to explain the theoretical concepts.[14] While technical geography mostly works with quantitative data, the techniques and technology can be applied to qualitative geography, differentiating it from quantitative geography.[1] Within the branch of technical geography are the major and overlapping subbranches of geographic information science, geomatics, and geoinformatics.[6][15]


See also: History of geography

Early history and etymology

Possibly the oldest surviving map has been engraved on this mammoth tusk, dated to 25,000 BC, found from Pavlov in the Czech Republic.
The "Erdapfel" of Martin Behaim is the oldest surviving terrestrial globe, made between 1491 and 1493.

The term "technical geography" is a combination of the words "technical," from the Greek τεχνικός (technikós meaning art or craft), meaning relating to a particular subject or activity and involving practical skills, and "geography," from Greek γεωγραφία (geographia, a combination of Greek words ‘Geo’ (The Earth) and ‘Graphien’ to describe. Literally "earth description"), a field of science devoted to the study of the lands, features, inhabitants, and phenomena of Earth. Technical geography, a distinct term in the English language within the discipline of geography dates back at least as far as 1749 in the publication "Geography reformed: a new system of general geography, according to an accurate analysis of the science in four parts."[7][16] This book, published by English printer Edward Cave at St John's Gate, Clerkenwell,[Note 1] was divided into four parts, one of which was named "containing technical geography." This 1749 book focused on both globes and maps under the section on technical geography, including concepts of cartographic design, and projection.[7] In this book, they stated they chose to use the term "technical geography" rather than "practical geography" to clarify that the branch is distinct in theory and methods.[7] This publication defines technical geography with the following:

"The Description confider'd as to Form is of three Sorts; The first exhibits the Earth, by a Draught or Delineation; the second by Tables, or Regillers; and the third by Treties or Discourse. Hence Technical Geography may be divided into Representatory, Synoptical, and Explanatory."

— Geography reformed: a new system of general geography, according to an accurate analysis of the science in four parts, 1749, [7]

While when the term technical geography first entered the English lexicon may be difficult to ascertain, technical geography as a concept crosses cultures, and techniques date back to the origins of cartography, surveying, and remote sensing. For example, the Kitab al-Buldan (Ya'qubi book), written by Ibn al-Faqih between 902–903 C.E., was described by Henri Massé as "technical geography [including] themes of adab."[17] Technical geography as a term is more than place name recollection and toponymy; it involves spatial relationships between points and theory.[18] A publication titled in 1889 titled "Art of teaching" in the publication "School and Home Education" defined the term "technical" as "especially appropriate to any art or science", and stated that "we never hear teachers questioning whether technical geography shall be taught in the schools."[19] This demonstrates that the concept and term "technical geography" was in common use in the United States by the late 1800s.

20th century

Early 20th century

In 1902, geodesy was suggested as a discipline supporting technical geography.[20] In 1908, geography professor George D. Hubbard included technical geography alongside regional geography, physical geography, and general research as courses that should be taught at in U.S. university geography departments.[21] Here, Hubbard specifies that technical geography refers to topics such as "mathematical or astronomical geography," as well as cartography.[21]

A 1910 publication in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society (now the Geographical Review) introduced the concept of "Scientific geography" and discussed employing the scientific method to geographic concepts.[22] This publication proposed how a field of scientific geography could be organized, and specified that "Phytogeography," "Zoogeography," and "Anthropogeography" could be areas where scientific principles could be applied[22]. While this publication did not use the term technical geography in its description, several later publications explicitly link scientific and technical geography.[23][24]

By 1917, technical geography was included among courses taught at some British schools, alongside mathematics, chemistry, and other natural sciences.[25][Note 2]

As techniques and concepts in technical geography advanced, geographers began to lament the lack of understanding and use of more advanced geographic concepts in society and law.[18] Specifically, this became an issue during The 1930s Michigan-Wisconsin Boundary Case in the Supreme Court of the United States, where the border was not defined with specific technical geographic concepts.[18]

During the 1940s, Oregon State University began focusing on technical geography as part of an applied geography program.[26]

Quantitative revolution

Main article: Quantitative revolution

Technical geography differentiated more clearly during the quantitative revolution in the 1950s and 1960s.[1][27][28] Before this, the techniques and methods of handling spatial information were primarily focused on supporting human or physical geography, rather than a subject of study itself. World War II, which saw the extensive use of cartography and air photos, revolutionized these techniques and brought a new focus on the benefits they offered.[29][30] In the years before the quantitative revolution, geography was generally fragmented and focused on descriptive approaches, and many United States universities were eliminating geography departments around the country. To address this, geographers began to debate the merits of more scientific and methods-based approaches to the discipline and advocate for the benefits these methods had to other technical courses.[31][30][32][33][34][35] Some, such as influential cartographer George Jenks went as far as to suggest that cartography should be a separate academic discipline from geography entirely, even if only at a few academic institutions.[29] This approach was shunned by more traditional geographers, who viewed it as a deviation from how geographers had always viewed and interacted with maps.[36] While how best to approach the technical aspect of geography was heavily debated among geographers, geography departments at universities across the country began to teach a more scientific approach to geography.[37][38][39]

Laws of geography

Main article: Laws of geography

Waldo Tobler in front of the Newberry Library. Chicago, November 2007

The main claim for the quantitative revolution is that it led to a shift from a descriptive (idiographic) geography to an empirical law-making (nomothetic) geography.[40] The first of these laws was proposed by Waldo Tobler in his 1970 paper, "A Computer Movie Simulating Urban Growth in the Detroit Region," and more have been proposed since.[41] In general, like the concept of technical geography, some geographers argue against the idea that laws in geography are necessary or even valid.[42][43][44] These criticisms have been addressed by Tobler and others.[43][44] Examples of these laws include Tobler's first law of geography, Tobler's second law of geography, and Arbia's law of geography.[42][43][44][45][46]

20th century technologies

The 20th century saw the rapid emergence of technologies such as computers, satellites, and the corresponding software to operate them. These technologies rapidly changed how geographers operated, and significant effort went into considering how best to incorporate them into the discipline.[1][47] With these technologies came new disciplines and terms. These terms often compete and overlap with each other, and often originate in separate countries.[48]

Remote sensing

Main article: Remote sensing

The TR-1 reconnaissance/surveillance aircraft

Along with computers and GIS, new spatial data sources emerged during the quantitative revolution. Air photo technology was widely used in World War I and, in subsequent years, was applied to civilian endeavors.[49] A 1941 textbook titled "Aerophotography and Aerosurverying" stated the following in the first line of its preference:

"There is no longer any need to preach for aerial photography-not in the United States- for so widespread has become its use and so great its value that even the farmer who plants his fields in a remote corner of the country knows its value."

Remote sensing technology again advanced rapidly during World War II, and the techniques employed were rapidly assimilated as aids in geographical studies.[50] During the Cold War, advancements in photography, aircraft, and rockets only increased the effectiveness of remote sensing techniques.[51] As the technology became available to the general public, geographers were soon overwhelmed with large volumes of satellite and aerial images. New techniques were required to store, process, analyze, and use this new data source, birthing remote sensing scientists.[51]

Computer cartography and GIS

Main articles: Computer cartography and Geographic information systems

QGIS Interface Screenshot with Map of Median Income in Houston (2010)

Coinciding with the quantitative revolution was the emergence of early computers. The interdisciplinary nature of geography forces geographers to look at developments in other fields, and geographers tend to observe and adapt technological innovations from other disciplines rather than developing unique technologies to conduct geographic studies.[12] Computers were no exception. More than a decade after the first computers were developed, Waldo Tobler published the first paper detailing the use of computers in the map-making process titled "Automation and Cartography" in 1959.[52] While novel in terms of application, the process detailed by Tobler did not allow for storing or analyzing of geographic data. As computer technology progressed and better hardware became available, geographers rapidly adopted the technology to create maps.[53][12] In 1960, Roger Tomlinson created the first true geographic information system, which allowed for storing and analysis of spatial data within a computer.[54] These tools revolutionized the discipline of geography by contributing to the positivist scientific approaches to the discipline during the quantitative revolution.[55] In 1985, Mark Monmonier speculated that computer cartography facilitated by GIS would largely replace traditional pen and paper cartography.[12] Geographers began to heavily debate the place of GIS in geography, with some rejecting its methods, and others heavily advocating for it. In response to critics, British geographer Stan Openshaw stated:

...if geographers reject GIS then it could fundamentally affect the outside world's perception of what geography is all about. Certainly, these external perceptions may well be based on a picture of geography as it once was, but nevertheless they cannot be ignored. "How could they be so foolish as to disown the very core of their discipline?"

With the emergence of GIS, researchers rapidly began to explore methods to use the technology for various geographic problems.[57][56] This led some geographers to declare the study of these methods their own science within geography.[57]

Global Positioning System

Main article: Global Positioning System

GPS constellation system animation

In 1978 the United States military launched the first satellites to enable the modern Global Positioning System, and the system's full capability was made available to the general public in 2000.[58] This facilitated a level of rapid acquisition of spatial coordinates that previously would have been prohibitively expensive. Geographers began studying methods and applications for this data.[1][59]

New Subdisciplines

During the quantitative revolution, several terms originated from the concept that the technologies developed during this period are a focus of independent study.[48] These terms all overlap to some degree, but at least one study indicates they differ substantially enough to continue using.[48] This rush to create new terms may have been detrimental to their popularity, and the researchers proposing them are considered to have possibly been careless or hasty.[48] This has led to some confusion, and properly defining the areas covered by each term is an active field of research.[48] One paper on the topic stated the following:

With the appearance of the next new technologies, immediately, new proposals of new sciences, new subdisciplines, appear. Many authors with great ease announce the origination of a new science, frequently not caring for the proper justification of its name definition. The old definitions, developed in the context of previous technological conditions, remain in the shadow of new technologies, and are not modernised. The lack of specific terminological conditions, determined boundaries, or scopes of such definition use, encourages one to define the next terms, and the next science and research disciplines.

— Artur Krawczyk, [48]
Quantitative geography

Main article: quantitative geography

During the early days of the quantitative revolution, the term quantitative geography emerged as a subdiscipline within technical geography, focusing exclusively on these quantitative methods for handling spatial data.[60][61][62] This part of technical geography focuses on spatial statistics and visualizing spatial information, emphasizing quantitative data and the scientific method.[1][63]


Main article: Geomatics

In 1960, Bernard Dubuisson coined the term "géomatique" in French. Today, it is defined by the ISO/TC 211 as the "discipline concerned with the collection, distribution, storage, analysis, processing, presentation of geographic data or geographic information."[64] It was then popularized in English in Canada as geomatics by Canadians Pierre Gagnon and David Coleman through the 1980s and early 1990s.[48] In Canada, an effort was made to replace and absorb the term geodesy with geomatics; however, this was not successful, and globally, geodesy is generally considered "immutable" as a term.[48] Geomatics was included in the UNESCO EOLSS under technical geography.[1][2]


Main article: geoinformatics

In the late 1980s, the term geoinformatics was coined by Swedish scientist Samuelson and later defined in the 1990s as "the science of integrating four technologies: GIS, remote sensing, photogrammetry and cartography."[48] It was later defined by geographer Michael DeMers as "the science of spatial data processing functions by computer systems."[48][65] This term has been described as being outside the branch of geography entirely and instead placed fully under the discipline of computer science,[48] while other sources place it under the branch of technical geography.[15] Sources have noted that there is no universally accepted definition of geoinformatics.[48]

Geographic Information Science

Main article: Geographic Information Science

In the 1990s, the term Geographic Information Science (GIScience) was coined and popularized in the United States by geographer Michael Frank Goodchild to describe "the subset of information science that is about geographic information."[66][48][57] GIScience is mentioned explicitly as being a separate from quantitative geography,[60] but placed by at least one source under the branch of technical geography.[15] In 1995, the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) was established in the United States to support the field of GIScience, such as the creation of a "model curricula" by geographer Duane Marble to help educators teach GIScience.[67][68] There has been significant debate around the term GIScience, including questioning if it can be considered a science.[69] Many geographers, including Michael Goodchild, continue to advance the use of the term today.[48]

Emergence of critical geography

Main article: Critical geography

In the same 1749 publication in which Cave discussed technical geography, critical geography was considered an important part of the process within geography to correct errors on maps and other products to improve models of the world.[7] In the 1970s, critical geography took on the framework of critical theory and Marxist philosophy, and became an umbrella uniting various theoretical frameworks in geography, including Marxist geography, feminist geography, and radical geography[70][71] In response to the ideas and philosophies advanced during the quantitative revolution, particularly positivism, the term critical geography was applied to ideological and theoretical criticisms of the methods and ideas of technical geographers.[36][72] Other geographers have criticized that geography has moved away from the abstract, unquantifiable aspects of place that are essential to the understanding of geography.[73]

In the history of geography since the quantitative revolution, theorists from critical geography are often viewed as in direct confrontation with those of technical and quantitative geography.[74] Some geographers argue that the rise in popularity of critical geography was largely due to the difficulty in learning the emerging novel technologies.[60][75][76] Some geographers argue that many of the early criticisms brought forward by critical geography of quantitative methods have been addressed with advances in technology, and persist due to ignorance of quantitative geography.[60] Critical geography has also been referred to as antiscience.[60][76]

21st century

As these new technologies and methods are widely applicable to various disciplines, concern grew among geographers that these other non-geographers in other disciplines might become better at using them than geographers.[1] In response to this, in 2006 the peer-reviewed journal Geographia Technica was established to serve as an outlet for research employing quantitative, technical, and scientific methods within geography.[1][77][23]

In a 2016 paper within this journal, Ionel Haidu stated:

"The risk is that non-geographers mastering these methods analyze the spatiotemporal data and information better than the geographers. That is why the need to deal with competition induced by other sciences claiming the geographic space as their subject of study and research becomes a serious challenge for geographers. Geographers need to test and adapt to the new methods, models and procedures and implement them in all fields and development trends of Geography. By these also, Technical Geography as a new line of research and professional training becomes a necessity."

— Ionel Haidu, [1]

Technical geography as a concept re-emerges to correct the historical trend in geography of adapting rather than developing new methods, technologies, and techniques for conducting geographic research by encouraging trained geographers to pursue this line of inquiry.[1][12] While the use of the term "technical geography" itself has been debated since at least the 1700s, concepts within technical geography are often separated from the rest of geography when organizing and categorizing subfields in the discipline.[7] Terms such as "techniques of geographic analysis",[78] "geographic information technology",[79] are used synonymously with the term within textbooks.

Geographic information science and technology body of knowledge

Main article: Geographic Information Science and Technology Body of Knowledge

As technology such as GIS began to dominate geography departments, the need to develop new curriculum to teach the fundamental concepts became apparent.[80] In response to this in 2006 the UCGIS published Geographic Information Science and Technology Body of Knowledge (GISTBoK), building on the "Model curricula" of the mid 90s.[68] The GISTBoK is designed to inform curriculum teaching GIS and other geospatial technologies.[68] While the book does not mention technical geography specifically, it serves as a landmark for the rapid growth of methods associated with technical geography in academic institutions. Today, while GIS&T is a common descriptor for clusters of courses involving concepts described in the GISTBoK, several geography departments use the term technical geography to describe clusters of courses offered that fall under the GIS&T umbrella, including University of Maryland and South Dakota State University.[81][82][83] Babeș-Bolyai University places these courses under the "Department of Physical and Technical Geography."[84]

UNESCO Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems

Main article: Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems

In 2009, UNESCO Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems employed the term technical geography to organize their literature related to geography, establishing a three-branch model of technical, human, and physical geography, referring to human and physical as the primary two.[2][3][6][47] The benefit of this wording is that it is consistent with the other two branches and clearly places the discipline within geography.[85] The categorization of technical geography as a branch is expanded upon by Ionel Haidu in his 2016 paper.[1]


Techniques and tools

Controversy and criticism

Subdividing any discipline is a difficult matter, and geography is no exception.[3] Geography is very fragmented as a discipline, with a history spanning cultures and thousands of years.[86] Other existing models to subdivide the discipline of geography into categories and focuses, including William Pattison's four traditions of geography, may vary dramatically between publications.[87] While the term technical geography has been put forward as a distinct branch and umbrella for these wider concepts, the terms used to describe the study of spatial information as a distinct category vary.[88] When subdividing the discipline within the literature, similar categories—such as "the Spatial Tradition",[87] "techniques of geographic analysis",[78] "geographic information and analysis",[89] "geographic information technology",[79] "geography methods and techniques",[90] "geographic information technology",[79] "scientific geography,"[22][24][91] and "quantitative geography"[92][93]—are used to describe the same, or similar, concepts as technical geography.[3][88] Some of the discrepancy in terminology is due to different cultures and languages having their own method of organization; for example, the term "information geography" is popular in research from China to describe similar concepts.[88] It is closely associated with and sometimes used interchangeably with, the subfields of geographic information science and geoinformatics.[72][94][15] Each term has slightly differing definitions and scopes, and the best word choice has been debated in the literature since at least the 1700s when Cave defended the use of technical geography over practical geography.[7] However, many of these alternative terms or phrases are "grammatically awkward" and do not link the discipline explicitly as a branch of geography in the same way as technical geography.[89]

More controversially, others deny the idea that the thought and techniques of geography constitute a new branch. This argument asserts that geography must be applied and, therefore, must focus on some subset of human or physical geography.[95] They also argue that there is not enough well-established peer-reviewed literature to back the term as a new branch.[95]

Some have brought allegations that technical geography has introduced gender bias into geography departments as the discipline is disproportionately practiced by men and seen by some as more masculine.[72][96]


Main category: Geography journals

Academic programs

Many academic institutions use, or have historically used, the term "technical geography" to either sub-divide their department or describe courses and content offered within their department. These include, but are not limited to:

Influential geographers

Main articles: List of geographers and List of Graeco-Roman geographers

See also


  1. ^ While Cave published the "Geography reformed: a new system of general geography, according to an accurate analysis of the science in four parts", how much he wrote or edited is unclear. Other authors are not given within the text.
  2. ^ The 1917 English review article is unclear on what was included in these British technical geography courses.


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