Thesis Purpose Statement

I’d like to start with a quote from the Dutch geographer Harm de Blij:

“Even at just a glance, a map can reveal what no amount of description can. Maps are the language of geography, often the most direct and effective way to convey grand ideas or complex theories.”

Which leads me to the problem of geographic illiteracy:

Half of all Americans ages 18–24 can’t locate New York City on a US map. 25% of Dallas high-school students cannot name the country that borders the United States to the south.

This obviously is a problem. How can we maintain our competitive edge in a global economy? With such a limited world-view, how will that affect future foreign policies and our international affairs?


How can geography be made more interesting and relevant to our personal experiences? How can an interactive mapping interface address these problems and make us better-informed citizens? To a lesser-degree, how can searching for information be more stream- lined and logical?

In my research and analysis, I’ve drawn some conclusions:

  1. Geography is not just places & names on a map. It encapsulates history, politics, science, economics, statistics, demographics, ethnography and many other fields of study. Maps are simply its visible, tangible form.
  2. Aside from wayfinding and navigation (which I’m not focusing on), maps depict change, reveal structure, organize time, show hierarchy, track resources, structure knowledge and organize time.
  3. As Mike Migurski and Sarah Williams pointed out in their recent talk, data is never neutral. There is no such thing as “raw data”.
  4. Geographic knowledge can prepare us for current and future challenges, such as climate change, global terrorism and competition with China.
  5. Different people view the world in different ways: spatially, chronologically, hierarchically or structurally.

With this in mind, I’ve set some goals for my thesis:

  • To make learning geography and all it encompasses more interesting, more fun and more intuitive.
  • Create a platform or service that accesses layers of relevant information into a mapping user interface that bridges the gap between Google Maps and Wikipedia.
  • Visualize the connection between an individual’s personal experiences and knowledge to the larger, harder to comprehend story of geography.

Using a map like this, it would be great, for example, if someone could look at a world map and easily understand why Europe colonized the Americas and not China or why crime rates dropped in one city but not another. With all of the relevant information easily at hand, I want the user to be able to make these connections for themselves.

In this process, I’ve been drawing inspiration from some pretty varied sources:

Hans Rosling, for making statistics sexy.

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, authors of Freakonomics, for putting forth some pretty radical economic theories.

BERG London for communicating history and current affairs with smart interactive visualizations.

Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel for advancing the field of geography and giving it a human voice.



Interesting enough, my latest thesis purpose statement echoes some of the ideas I was exploring during Thesis Prep class last April.

A thesis exploration by
Christopher Cannon for the
School of Visual Art's MFA
program in Interaction Design

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