DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based earth-imaging company whose clients include the Defense Department and Google Earth, has reached the extreme limit of photographic resolution allowed by law, producing photos so detailed that you can see not only parked cars but their windshields. Remote-sensing hasn't yet seen inside buildings, but there's no reason to think that capability isn't coming.
It's the oh-wow side of new geography. Geographic information systems, or GIS, is the other side of the story. It has made geography a crucial partner with almost every other field of human endeavor by quickly integrating vast, interdisciplinary troves of information.
What has that to do with you, the traveler? Plenty. Every time you search for something on the Internet — fish and chip shops on London's Portobello Road, camping sites on the Big Sur coast — and click on an interactive map, you're using GIS.
Today GIS helps medical researchers understand the spread of disease, farmers know which crop to plant where and biologists preserve endangered species. Using satellite imagery, real-time GPS functions and even geo-referenced social media, it guides advertising and market research, the siting of stores and factories, delivery and shipping routes.
The GIS revolution, which started about the same time as remote-sensing, took shape when geographers began fooling around with computers, amalgamating and digitizing layers of data in the context of a map.
"What emerged was a quantitative revolution in geography. Once you digitize the data, you can actually begin to analyze patterns and relationships in space," said Jack Dangermond, founder and president of Esri, a company that supplies geography-based computational tools to almost every company on the Fortune 1,000 list.
Laypeople are finding a surprising level of user-friendliness in even more sophisticated GIS tools, such as Esri's ArcGIS Online, a new subscription-based service (with a 30-day free trial) that makes 100 million maps a day. It includes base maps, imagery, data and step-by-step instructions about how to build your own map, using information you choose.
Esri has made ArcGIS Online available to high school geo-tech clubs. Recently, teenagers at Bishop Dunne Catholic School in Dallas helped police reallocate patrol cars by using ArcGIS to find out when and where crimes occurred in their community.
"These kids don't know it's hard; they just dive in and do it," said Esri education manager Joseph Kerski.
GIS at ground level
For real-time wanders, GIS is a technological soundtrack, underscoring nearly every travel application accessed by laptop, tablet, GPS unit and smartphone.
The next phase, though, is using it yourself to make rich and deep travel plans precisely tailored to your own interests, a retainable, shareable souvenir — all in the form of a map.
The emphasis on new, high-tech geographical tools raises this issue: What does it matter if we forget the traditional nuts-and-bolts geography — which is what appears to be happening? Today, 30 states do not require geography courses at the middle and high school levels, and studies show that half of young Americans can't find New York on a map.
It does matter. In December 2004, when 10-year-old Tilly Smith of England saw waves being sucked off the beach in Phuket, Thailand, she knew what it meant because she had just learned about earthquakes, tectonic plates and tsunamis in her geography class. Sure that a big wave was coming, she ran along the waterfront, telling people to take shelter on the upper floors of a hotel, thereby saving an estimated 100 lives.
Despite electronics, old-fashioned maps still matter too. The Auto Club of Southern California distributes more than 3 million paper maps annually to members who rely on them for the big picture and detail that can't easily be viewed on mobile device screens, according to 2012 member surveys.
Maps haven't changed in essence, but the amount of information they can almost instantaneously amass and display has exploded, as have the ways that information can be used. People who know how to manipulate digital maps are in great demand in the business world, for everything from stocking shelves at Wal-Mart to urban economic development.
Indeed, the workforce for the geospatial industry is one of the fastest-growing in the country, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Labor's High Growth Job Training Initiative. A 30% increase in the last five years in the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses and exams in the field of geography suggests that students know it, even if Mom and Dad haven't heard that a degree in geography could be more useful than law or economics.
In conversations with young people, longtime editor in chief of National Geographic Traveler magazine Keith Bellows has found a much less parochial next generation, fully willing to connect with the world. "More and more young people want to go abroad," he said — perhaps on a gap year, a concept that encourages kids to take a year between secondary school and college to travel. "We're going to get a gap year," Bellows said. "American kids are already doing it."
The broadest vision of what new geography can do may come from a speech Al Gore delivered at the California Science Center in 1998 about a radical geographical concept he called Digital Earth, a sort of multidisciplinary atlas that could tell people everything about every place in the world.
Like the Internet, it would be widely available by computers, mobile phones and other devices, voice-activated, backdropped by high-resolution satellite imagery, loaded with information and data, updated in real time and interactive, meaning that users could dovetail searches to their particular interests, as if looking into the subject-matter drawer of a science-fiction card catalog.
Digital Earth is meant to connect people by sharing information across borders and to explain complex issues — climate change, poverty and food distribution, urbanization, species and environmental preservation, natural disaster management, geopolitics, economics — that haven't been comprehended by old-fashioned methods of data collection and analysis.
Does it sound as if Digital Earth could make travel itself seem utterly inconvenient and unnecessary? Google Earth founder John Hanke says no, pointing to soon-to-be-unveiled Google Glass, with all the capabilities of hand-held devices but voice-activated and mounted in the frames.
If used in conjunction with GPS-backed, real-time apps such as Google Field Trip, travelers would be able to boldly go, if not into outer space, at least without a smartphone or guidebook in hand.
The technology, Hanke said, "allows you to be more spontaneous, connects you in a deeper way with the physical world."
Which is what most real travelers long to do.