Penn State’s Geospatial Revolution Project: Where Are We, and How Did We Get Here?

Penn State University’s new project isn’t exactly existential, but it does answer some of life’s big questions: Where are we? How did we get here? Where are we going? Turns out all those answers can be answered through GPS.


Penn State University kicked off a new four-part series this week, entitled The Geospatial Revolution Project. It’s an examination of modern mapping, focusing on GPS, taking a particular look at GPS’s impact both on our daily lives and on the world at large. There’s more to GPS than finding the nearest Trader Joe’s with a Google Maps app, it turns out.

The first episode, a 13-minute mini-documentary that’s viewable on YouTube, takes a brief look at a timeline history of mapping before diving headlong into one of the most striking uses of GPS in the last decade: Providing humanitarian aid during the Haiti earthquake relief efforts. Despite the destruction wrought by the earthquake, about two-thirds of phone lines remained standing–the most resilient bit of infrastructure–and that allowed some ingenious rescue methods that would have been impossible even a few years earlier.

In the days after the earthquake, geographical information experts came up with some fairly stunning ways to help get aid to those who needed it, providing an SMS service, maps, and translators in an open, crowd-sourced system that allowed those in need to text their location in Creole and have English-speaking volunteers in the States route their requests through the appropriate channels. We covered some of those efforts, which you can read about here.

It’s a really well-made video, though some of the wonder at simple consumer smartphone features (the smartphone can find nearby Starbucks! What a world!) is a bit excessive. Still, as a more modern and topical companion piece to efforts like BBC’s “The Beauty of Maps,” it’s very compelling. The first episode is available now, and the following three will be released every few months (the next is due on November 2nd). You can watch it on YouTube or at Penn State’s official site.

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in Brooklyn (no link for that one–you’ll have to do the legwork yourself).

About the author

Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer and editor who has written for Popular Science, The Awl, Gizmodo, Fast Company, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. He holds an undergraduate degree from McGill University and currently lives in Brooklyn, because he has a beard and glasses and that's the law.