‘RGS raises public profile of geography’

‘RGS raises public profile of geography’


RGS is a learned society and a professional body for geography. As a professional body, we exist to accredit and maintain standards in the practices of geography. We offer professional accreditation, Chartered Geographer (CGeog), which is an international accreditation…

Dr Rita Gardner
Dr Rita Gardner
Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), UK

Can you tell us about the activities of Royal Geographical Society (RGS)?
RGS is a learned society and a professional body for geography. As a professional body, we exist to accredit and maintain standards in the practices of geography. We offer professional accreditation, Chartered Geographer (CGeog), which is an international accreditation. It’s a qualification for practicing geographers, including GIS specialists, those applying GIS skills to understand or solve real world problems. The other areas of work which we do are to support geographical research in the UK and at international level, support advanced teaching of geography at higher education and in school particularly at secondary level, and enhance public engagement with geography and GIS. People are now aware about the advancement in technology, and also about the changing world around us. Last but not the least, we work with government, advise them on policies which are relevant to geographical information (GI) and geography and to make sure that the voice of geography/ GIS is heard in the government.

Can you tell us about some of your research projects that you are currently working on?
We actively support people in their own research projects through our grants programme. In a year, we support about 90 projects from around the world. One of the recent projects we supported was led by an academic at University College London, and involves working with indigenous communities in Uganda, in the mountains of the country. They are working to implement a friendly use of GPS and a very basic GIS mapping system so that the local people can map their indigenous land resources. For this, the software has been simplified. The community members can themselves identify what is important to them, say, a particular tree that has economic benefits, or a particular area where they are growing certain crops. The local people can use the technology to map the resources and their changing environment. So, it involves using sophisticated technology with indigenous communities to enable them to create the mapping when they need to present their case to their governments, and to help protect their local areas. That is, I think quite an interesting interface, taking participatory rural research in poor developing countries and making GPS and GIS technology available to them. It also involves software simplification and training at a large scale.

How effective has your grants programme been?
We give about GBP 180,000 – 200,000 per year in grants. That’s a small grant given to quite a lot of different projects; and at that level, they have been really effective. In a way, we do three things. With these grants, we fund the pilot study, so the project opens up a new area of research. A project requiring bigger research grant, that is, millions of pounds of research grant by the research councils, needs the guarantee that it’s going to work. The research councils do not provide the pilot study funding. Second, the RGS grants are often targeted at younger researchers and academicians. So they provide the first step of the ladder of establishing their research, thus adding to their career development. And people remember the RGS for that for a long time.

Thirdly, since, we are only giving fairly modest amounts of money, about GBP 15,000, we are prepared to take some risks. Hence, we are ready to sponsor projects which involve exploring new areas, a project which has never been taken up before and about which we have no idea whether it’s going to work or not. So it is in these three ways that our projects are successful. Mostly, these projects complete on time and they usually lead to further research. We have a lot of demand for funding, and that’s why we are very selective.

It is said that you are responsible for bringing in the change in the way RGS used to grant funds that is, encouraging grants programme which cover many projects rather than having a single large expedition. What led to this change of outlook?
We have not completely stopped doing large field projects; indeed we are planning one in the next 4-5 years. It was the Society’s trustees (governing body) decision to change the emphasis by increasing our small grants and doing fewer large projects. Every five years, the society has a new strategy in place. In early 2000, the trustees thought that the money was better spent by placing it in a large number of smaller projects spread over a wider span of research. So the grant funding encompasses many more topics and people, everything from environmental management research to gender issue studies. Not everyone has liked the change in emphasis. Some of our more traditional members resisted the change but now, we have found the balance. We are planning to run a bigger project in 2016/17. We have just started to plan that now. I don’t as yet know what the topic will be. We have started thinking about how we will take that decision.. So, the two approaches are a good compliment.

Can you tell us about some of your own projects? What has been your major project?
My main focus as Director has been modernisation of the Society. Working with our trustees and committees, we have opened ourselves to the public, that is, any member of the public can now access all our collections catalogues online or visit to look at materials on-site and benefit from a wide range of activities. We have also changed our image. We have struck a balance between tradition and modernisation, and now have a more modern image. We are an outward looking organisation which is championing geography and raising public profile of geography. We have also established our Society in the role of an advisor to the government and have developed a large education programme. We have extended the scope of our engagement with the public too, that is, from just lectures to more active engagement through our walks, exhibitions and online materials. By working with community groups, we have developed a whole programme to engage the wide range of ethnic communities in geography. We have a number of community projects. Also, we have completely refurbished our premises; adding new modern public facilities including an education centre. We have also braced ourselves for exhibitions and we expect about 6 million visitors per year. So, we can say, we are the face of geography in the UK. In fact, modernisation has been my main project for the past 15 years.

How are you incorporating geospatial technology in your projects?
Geosptial technology is a really important tool. We support and use it in a number of ways. We have 27 specialist research groups, for scholars and others in the UK and also globally. One of those is the GI group which particularly brings together the academic researchers using GI. Second, in our publishing of scholarly journals, we welcome articles which use GI research or GI technology in its research. The Society uses geospatial technology simply in terms of mapping, and we have particularly started using some of the technologies interactively in our ‘walks project’. It is quite simple, nothing complicated! ‘Walk the world’ is a project for the Olympics. This project encourages everyone in the UK to walk around their local area and discover visual links in the landscape between other countries and the UK and to map their discoveries. For example, it can be a tree whose origins have been in the Indian Himalaya or it may be wheat field. Wheat was first grown in Jordon and Syria and reached Britain 5,000 years ago. Or it may be solar panels which are being manufactured in China. So we are asking everyone to look afresh at their neighbourhood. It is interesting to see your local area in the new light. In fact, across the Britain, people are logging their links. We have geospatial database and mapping capability where those links can be displayed. People can then search zones around any location and explore the links that have been found in that area. So, we are using GI to support back office functions and data analysis and, in terms of engaging the public, that’s probably the most interesting way in which we are using it. It’s available at www.walktheworld.org.uk. We are tying to get at least one link for every Olympic and Paralympic nation in the UK, that is, 206 countries. So far we have links to 203 of them! It is no different, of course, from technology you use in your mobile phone to identify a geo-feature.

Can you tell us about RGS’ activities outside the UK? Which all countries are you collaborating with?
The RGS collaborates with a large number of countries, in different ways. RGS has recently funded research projects in more than 100 countries. We produce three of the leading international scholarly journals for geography and last year, articles were downloaded in 150 countries. We work closely with sister geographical societies, especially in Australia and Canada. Till recently, I was the Secretary General of EUGEO, which is a European association for national geographical societies. So we have a Pan European involvement. People from all over the world come to our annual conference which is the second largest annual conference in the world. Also, our members are drawn from more than 105 countries and we currently have two overseas branches in Hong Kong and Singapore. I think we are probably the largest geographical society in terms of membership in the world. I am not talking about National Geographic as that is a renowned media corporation, and not a scholarly learned society.

Geography as a subject is in decline and needs to be made more relevant to students. How is your organisation contributing in increasing the popularity of the subject among students?
Geography as s subject has been under pressure in many countries. It is to do with how geography is taught and how it is viewed by the government. In some schools in the UK, it is well taught and in others less so. In order to increase the popularity of the subject, we have developed major programmes for professionals, students and teachers. We also work with the government on the curriculum. For example, five years ago, we were successful in getting GIS incorporated in the geography curriculum for students, right from age 11 up to 18. We are also trying to support teachers with learning resources they can use and students with career advice. It is important that young people understand the real opportunities for careers in geography. GI career is being seen as a key growth area. So that’s what we are trying to do. We support teachers, improve understanding about opportunities of the subject among young people, lobby government, and raise awareness of geography among public who also happen to be the parents.

What do you think about the latest technology? Do you think newer technologies are generating new interest in the subject?
I think they are generating huge interest in the subject. They are raising awareness about geography and regenerating interest in it. I think a lot of people have realised the importance of spatial data and computerised mapping applications. In a way, GIS has opened people’s minds to the discipline. What I would say though is that the discipline of geography is not only about location. There’s a risk and the risk is that geography is seen just as geographic information and location; with the power of GIS as an integrating tool and an analytical tool as the driver in that process. The other parts of geography – about understanding the social, economic and environmental processes, and their interactions, that bring about change in places and regions – which is not necessarily so geospatially data rich, may be down-played in the process. So I think, people need to understand that the geospatial information and analysis is an important part of geography, but it’s not the whole of geography.

What do you perceive to be the future of geospatial information?
I think it can be very powerful worldwide. As we see, more and more governments throughout the world are trying to integrate their datasets around spatial databases, and trying to make data available to people, I think, it has got very important future. However, the challenge is for people to learn to use it. And for organisations, the challenge is to make it suitable for people to use it. In the UK, we are trying to engage communities and provide them with tools and knowledge so as to be able to access open data and make best use of it. It is very well to have database for people but if they don’t know what questions to ask, how to access data, how to use it, analyse it and present it in a way that meets their needs, then it’s no point having it.