Uruguayan school kids lap it up

October 29, 2009

Give every school child a laptop: that’s a good idea. And in Uruguay, that’s what has happened. News reports about the new policy – emerging at the same time as the country goes to the polls – have put Uruguay on the map of global efforts to smash the ‘digital divide’.  Plan Ceibal has rolled out the laptops, produced in the One Laptop Per Child project, to every schoolchild in the country, regardless of location or their household incomes.

The cool machines use free ‘open source’ software, which means none of the state’s funds end up swelling Microsoft’s coffers; and means the kids will have access to lots of new educational programs (and updates on a regular basis). Other countries are making the OLPC laptops available and are on their way to having their school kids using the latest technologies. But Uruguay seems to be leading the charge: felicidades, Uruguay!

(More) geographies of the crash

October 21, 2009

‘The places likely to suffer most from the crash…are the ones least associated with high finance’. So writes Richard Florida in the Atlantic Monthly. Florida suggests that New York, the financial centre of the US, and Washington DC, its administrative centre, are unlikely to be significantly damaged by the economic downturn. Instead, he argues that old manufacturing centres like Detroit, and sun-belt cities fuelled by property booms like Las Vegas, will suffer the most. Florida’s conclusion is that ‘Americans have been living beyond their means, using illusory housing wealth and huge slugs of foreign capital to consume far more than we’ve produced’. urban forms Substitute ‘Ireland’ for Americans, and he could equally be writing about this island. Florida’s conclusion might not be to everyone’s taste. He believes that the crisis should be used to ‘reinvent’ the US as happened in the past: Naomi Klein, in Shock Doctrine, has a much less benign view of the ways in which crises are used by capital. But Florida has one suggestion that could radically change  Irish society;  that of removing home ownership from its privileged place in the Irish economy. Imagine the very different geographies that would emerge in a society based on residence rather than ownership rights.

Overweight Ireland

October 16, 2009

A recent survey has produced, possibly for the first time, an obesity/overweight index for Irish counties. According to the research carried out by Hibernian Aviva Health (a major health insurance company), 48% of people in Ireland are overweight or dangerously overweight (obese) and almost a quarter of all adults do no physical exercise. In addition there was a gender bias, with a worrying 61% of males falling into this category compared to only 39% of females. According to the dataset, the county with the lowest percentage of overweight people was Kerry at 41% while at the other end of the market, Tipperary clocked in with a figure of 58%. This data is interesting and important, given the strong associations between obesity and ill-health, and is very worrying from a public health perspective. Check out the other counties in the table below and see if you can see a pattern (I’m not sure I can!).


However in looking at the data, a number of interesting issues are raised around provenance, ownership and geography which might make people think about data more generally. This data was generated by Hibernian Aviva via an online survey. The information is ‘self-reported’ by users of the website and analysed by using the body mass index (BMI) scoring system. The BMI index itself (which calculates a ratio/score from expected and observed heights and weights and breaks this into 4 broad categories), can be problematic. The data also comes from individuals typing their own heights and weights into the Hibernian Aviva website, something you can do yourself along with additional health checks (fascinating in themselves). If you do that, consider where that information goes. Although reported in an aggregate form in the above press release, it is also tied to a sound disclaimer which tells you how the data will be used. Yet the data gathering and reporting is surrounded by an assortment of subtle messages telling you how important health insurance is, the bottom line of the data collecting agency.

Finally, around the same time this report was published, the Slán Report, a national survey commissioned by the Department of Health & Children, was released for 2009 (using data from 2007). This is a national survey of BMI in the Republic and Northern Ireland and, using the same method suggests a national figure of 63% (24+39) obese or overweight. Again the values for males, at 70%, are higher than for females at 57%. Yet this single national value is the best level of geography available from the survey (a sample of 2,170) when compared with the privately collected data available at county level. Whether all of this points to; a) interesting new ways to collect data, b) the perils of self-reporting, c) the lack of spatial detail in public health information or d) the role of scare tactics in promoting a ‘new public health’ is up to you to decide!

BMI Slan 2007

The Tiger Crisis

October 15, 2009

A ‘Tiger Crisis’: not the crisis facing those beautiful big cats [a real crisis, mind you, with three of the eight original subspecies having become extinct in the last 60 years], but the type of crisis that hits so-called ‘Tiger economies’ and shocks their citizenry to the core.

Some background: The original Tiger economies were the Asian Newly Industrializing Countries (NICs): Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. From the 1960s onwards, they each transformed their respective positions in the global economic map via state-led, export-oriented industrialization programmes. They were followed in the 1980s by a new group of Tigers, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. These countries also pursued export-led industrialization and they were successful, at least in terms of achieving rapid economic growth. In dramatic events that occurred when most NUI Maynooth undergraduate students were in Primary School, things went wrong for the Tigers in 1997 – this was the so-called ‘Asian financial crisis’ which happened for numerous reasons, of course, but which had an awful lot to do with investors in those countries speedily withdrawing their money and thereby causing a financial meltdown. At the time, many people believed the 1997 crisis would take down the global financial system. It was in many ways akin to what has happened in the Atlantic world and here in Ireland since late 2008.

The crisis facing Ireland has called an end to the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ – a label given to Ireland’s rapid growth, which occurred at rates quite like the Asian cases. Ireland’s transformation was also export-led: pharmaceuticals companies, electronics firms such as Intel and Dell and then investments in the financial sector all looked to sell goods in foreign markets, especially Britain and Europe. Like the Asian Tigers before it, one of Ireland’s big advantages was its relatively cheap labour force which helped draw in foreign investment. And like the Asian Tigers, of course, Ireland is now facing its own Tiger Crisis.

Keeping the other Tiger Crises in mind, it is with considerable interest that we now are beginning to hear of the plans to get Ireland out of the mess it faces: the ‘Bludget’ Part One (Part Two in December is fast approaching) and Nama have already been mentioned elsewhere in this blog; and now we are hearing of new plans, such as the Green Party’s programme for government and projected changes to the taxation system. While some economists have used Japan and Sweden’s property bubble and the rapid increase in the price of agricultural land in Ireland in the 1970s to understand Ireland’s predicament, perhaps an equally-useful comparator is the case of Thailand’s Tiger Crisis.

The 1997 Asian financial crisis started in Thailand. Just like in Ireland, the banks stopped lending, although unlike what could have happened in Ireland (because Ireland was part of the Euro and didn’t have the power to do so), the Thai currency was devalued. There are numerous other differences between the two cases. But the crucial similarity between these two Tiger Crises was the role of a real estate property bubble. Thailand’s was spectacular. So was Ireland’s. Prices were dreamily unrealistic. Construction jobs were created. More construction followed. There were pie-in-the-sky plans. Workers flowed into the country. Then the crisis hit. Jobs were lost; workers went home, construction stopped. Growth rates plummeted.

It all sounds drearily familiar. And so do some of the causes. Thailand’s government didn’t stop and probably even encouraged the property bubble. Rather than steering money borrowed from abroad into productive investments (such as domestic production of capital goods) – and arguably just like the strategic problem in Ireland – the Thai state’s institutional failure was to stand back and let speculative investment inflate the property bubble. And then it burst. The state’s mistaken faith in real estate was near-fatal: Thailand was just about bankrupted by the crisis and ended up needing IMF ‘bail-out’ loans, much like Ireland might still end up needing.

The Thai Tiger did recover. Profits were restored thanks to wage cuts, renewed investments intended to improve productivity in export-oriented manufacturing plants and inspired in part by a master plan for each industry to receive funds for upgrading, and the devaluation of the Thai currency (see Linda Weiss’ State Power and the Asian Crisis). Exports grew, despite increasing competition from China. Foreign investment flowed in. Economic growth returned. Thailand paid back the IMF. But now it risks becoming stuck in a league of low-wage, export-led countries racing-to-the-bottom (see geographer Jim Glassman’s take on this in Economic Geography, 2007, volume 84, issue 3).

What about Ireland’s Tiger Crisis and attempts to resolve it? Wage cuts seem likely. With no prospect of property price increases, those with money to spare might well direct it towards more productive investments, even if the state shows no signs of demanding that. But Ireland can’t devalue its currency. And its reliance on foreign investment already seems shaky, given plant closures and relocations to Europe’s new low-wage regions. What chance, then, of a Thai-style comeback from a property-led Tiger Crisis?

The geography of Islam

October 9, 2009

New research by Pew has mapped what most astute geographers already know: Islam’s geography is not just a ‘Middle East’ affair. In fact, as the image below shows quite clearly, only one so-called ‘Middle Eastern’ country (Egypt) ranks in the five countries with the largest Muslim populations (the others are Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh).

Two other interesting features of Islam’s geography: the approximately one million Muslims living in Argentina; the fact that there are more Muslims living in France than in many so-called ‘Middle Eastern’ countries.  Maybe you can spot others – if so, post a comment! Read the full Pew report here.

Cartograms: Fun with maps

October 5, 2009

As BBC News reports, Geographers at the University of Sheffield in England have been having some fun with maps. Their worldmapper site presents distinctive cartograms, which are maps with a twist. Take the following example: a cartogram of Britain’s population.

The map stretches places in Britain according to the size of their population, so that London bulges out beyond its boundaries and takes up a huge chunk of England; Glasgow does the same in Scotland. Other places with low populations shrink to thin slithers.

For an Irish example, look below. On the left is a map of the island of Ireland, which shows the correct size of the 32 counties; and on the right is how the map would look if each county was the same size:

IrelandComparedThis technique can be extended by using all sorts of data. Take, for example, the number of GAA Senior All-Ireland Hurling Championships each county has won since 1884. Crunch the data into a cartogram and the following pops out:

Cartogram All-Ireland SHC Winners-CroppedThe southern bulge shows how dominant counties such as Kilkenny have been in the GAA’s history. For Senior Football champions, the twisted, stretched out map shown below is quite different:

Cartogram All-Ireland SFC WinnersOther Irish cartograms have been produced by researchers in the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis (NIRSA) at NUI Maynooth, who have put together over 300 detailed maps with commentaries in their book, The Atlas of the Island of Ireland.

Appropriating public space

October 1, 2009

An interesting article on public photography in the Irish Times raises questions about public space in Ireland. The article’s focus is photography: can you take photos in public places, and what exactly is a public place? Despite giving the appearance of public space, with its streets and squaresDocklands and its free cultural events, the IFSC in Dublin is described as ‘private property’. According to its management company, you need a permit to take a photograph there, and you should inform the company if you are taking photographs in any other parts of the Docklands. This is despite the fact that the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, which controls the area, was set up by the Oireachtas and is under the control of the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The company that operates Luas also wants you to apply for a permit to take photographs on or of the Luas: this suggests that public transport is in fact not a public space. The existence and nature of public space is coming under increasing threat in contemporary Ireland. Out-of-town private shopping malls have replaced public town centres, rights of way are being closed, there are restrictions on activities in public space. Taking photographs in spaces that seem to be public is one way of testing the growing extent and territorial claims of private space.


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