Geographical science: Where technology comes down to Earth

March 5, 2013

The Irish Times asked for material about the cutting-edge, technology-based postgraduate programmes we offer. Here is what we told them:

The Department of Geography at the National University of Ireland Maynooth is at the forefront of science-technology relations in the fields of Climate Change, Geographic Information Science, and Spatial Analysis. Read the rest of this entry »


The Role of Edenderry, Co. Offaly in the Informational Economy of Ireland

December 19, 2012

[This is a guest post from one of our Third Year Single Hons students. The post is about the student's final year thesis topic.]

Third year: Thesis Time. A daunting prospect to say the least. However, this is the one element of the Degree structure that allows a student to experience independent research and the chance to gain some in-depth knowledge on a subject area of interest to them. So, I chose to investigate the role of Edenderry in the informational economy of Ireland.

Edenderry is located on the fringes of the Greater Dublin Area (GDA). This midland town has experienced dramatic population growth rates over the past decade, 29% increase between 2002 and 2006, and 18.5% between 2006 and 2011 (CSO, 2011). At present, the main route from Edenderry, R402, is being upgraded to ‘reduce journey times’ to Dublin.

R402

Advancements in information and communication technologies (ICT) in the 1970s led to a systemic change from an industrial economy to an informational economy. Castells (2000: 77) describes an informational economy as one ‘where the productivity and competitiveness … fundamentally depend upon their capacity to generate, process, and apply efficiently knowledge-based information’. The development of the informational economy has had important spatial implications, notably an increasing concentration of economic activity in the main metropolitan areas of the world. Rural areas tend to experience difficulties in establishing a new role in the informational economy. Literature raises questions about the role of places at the fringes of metropolitan areas like the GDA. This begs the question, is Edenderry suffering from problems facing rural areas or benefiting from its location at the fringe of the GDA?

To answer I will focus on the occupational and industrial structure of Edenderry, particularly since the 1970s. The main factors influencing the town’s current role in the informational economy, population change over the years plus the town’s residents’ commuting patterns will be examined. It is possible that the data on Edenderry are too limited for a robust statistical analysis. In that case the study area will be broadened to east Offaly.

The methodology will include both quantitative and qualitative techniques. Quantitative analysis will be based on the Central Statistics Office (CSO) Population Census. The qualitative methodologies involve a desktop analysis of official policy documents, policies pertaining to the provision of ICT as well as interviews with stakeholders and state agencies. GIS maps will be used to depict the occupational structure of the town and charts will be used to denote population changes.

At this stage, I have reviewed literature pertaining to the informational economy. My thesis proposal is complete, as is the nerve-wrecking presentation. So, all that remains is data collection over next two months; interpretation and analysis up to end February 2013; produce first draft of thesis before end of March 2013; and finally, complete my thesis by 15 April 2013.

Mary Morrin


2nd year photo project: All finalists

November 19, 2012

Following on from the photo project conducted by our 2nd year students, below is a slideshow showing all 146 finalists (i.e. the two winning photos from each small group of four students). There are some great photos here, although one or two suspect entries: see if you can spot them (we have and action will be taken!), touching on the themes of pollution, nature, leisure, and the crisis:

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Infographics on inequality

January 25, 2012

The Transnational Institute, a worldwide fellowship of scholar activists, have marked the beginning of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, by producing reports and pretty smart ‘infographics’ (such as the one below) on global inequality, corporate power, and the construction of ‘neoliberalism’ . It’s an impressive collection and worth a closer look.

 

Alistair Fraser


Environmental justice: Is the spatial distribution of mobile phone masts in Kildare environmentally just?

January 6, 2012

[Note: This is the fifth of nine guest posts written by our 3rd yr Single Hons / Major students. Please feel free to add constructive comments!]

I will be looking at the spatial distribution of mobile phone masts in Kildare and asking if this pattern is environmentally just. Basically I will be checking if Kildare County council enforce their own mobile phone mast siting regulations, as these regulations may be the thin red line between these masts being environmentally “just” or not.

Human geographers argue that the right to a healthy living environment is a fundamental human right. If the benefits and burdens of the production and consumption of goods and services (in this case mobile phones services) are inequitably distributed than this would be contrary to the philosophy of environmental justice. The key terms in environmental justice are benefit and burden. Environmental justice is a framework with which to assess the benefit and burden of the provision of a service or good to determine if a certain segment of society is shouldering an unfair burden. The concept of burden in this case can also be described as negative externalities, which are spill-over effects that arise from production and consumption of goods and services for which no appropriate compensation is paid. Based on the above, I conceptualize the following benefits and burdens:

Benefits

Wireless communication, voice and data services.

Burdens –  living in very close proximity to a mobile phone mast.

1. Deflationary effect of property values.

2. Possible negative health effects.

3. Worry and stress caused by 1 & 2 above.

Critically, the burden in this scenario is a function of distance. Due to local concerns, Kildare county council have made a provision for this, and stipulate that mobile phone masts cannot be erected within 500 meters of a house, school or hospital. In order to examine the spatial distribution of the masts I will need to map them. I will produce a series of maps using GIS softare, e.g. ArcGIS. I will create a GIS dataset by downloading the coordinates of the mobile phone masts, which are available from this website. In addition, I will produce a map showing the mast exclusion zones, as per county councils 500 meter rule. I will use the geodirectory dataset which has the coordinates of every house in Kildare in it in order to plot out a 500m boundary around each house. I will superimpose these two maps in order to highlight if mobile phone masts fall within these zones or are outside of them (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Maps

The findings from Map 3 will clearly show if the spatial distribution of mobile phone masts is breaching the council’s own regulations, thus indicating if spatial distribution is equitable, and adhering to principles of environmental justice. I will examine the outcome using David Harvey’s assertion (2001: 31) that the survival of the corporate state is the primary purpose of western society. I will critically assess this statement using the concept of an “economic space” (space containing a mobile phone mast) in competition with an environmentally just space (a space free of a disproportionate environmental “burden”) See Figure 2. If it turns out that mobile phone masts are showing up consistently in spaces where they should not be, using Harvey’s assertion as a lens with which to view this phenomenon may yield some answers.

Figure 2: Competing spaces: Geo-economic versus geo-political

Mobile communications provide a huge benefit to society; however, no segment of the population should be forced to shoulder a disproportionate burden of potential negative health effects. This project will examine whether or not this is the case in Kildare.

Dave McChesney


Thailand’s floods and your next computer

November 7, 2011

Rarely do we come across news stories so obviously geographic as this report in today’s New York Times about the floods in Thailand. The story cuts across and connects many of the modules available in our department: on climate change, on hazards, hydrology, development, globalization, and economic geography.

It’s about the impact of floods in the low-lying areas around Bangkok and how many of the area’s most important factories, run by electronics companies such as Western Digital and auto-mobile producers such as Toyota, are now under water — accessible only by jet ski and inundated with fish.

The article tells us that, a ‘large share of the industrial growth in Thailand has occurred on the flood plain north of Bangkok. Rice paddies were paved over to make way for factories, suburban housing and shopping malls, blocking the natural path and absorption of water during the monsoon season.’  Looking from above, you can see for yourself here what some of this development looks like. Note the golf courses close to the industrial areas; the juxtaposition of high-tech factory with rice paddy; what look like new housing projects within shouting distance of what look like river-side corrugated-iron shacks; etc.

These developments reflect Thailand’s new place in the world. As the article notes, the ‘image of Thailand as a land of temples, beaches and smiles’ needs to be seen in the light of ‘Thailand’s industrialization and the extent to which two global industries, computers and cars, rely on components made here.’  There has been a sizeable wave of foreign direct investment, especially after 1997 when ‘hot money’ in property speculation helped create the Asian financial crisis [click here for a table showing Thailand's FDI growth since the mid-1980s] [see discussion on Thailand from an earlier post on this blog].

Thailand has become a player in the globalized world and this means that, when it rains in Thailand, people across the world need to take note.  As the report points out, the floods are causing supply-chain problems. It has ‘forced Toyota to slow production in factories in Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, North America, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Africa and Vietnam.’ Workers in the wider region (and beyond) are facing up to losing some wages. And if you’re looking to buy a new computer, you might also notice the Thai floods because your purchase might be just that tiny wee bit more expensive given that hard disk supplies are now limited, which means computer assemblers such as Dell or Lenovo will be paying higher prices.

Of course, just as the article points out, the flooding  is ‘the second reminder this year of the vulnerability of global supply chains, coming just a few months after the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan and shut down facilities that produce crucial car electronic components’. The Thai flooding therefore demonstrates how oddly interconnected, and in some senses dangerously interdependent, the world has become.

Will the Thai state work out a way to militate against future floods; will it play its (essential) part in reducing the dangers associated with global interconnectedness? It’s certainly down to them to improve the infrastructure — after all, this is one of the reasons globalization ‘works’ for footloose producers:  they can threaten to leave if the state doesn’t  upgrade drainage systems or build new canals [note the reference to investors looking at Indonesia and then the quote towards the end of the article: 'Thailand will be able to get away with this once — but not twice']. Will the Thai state be up to the task?  Can floods such as these be prevented? If they are a result of climate change, as claimed by Thailand’s science and technology minister, can the state ever do enough?

Alistair Fraser


Apple Day is on now…

October 21, 2011

It’s October 21, which means only one thing in Brogdale, England: it’s Apple Day! Not the Apple of iPad’s, iPhones, and their ilk, but the crunchy, juicy fruit so beloved of this part of the world.

I’ve been alerted to this important day by Carolyn Steel’s fantastic book, Hungry City, which tells the story of how food shapes our lives. She writes about Brogdale in a chapter on ‘supplying the city’. She tells us how Brogdale has 2,300 varieties of apples on display and two trees growing each one, so 4,600 trees in the farm’s orchard. Wow: 2,300 varieties! Seems amazing to someone like me who rushes round the supermarket, glancing at the bags of apples wrapped in plastic bags, choosing one of them, checking briefly for bruises, and heading home. So, yeah, 2,300 varieties. We’d never know it. As Steel notes, ‘…apple varieties are dying out all over the world. There is no place for them, it seems, in the global food economy’ – an economy which hinges on sales in supermarkets which don’t like too many varieties of any fruit or veg (more of a hassle to have them scanned into those self-checkout computers?).

‘Modern city-dwellers’, she points out, ‘demand constant supplies of cheap, predictable food, and agribusiness has evolved to produce just that.’  The result is a food economy driven by concerns about economies of scale: ‘Wheeling your trolley down a supermarket aisle, it might be tempting to think that we have never had a greater choice of things to eat. But that is not quite true. Yes, you can now eat strawberries at Christmas if you really want to; but if you want to choose the variety, forget it. Three quarters of all strawberries sold in the UK today are of just one kind, Elsanta […] Its success lies in its ability to reduce a highly complex process (food production) to an operation so streamlined that its very product (food) is now subservient to it…’

This is a part of the contemporary capitalist economy Alain de Botton seeks to capture in his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. In a chapter which makes an utter mockery of the current fashion of scattering some (fake? manufactured?) soil over the potatoes in supermarkets (see the ridiculous image below taken in my local Super Quinn store), he tells us about a ‘group of twenty-five imposing grey warehouses’ that make up ‘one of the largest and most technologically advanced logistics parks in Europe. Positioned beside three central arteries, the M1, M6 and A5, they are within a four-hour drive of 80 percent of the United Kingdom’s population, and every week, largely at night, they handle a significant share of its supply of building materials, stationery, food, furniture and computers.’

The largest warehouse belongs to a supermarket. Its job is to get food onto shelves quickly and without too much waste. ‘The aisles of an average supermarket contain twenty thousand items, four thousand of which are chilled and need to be replaced every three days, while the other sixteen thousand require restocking within two weeks.’ From the warehouse, then, articulated lorries deliver food to our local supermarkets in a struggle ‘against the challenges of mould and geography’. In one aisle, he writes, it is early December and ‘twelve thousand blood-red strawberries wait in the semi-darkness. They flew in from California yesterday, crossing over the Arctic circle by moonlight […] There is only ninety-six hours’ leeway between the moment the strawberries are picked and the moment they start to cave in to attacks of grey mould.’ Time is of the essence.

This is how we’re getting our food these days. It’s an extraordinary geography, overwhelmingly dominated by a small number of corporate players – from the suppliers of inputs to the processors and retailers – and designed simply to secure profits from food sales. Tony Weis, author of the excellent Global Food Economy, is highly critical of this situation. The ‘pseudo-diverse supermarkets’, he argues, stand at the apex of an environmentally-unsustainable system which locks in global inequalities in access to land and food. The system hinges on preserving the power of its largest corporate entities and on resisting bottom-up efforts to formulate a different type of food economy. Thus, while events such as Apple Day – or the many other alternative geographies of food out there – signify an alternative way of looking at, thinking about, and consuming food, it’s hard not to feel that such attempts at resistance and subversion stand little chance against the juggernaut of a capital- and logistics-intensive food economy. Or am I wrong?

Alistair Fraser


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