Geography: we'd be lost without it

Fewer candidates are taking it at A-level, but it's never been more relevant. Michael McCarthy explains why, as Microsoft has found, neglecting geography can be costly
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The Independent Online

It was a tiny thing on the face of it, a few pixels on a small, digitised map of the world in a piece of computer software, but it was to cost one of the world's biggest companies millions of dollars. The pixels covered Kashmir, the mountainous border region whose ownership has long been disputed between Pakistan and India, and the map was used for setting the time-zone in Windows 95, the revolutionary PC operating system which was to turn its manufacturer, Microsoft, into the world's leading software corporation.

It was a tiny thing on the face of it, a few pixels on a small, digitised map of the world in a piece of computer software, but it was to cost one of the world's biggest companies millions of dollars. The pixels covered Kashmir, the mountainous border region whose ownership has long been disputed between Pakistan and India, and the map was used for setting the time-zone in Windows 95, the revolutionary PC operating system which was to turn its manufacturer, Microsoft, into the world's leading software corporation.

They were barely noticeable, those pixels. Unless you were in Delhi or Bangalore, that is, then you noticed them immediately, because when you clicked on the map to select India's time-zone, and India was highlighted, Kashmir was not shown as Indian. And in India, that was against the law. "We had to recall Windows 95 from India," Microsoft's Tom Edwards says. "It was upwards of 200,000 copies. It cost millions."

Mr Edwards, a genial 39-year-old Californian with a ponytail, is formally known as the senior geopolitical strategist at the Seattle-based business behemoth - annual sales running at nearly $40bn (£22bn) - but his real role is much more interesting, even revolutionary: he is Microsoft's chief geographer. He is charged with making sure that a company global in its reach perhaps more than any other, which has its products widely used most countries, does not make elementary geographical mistakes or show geographical insensitivities in its content which can get it into trouble with foreign consumers, ethnic groups, and national governments.

The duties Mr Edwards is tasked with indicate that globalisation is a far more complex business than the steamroller process it is often portrayed as. But it also shows something perhaps even more unexpected: that geography is as important as it ever was.

You might not think so. Geography has for long seemed the poor relation of major academic subjects. As a discipline, it has a public profile - or at least a television profile - lower than cooking. It has no major iconic figures with whom the public can identify, no Nobel prize-winners. In the popular mind it has almost been forgotten. This year fewer pupils took the subject at A-level; 34,215 compared to 35,749 last year.

But this is not because geography has shrunk in significance. It is merely because in the past 40 years or so geography has changed profoundly, and the change has not been widely understood by non-geographers, or indeed even noticed.

Its glamorous past is partly to blame. Geography used to be primarily about describing places, about saying what was where, and originally, of course, this meant exploration. And exploration, in the days or canoes and mules, porters and pith helmets and cleft sticks for sending messages, had glamour to spare. It was dangerous and romantic and it was telling us new things about faraway places of which we knew nothing. Geography had a far higher profile in those days because people instinctively knew what was meant by it.

Yet, by the end of the Second World War, certainly by the 1960s, most of the globe had been discovered, if not mapped in detail; there was no more North-west Passage to be searched for. So geographers made a subtle but major shift in their focus: they changed from merely describing places, to understanding what was going on in them. They went from being explorers in spirit, to being analysts.

This is a less glamorous role, and one, consequently, with a far lower public profile, but to Rita Gardner, the director of the Royal Geographical Society, it is a more profound, more important one. "When we went to school, geography was about how much coal does north-east England possess, about how long is the river Nile," she said. "These days, it's concerned with an understanding of places and regions, through an understanding of the social, economic and environmental processes shaping and changing them. Environmentally, we might be looking at what's causing flooding, economically, we might be looking at what's powering regional development.

"Geography now bridges the natural and social sciences, so geographers are looking at the impacts of people on the environment, at events such as changing land-use patterns. For example, a typical area of research would be soil erosion in the Himalayas. Millions on people there depend for their livelihoods on subsistence agriculture; a really big issue concerns the extent that human pressure on the land can be managed without increasing environmental damage, so the community continues to be sustainable." In essence, she says, the transition has been from geography as exploration to geography as research.

Ms Gardner, a former university geography lecturer whose speciality is geomorphology (land forms), is a very modern geographer; in her office in the splendid Norman Shaw RGS headquarters building in Kensington, filled with the portraits of explorers, she has an abstract painting of a Welsh valley. And she robustly defends her discipline and its importance.

She reminds you that geography is one of the foundation subjects in the national curriculum (those compulsory up to age 14), and the favourite optional subject at GCSE, where, every year, it is taken by 250,000 children; a further 45,000 take A-level geography, and 35,000 begin geography degrees. The subject is the 17th most popular one at university out of 180 recognised by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Ms Gardner says geography is making enormous contributions to social policy development since the advent of its new technological tool, GIS (geographic information systems), of which she is an enthusiastic advocate.

"Traditionally, we worked on fixed maps," she says. "GIS is a computer system that enables the fixed map and spatial analysis of data to merge; you can overlay different sets of data on the map, variables that are not just physical, such as mountains. So on the map you could have the age of the population and their economic characteristics.

"If you're looking at access to rural services, you can plot local post offices and local communities and analyse that to see how far people are from their nearest post office. And that flows directly into policy: what are we going to do about local post office closure, about rural transport." A training in modern geography is a passport to many careers, she says. Many geographers work in the financial management sector because of their expertise in statistical analysis. "They have a great capacity to integrate ideas," she says. Yet she does agree, reluctantly, that geography as a subject does not have the public prominence she thinks it deserves.

"I would agree that geography has not stood up and waved the flag enough," she said. "I think we have a lower profile partly because it's much easier for people to decide, say, what history is. Modern geography has a breadth to it which makes it more difficult to grasp as an idea, and we haven't had iconic figures to spearhead our profile, as Simon Schama and David Starkey have done with history."

This week, Ms Gardner is at the International Geographical Union conference in Glasgow, where more than 1,800 geographers from more than 80 countries are presenting papers on subjects ranging from food poverty to extreme waves, from place names to meteorite craters, and from Nimbyism to dust-storms. A star turn at the conference yesterday was Microsoft's Mr Edwards, who gave a surprisingly frank account of how geographical mistakes or insensitivities by his company had, at times, led to arrests, lost vast amounts of money and caused public-relations disasters. This was often caused by geographical ignorance among Microsoft employees, he said, agreeing that young Americans had a sometimes-deserved reputation for knowing little about where other places were, a situation the company was trying to remedy with geography classes.

"It is no surprise some of our employees, however bright they may be in other respects, have only a hazy idea about the rest of the world," he said. "The repercussions can be very serious."

The problem of the Kashmir pixels had been solved by taking the highlights off the map of the world, so individual countries - including India - would simply not be shown, he said. But there were many more examples. One version of Microsoft's Outlook e-mail program contained the date Tuesday, April 30, followed by the detail: "Queen's Birthday (Uruguay)." Uruguay was a democratic republic, and proud of it, with no queen and no monarchy. Mr Edwards said: "Our top customer in Uruguay personally called our general manager to ask just what it would take for Microsoft to understand the basic culture of their market."

The map of Turkey in Encarta, the company's digital encyclopedia, originally contained the word Kurdistan, denoting the cultural homeland of the Kurds, But this was unacceptable to the Turkish government, which arrested Microsoft representatives and interrogated them: the name was eventually removed. The Korean flag was presented backwards in the clip-art folder of the Office 97 suite of programs, which cause great offence in Korea; and a single-combat computer game designed for Microsoft by Japanese programmers contained background chanting of verses from the Koran in Arabic, which led to an outraged complaint from Saudi Arabia.

"Geography's important," Mr Edwards said. "And in a globalised world, it's very important. For us, it's part of building trust."

Great moments in modern geography

* In 2001, President George Bush claimed that "border relations between Canada and Mexico have never been better".

* In a National Geographic survey in 2002, 85 per cent of young Americans could not find Israel, Iraq or Afghanistan; 30 per cent could not find the Pacific.

* Paul Martin, the Canadian PM suggested in April that the D-Day landings took place in Norway.

* Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, accused a fellow MP last summer of lounging on the beach at Harrogate. In fact, the genteel Yorkshire spa town is at least 60 miles from the nearest stretch of coast.

* In 2001, George Bush had to ask the teenage Welsh singer Charlotte Church which state Wales was in. (She replied: "It's a separate country next to England.")

* Jade Goody, who appeared on Channel 4's Big Brother programme famously thought that East Anglia "was abroad".

* In 2001, the former health minister Lord Hunt of King's Heath told the House of Lords that the Netherlands was in Scandinavia.

* Norway's royal palace apologised in February after Crown Prince Haakon claimed that Portugal was on the Mediterranean.