Un savant dans son laboratoire n'est pas
seulement un technicien : c'est aussi un enfant
placé en face des phénomènes naturels
qui l'impressionnent comme un conte de fées.
—Marie Skłodowska-Curie

Geographical information, such as about places, is far more complex than we can grasp with existing theories, despite the supposed simplicity of the concepts involved. That is where the attraction lies for me: to strive for theories about a subject matter that actually eludes them. The fact that corresponding endeavours are often unsuccessful and reveal the limits of what is possible is part of the adventure.

Space and Place

The focus of my current research is on a better understanding of how places are and can be represented. I am working on a variety of questions which, considered in combination, will advance the ways we treat spaces and places in terms of information theory. In particular, I am working on the following topics:

What does it mean to represent? Representations of places can be manifold, including texts, photographs, films, documantaries, music, touristic souvenirs, traditions, archaeological finds, and so on. Yet, it is by no means obvious what constitutes a representation and what is necessary for it to emerge. This question is philosophical in nature.

The practice of representation is much more than mere “pointing” to a place. Rather, social practices lead to very different types of media that represent, each with their own logic. The question of which practices of representing play a role, such as writing texts, painting, or photography, touches on very different branches of the humanities.

The semantic nature of place is discussed in very different ways. I am particularly interested in what effect the conceptual nature of place has on corresponding information (in short: platial information), and what conceptual similarities the creation of platial information has with the creation and maintenance of places (i.e., the place-making).

A variety of space and place concepts are utilized in the literature (and in everyday life), such as phenomenological, social constructivist, and non-representational concepts of place; socially-constructed space; topological and Euclidean space; and manifolds. It seems obvious what unites these concepts, but the common core is difficult to grasp on closer inspection. Which conceptual qualities of space and place play a role here is the subject of my current research.

These examples of topics are linked by shared research questions, such as:

  • How do we manufacture place representations, either using formal methods, or computationally?
  • In which ways are the various space and place concepts incommensurable?
  • Which types of place representation exist?
  • Which mechanism engender place representations?
  • How can we apply analytical reasoning to (necessarily) incomplete place representations, such as by using a notion of reasoning depth?

Patterns, Laws, and Structures in Geographical Information

In addition to space and place, I pursue further research interests. What they have in common is their focus on patterns, laws, and structures that can only be found in geographical information because it is about geographies and therefore inherits corresponding qualities. This line of research includes the following topics:

Geographical networks can be of many kinds: exchange of goods on the world market, information in social media, water and steam in the Earth's atmosphere, and passed on habitus in lived tradition. Underlying these examples and many further networks is a reference to (geometric or socially constructed) space, which has in many cases a systematic influence on the topology of the network.

A conceptual understanding of data quality forms the basis for better understanding the use of information. The relevance of such an understanding is particularly evident in new forms of data, including crowd-sourced and big data. My interest here is in describing the concept of data quality in such way that the resulting definition appears invariant among the various forms, even though the practical use of the data may be very different.

Widening the cartographic paradigm to convey narratives is much more than putting narratives on maps. Rather, it requires a structural adaptation of what constitutes a map, to convey narratives based on human perception and tell stories. How these adaptations can look like is subject of my research, both from empirical and more theoretical perspectives.

How Geography relates to the corresponding information science has only been examined in part. My interest lies, for example, in the question of how the basic assumptions of these disciplines differ and how knowledge gained in these disciplines can be incommensurable. Even if contradictions arise, I am convinced that both disciplines can mutually benefit, although this might require methodological modifications of both disciplines.

These sometimes very different examples are linked by shared research questions:

  • How to include human-related, fuzzy, and individual aspects into geographical representations?
  • How to bridge representations of social and physical processes in the geographical domain?
  • How to formulate universal laws for geographical information?
  • Which mathematical and physical concepts can be carried over to geographical information?
  • How to address the complexity inherent to geographical information?

Approach to Research (and Teaching)

In order to effectively push forward with my agenda and also move off the beaten track, I have consciously opt for a reflective approach.

I overcome disciplinary boundaries because my questions are difficult to answer in disciplinary terms. Correspondingly, my research engages in fields like Geographical Information Science and Geography, Philosophy and the Humanities, Cartography, Cognitive Science and Psychology, and the Social and Cultural Sciences. Methodologically, I benefit from perspectives in Mathematics, Physics, and Network Science; technically, from perspectives in Computer Science. In many of these subjects, I have collaborated with relevant scholars, published at conferences or in journals, or simply attended courses.

Reflecting about science is not a hurdle but essential for my research beyond disciplinary barriers. Formal reasoning and qualitative geographical descriptions do not necessarily constitute a contradiction; they sometimes shed light on the same phenomenon from different perspectives when (well-founded) disciplinary perspectives are placed in a common context. I thus not only strive to gain good knowledge in the various discipinary domains, but am particularly committed to the field of Philosophy of Science in order to be able to live such interdisciplinarity in practice.

Connecting theoretical considerations with practical applications is a major challange. What works in theory is not necessarily practical; and what works in practice we often cannot predict or explain theoretically. Focussing on this spectrum between theory and applicability not only enables us to have an impact on society in the medium term, but, in my experience, leads first and foremost to better insights into conceptual connections and holistic perspectives.

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