I am Geography
My sisters went off to boarding school in Singapore when I was small, and my father drove us up and down the Kuala Lumpur – Singapore route so often that he kept a map in his head. Dozing in the backseat, I’d hear him call out checkpoints along the way:
“That smell is the chicken factory – we’re in Negeri Sembilan!”
“Traffic jam! Another accident on Karak highway,”
“Yong Peng! First settlement the British curfewed during the communist insurgency.”
Sometimes I’d peek outside the window to see long, lonely stretches of rubber plantations. As the years rolled by, they gradually turned into dense, leafy palm oil estates. (As decades passed, they mostly disappeared from view as new highways rose up — and the drive shrunk from eight hours to just over four today.)
Back then, high-school geography was an opportunity to understand the world beyond my window, but for an unworldly child like me the true delight was making connections between the map and what I could see: industrialized agriculture taking over traditional farmland, the then-deadly statistics of the Karak highway, the pockets of colonial history, and the evolving economy of a developing country.
Today, I work at a company which uses computer vision to extract map data from street-level imagery. While I stretch to keep up with the technology everyday, most days it’s a nostalgic return to high-school geography: connecting what I see to maps for appreciating the broader context. In the past few years, I’ve seen the edges of tectonic plates in Iceland, a refugee camp on the coast of Calais, heron breeding grounds in Staten Island — and through the eyes of others: new roads in the desert of Southwestern China, mobility challenges in Mexico City, and the impact of climate change in the Ivory Coast.
The other day, a customer called me mulling a problem they were struggling with: “Did you know,” he said, “that there’s been a big shift in land use from rubber to palm oil over the years in Malaysia? It’s tough to discern a rubber tree from a palm oil tree from satellite imagery, so we can’t characterize it that way.”
I smiled. “You can see it from the ground,” I said. “We can help.”
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