Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tobler's First Law of Geography

In 1970, a geographer named Waldo Tobler created and published what he called The First Law of geography (TFL). The idea didn’t pick up until the 1990’s when GIS grew in popularity. The First Law states that, “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.’’

This seems like a simple, all encompassing idea, but that was the intention of the law, to grasp something fundamental to the field of geography and put it into words.  Not much has been written about or explored about this law, which is what this article tries to rectify. The author of this article intended to begin the discussion on TFL.

Yes, Tobler definitely seems like a guy more interested in the near than the far.

Following are the positions of some who spoke at a panel on TFL.

“Harvey Miller claims that TFL is central to the core of spatial analytical techniques as well as to geographic conceptions of space. He further argues that laws in science are compact descriptions of patterns and regularities.”  Harvey then goes on to describe how GIS technology is increasingly able to display and analyze the ‘near things’ versus the ‘distant things’, and so support of TFL is expected to increase.

Trevor Barnes held radically different opinions on the subject, however his arguments seemed to be more against the idea of ‘laws’ existing in the first place than the law itself.

To Jonathan Phillips, “whether TFL should qualify as a law is not nearly as interesting as assessing the extent to which it helps us in understanding earth-surface systems.” He also brought up the idea that TFL is not accurate all of the time.

In the end, it seems that The First Law is not necessarily a true law due to the fact that it is not always correct, but it is a useful tool and idea that has helped the geography and cartography community make great leaps in their development.

Sui, D. Z. (2004), Tobler's First Law of Geography: A Big Idea for a Small World?. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 94: 269–277. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.2004.09402003.x

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