Primer on Human Geography


Geography is intimately intertwined with preparing and planning activity in hostile zones, such as walking through a bad neighborhood or crossing the border from Azerbaijan into Iran.  For journalists this may be photographing mines in Franceville, Gabon, or interviewing human trafficking victims in Toledo, Ohio.  We must understand geography.

We want to study topographic and street maps, part of physical geography, but we need a sense of patterns and processes that shape human interactions within the environment, known as “human geography.”  That is, we analyze how people behave while living in their physical geography.  We want spatial visualizations of these patterns and processes.

There are many resources online to plot human geography data, usually produced by governments, world organizations (e.g., World Health Organization), and private think tanks.  Before arriving, any resourceful reporter should have access to sources to track people in a reporting environment.  Good practice is to map immediate areas of interest, such as the neighborhood in which one lives and works.


Human geography studies picked up formally in WWII, then took off in South Vietnam.  Defense services wanted to pacify locals in South Vietnam, unite and protect certain villages, and encourage residents to support the U.S. presence and fight against Vietcong.  The U.S. needed strategic and tactical intelligence on guerilla units buried in the population.

In its first decade of combat, from about 1955 to 1966, U.S. and allied forces in Vietnam neither understood nor tracked specific villages.  Rather, they focused counter-intelligence activity on large territories where Vietcong and South Vietnamese military forces fought.  This proved to be overly broad and missed the importance of Vietcong organizing at the village level and launching guerilla-style attacks from those positions.

Responding, the U.S. shifted focus and narrowed attention to these villages, also called “hamlets,” where peasants organized economically, politically, and socially.  U.S. forces began studying and tracking district and provincial levels of human activity — their patterns and habits.  The two main goals of this type of inquiry are to provide insight and reduce uncertainty, thereby enhancing mission success.

Human Terrain Mapping

Since Vietnam, now after many years operating in the Middle East, certain military branches have Human Terrain Mapping (HTM) systems to understand and track local populations in areas of operation.  In reporting human terrain, the U.S. defense services study many sub-disciplines of human geography.  These topics are relevant to reporting activity for journalists and human rights workers:

Population Geography: analysts study the spatial aspects of demography, examining the location, spatial distribution, and processes that create patterns.

Cultural Geography: analysts examine the spatial aspects of human cultures, including shared patterns of learned behavior, learned patterns of thought and behavior of a population, and general ways of life of people.

Political Geography: analysts examine spatial expressions of political behavior, geographic space and political processes, voting patterns, spatial patterns of political phenomena and processes.

Medical Geography: analysts examine spatial aspects of health and disease, sources of disease, diffusion, and distributions of diseases and health issues.

Environmental Geography: analysts examine climate and security, environmental hazards and significant events, food security, land use and land tenure rights, natural resources and ecosystems, water resources, water supply, water control, agriculture.

Economic Geography: analysts examine economic activity, economic systems activity by location, activity in certain industries, labor participation, unemployment, use and consumption of resources, trade, goods and services.

Urban Geography: analysts examine spatial evolution and structure of cities and urban systems, physical dimensions of neighborhoods, social aspects of neighborhoods, crime patterns, sanitation, sewage and plumbing, electricity and power, water and food access, and civil disobedience patterns.

Historical Geography: analysts examine past geography studies and compare and contrast to present geography studies, inquiring why landscapes change over time.

Data Themes for Journalists

Within the broad Human Geography area of interest and each sub-category, the U.S. defense industry has outlined “data themes” to organize data into manageable groupings based on academic disciplines.  We try to organize collected information into these themes to better understand the human terrain of an environment.

There may be more themes, but the 13 developed by the U.S. defense services are

  • land use, cover and ownership;
  • transportation;
  • water supply and control;
  • communications and media;
  • economy;
  • demographics;
  • language;
  • religion;
  • ethnicity;
  • education;
  • medical and health;
  • groups / political;
  • and significant events.

Of these themes, there are a few we think are more important for journalists than other themes.  However, the themes we choose are particularly suited for short 1-3 day missions, getting in and getting out in a few days, and working under cover or under press credentials.  In either instance, studying geography is necessary.  The is a lot of work for a short visit, but often necessary to lessen one’s risk of detention, kidnapping, capture, and death.  Know the area well and know the people well enough to reasonably predict what they might do to prevent press activity.  

The human geography themes are communications and media, demographics, language, medical and health, and significant events.

Communications and Media

This theme contains information about who controls and spreads information in the environment, what access different groups have, location and capabilities of broadcast and print media, internet access, and the companies and governments who operate the flow of information to the public.  Topics, depending on the world region, country, and city, may include media influence, press freedom, cellular reception, satellite services, emergency communications, radio, oral traditions, internet access and coverage, and access to courier services.


This theme describes the size, composition, and trends of the population.  We’re really talking about age and gender percentages, population growth rates, fertility rates, mortality and emigration, racial composition, and other census data that show important variations across the area of interest.  Topics include birth and mortality rates, rate of natural increase, carrying capacity, demographic transition, life expectancy, migration, density, race, gender, reproductive health, age, and population movements such as temporary and seasonal workers and refugees.


In any area of operation, we need to know linguistic groups, where certain languages and dialects are spoken, by whom, and how prevalent each language might be.  Subcategories are ethno-linguistic groups, linguistic groupings, number of speakers, languages used in government, education, broadcast, publications, business, religion, social activities, dialects, slang, and primary and secondary languages.

Medical and Health

The medical and health theme depicts the health situation in the area based on medical resources present, how they are distributed, and the population’s access to medical services.  We plot hospitals and clinics and attributes of each, such as number of beds, doctors, operating rooms, medical staff, technology, and patient base for each.  We also plot disease conditions and locations, disease vectors, transmission sources, sanitation, diet and nutrition, pollution, environmental waste, failure to meet basic needs indexes, health beliefs and practices, and morbidity.

Significant Events

This theme is very important for journalists operating abroad.  We describe historical events and incidents that have shaped the area and continue to shape the area.  The local population will behave accordingly.  After a historical plotting, we dig deep into more recent major events in months, weeks, and days.  What has happened in the last three months, three weeks, and three days?  Topics for events should be conflicts, natural disasters, violence outbreaks, humanitarian disasters, riots and insurrection, curfews, government occupations of areas, police presence, recent major crimes.


By no means is geography alone exhaustive of security or other issues.  Mainly, a sense of human geography is needed for feature stories of resistance groups, government forces, and conflicts between the two.  But human geography has clear nexus to area studies before one arrives: estimate potential dangers, know major players in town, map areas of interest (good and bad), plan for supplies if needed, and mark up escape routes.  To scale, a vacation to Mexico City might include 8 hours workup of neighborhood of hotel, recent events, drug trafficking organization methods, government police methods, emergency medical, local transport routes, city officials and prominent business owners.  A workup of a reporting mission in Mexico City would require a few more hours, up to maybe 20, mapping particular routes, organizing car service, detailing more about drug and human trafficking, rented homes in neighborhoods, mapping infrastructure and emergency services, and so on.