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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Benefits & Dangers of GIS

Thinking geographically is second nature to all of us. It is a prerequisite to interact with the world on a daily basis. Neither driving a car, sitting down, reshelving books, typing, nor almost anything else would be possible without spatial awareness on our part. As we have seen in lecture, this awareness is reflected in the longstanding human tradition to represent, or map, the known world. Perhaps this is why claims made by geographers and maps made by cartographers are simultaneously fascinating and taken for granted. The geographer’s claim that close things are more related than things far away seems obvious in the example of housing prices and architecture. But when we consider what this tells us about the way humans structure their world, it becomes less of an obvious statement and more of a fascinating thought. There is certainly no rule that houses be similar just because they are close. We are physically capable of building a shack next door to a mansion, but we don’t. Geography tries to answer that question, ‘why’? I’m sure that many of us have experienced, or have heard about people pouring over a road atlas, imagining what it’s like at a certain bend in the road, what the people eat, how the physical landscape appears, or what accents people use. This is the fascinating part. The taken for granted part is that the road actually exists, that the often-arbitrary lines we call state boundaries exist, and most importantly, that what is shown on the map is all there is to know about the world. I think the biggest strength of geography is its desire to shed this common spatial awareness, or this taken-for-grantedness that is second nature to us all, and instead attempt to conceive of space as if it were not a given as we experience it on a daily basis. Rethinking distance, spatial relationships, flows, boundaries, etc is an important way to probe deeper into what constitutes our reality.

The benefit of a GIS, then, is that it allows the manipulation and visual presentation of all kinds of data so that the taken for granted becomes the fascinating. Imagine a pre-GIS boardroom with someone presenting that year’s circulation statistics for the library branches of Dane county. Aurally associating a place name with a number does not encourage the incorporation of other factors that may have affected or influenced those data. Visualizing them on a map, however, could lead to new thoughts such as the placement of roads or the lowland area that may be prone to flooding, for example.

I feel that the biggest danger of using a GIS is that it is entirely restricted by the quality and quantity of data that exist, or to be more accurate, the quality and quantity of data that are findable (to echo Ben's 'con'). Mark Harrower, a professional cartographer, has noted that we do not live in the information age, but the data age. We are inundated with massive amounts of data, be they through web interfaces, excel spreadsheets, television channels, etc. As we are learning in this course, a large part of the present-day cartographer’s job is to make sense of these data and turn them into digestible information that reflects a part of reality. By their nature, maps made with a GIS completely quantify the world, an approach that is politically powerful, but not necessarily accurate. How would one, for example, map the amount of fear felt by Baghdadians using a GIS? Understanding, let alone transforming this part of our world into a GIS is a challenge.

Because of these pitfalls, the analyst of a geographic problem should use a GIS as one resource of many in his or her toolbox, relying on other types of research as well.


At 12:54 PM, Blogger salim said...

In some sense, Nick is preaching to the choir as far as his first two paragraphs are concerned, I whole-heartedly agree with him. But I don't know if I can agree that the quality and quantity of data available is the biggest danger of GIS. We can't do much about that in the short term..what's there is there. However, I would be more concerned about the misuse of current data, regardless of its quality and quantity. Maps, because of their powerful visual appeal can be very persuasive--and onlookers might be more easily persuaded than say, what an article says. So, like like with anything else, maps should be one tool to help you triangulate other information and never used solely as the basis for individual or organizational decision making.


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