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Thursday, June 30, 2005

GIS: chief benefit, chief pitfalls

I'm going to take the risk of posting without reading the class contributions. I would imagine there is a broad consensus based on our readings.

The chief benefit of GIS to the user who is not either refining hardware or writing software, is that the process of creating maps, that is, layering of information, becomes transparent. I tend to look at a map or chart and leap to visualizing reality. The effect of looking at a map is almost as hypnotic as television. Single layers of information are experienced as a strand of meaning, almost a different universe. I'm thinking of the travel book by Wm. Least Heat Moon called Blue highways, where he chose to drive across the US using highways rendered in blue, on the assumption that these were the back roads. Sure enough, this arbitrary limitation meant that he met a lot of marginal characters, so that his prose map of American society looked quite different from the freeway interchange view.

This week's lesson seems to be that data in tabular form are neutral: they have to be restructured to generate meaning, or to convey an intended message. Using GIS makes one aware that this is true, and that altering the appearance of the representation of the data alters the apparent reality depicted in the resulting map.

The chief pitfalls of GIS lie in the fact of a digital divide, that although Internet access is in theory universal it is only general and expanding, limited to consumers, institutions, and business. At the GIS discussion group at ALA, the GIS and map librarian from Princeton and others were discussing user expectations that libraries can deliver a high-quality, detailed map product to support their research with rapid turnaround. The Princeton guy pointed out that the public do not realize that a project may require 2 to 3 hours in one sitting, and several days of follow-up to be refined. Doing it right effectively limits public access, because most staffs are too small to provide a good, custom service to more than one user at a time. As with most computer applications that involve a product that goes beyond text (electronic music comes to mind) the difference in time of execution between a "one-off" that accomplishes a limited task and a product that makes full use of the software is major, and beyond the interests if not the tools available to casual users.

In connection with this problem of making an elite product available to the public, GIS is vulnerable to governmental and other proprietary control over access to data. As the article on community groups in the Twin Cities pointed out, the empowerment achieved by these groups through using GIS to make their cases is only as great as their access to reliable data generated by local government--information dependency on the same institutions that the groups are trying to influence is like the predicament of the toddler tied to a clothesline so that he won't run out of his mother's sight.

Marxists used to make cartoons of the "pyramid of oppression": now we have the pyramid of information control. This is a major concern with the Federal mapping agency now known as NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, http://www.nga.mil/portal/site/nga01/), who invited public comments last November on a proposal to remove aeronautical charts from public, free distribution. There was a conference call held last Tuesday June 21 between NGA representatives and CUAC, the Cartographic Users Advisory Council, http://cuac.wustl.edu/ , about this issue. It sounds as if the government is trying to be threatening while they gauge from public reaction how much the cartographic user community is willing to pay for this information. At the moment, the threat is no more than that, but it is dangerous when government decides to test its ability to apply power that is only latent most of the time. Instead of the access to information we have in liberal society, which is relatively open but also limited in various ways, the will of the government to use information access as a lever poses the worsening problem of noncommunicating circles of information closed along the various lines of social demarcation.

The connection between the GIS benefit of process transparency and the pitfall of the digital divide is that power and economic relationships affect both access to information and the prospect of learning something from the information.

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