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Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Good, the Bad, and the Geographic Information System

GIS has many potential benefits, including increased accessibility of data/information to non-experts (especially in a time when a vast amount of data is available via the internet), its advanced capability for “real-time” problem solving, and the digitization of data. This digitalization allows us to easily transmit, store, process, and analyze information at, literally, the click of a button. And because GIS digitizes data, it allows integration and assessment of data from multiple sources. As we’ve learned in class, the combination of demographic and geographic data from the Census Bureau, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and the Madison Public Libraries yields us with very informative maps that would otherwise, with use of only one data set, be telling only part of the story. It allows us to combine the variables that we feel are important to our study to make a map meaningful.

But this is also GIS’s downfall. While potential pitfalls include the quality (or accuracy) of data sets, its greatest danger comes from the manipulation of data and the assumptions that are made during the process. GIS strives to be objective, and while the computer applications might be, the humans who are compiling the data and generating the maps are far from objective. We all have an agenda, a bias, a slant – humans don’t really like being wrong and we want to show that our hypothesis is true. Using GIS and integrating data from multiple sources, we end up with an array of variables that we can either select for or select against when generating a map. You get to play around with the variables, trying different sets (such as zip codes versus census tracts) until the map looks the way you want it to look. It also allows you to easily ignore (or manipulate the ranges of data) for variables. Deciding how to combine information will yield different results for different people – the information is still all the same, but you choose the variables and format you want to present to tell the story you want to tell.

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