Friday, March 09, 2007

The Future for GIS

This blog post could have started with "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for Geography," but that is too close to plagiarism for comfort.

Geographic Information System is probably the most useful tool for geographers to come onto the scene since the computer. GIS allows geographers to manipulate data, define searches, and study spatial relationships with relative ease. It is such a powerful and useful tool that many disciplines ranging from wildlife management to planning to agriculture to architecture all have found uses for it. Examine non-geography major students taking upper level geography classes and all but a few of them will be enrolled in GIS classes.

GIS has long been at the center of controversy; however. When it first came out to the general public some in academia decried it as a tool of the establishment. Saying that it was evil because it was first developed by the "military-industrial complex" or that it did not take into account those who would be disenfranchised. A tool, much like Microsoft Word, was declared bad. To this day some Marxist et al. geographers have attempted to reform/corrupt GIS. One of the major geographical journals just published an article on a feminist critique of GIS and how it should be more subjective to factor in feelings. (Do not ask Catholicgauze how this is to be done; somethings are beyond my comprehension)

GIS has been immune from attacks like this. Many of those who use GIS are not in academia but in the career world and have no time for post-structuralist thought. This independence can turn into isolation and secession.

There are those who worship GIS as a thing in and of itself. Some schools like Harvard only teach how to do GIS while calling it geography. Others have started Geographic Information Science programs which dedicate themselves solely of the study of GIS.

With GISc focusing only on GIS, the whole reason GIS exists, to study spatial phenomenon, is kicked out the door. When GIS is the pinacle of everything geography loses. What has happened is that many GIS users have no knowledge of geography. With a few clicks of a button a GIS jockey can describe data's distribution but cannot explain why things are the way they are. A monkey can do that work.

To continue down this road would be a disaster for both geography and GIS. If GIS goes its own route under a banner of GISc while GIS operating tools become easier to operate, a "tech schoolization" of the tool will occur. It will become something to outsource to the lowest bidder and require no thought. GIS users could become the next administrative assistants. Once touch typing abilities were highly valued, no longer. Intelligent people need not apply in this future. A split would also hurt geography. Many departments receive a large share of their funding due to work they do with GIS. Geographers need GIS to survive in this economic system. GIS needs geography to give it a special meaning no other subject can.


Catholicgauze said...

The various sides have made peace. We will wait for the video of the speech to pass judgment over what was said.

Ubikcan said...

I do agree that it is undesirable for GIS to dissociate itself from the study of spatial phenomena/geography. The tool is a means to an end; that is, knowing more about the world we live in and intervening in it to improve it.

And actually, this may explain why Mei-Po Kwan et al. (I presume you are referring to the recent Professional Geography special issue on GIS and emotion) study this commonest of all geographical events: fear, joy, confusion, etc in our lives. How do we live in the world? Presumably not without these things!

Catholicgauze said...

Good point on Mei-Po Kwan. I guess I am biased against her due to her and her colleagues previous works on critical GIS.

Anonymous said...

Another illuminating post on a subject I gather I'll be dealing with when I go to college. Right now its over my head though.

Anonymous said...

Excellent point - I've been drumming that home to my interns. They have to understand the "why" as much as the "how. I posted a link on my site:

Dave Smith said...

There is no such thing as GIS just for the sake of GIS.

GIS is merely a tool in support of other domains and pursuits. GIS supports planning and land use, it supports archaeology, environmental science, geology, human and physical geography, commerce, transportation, and so many, many more disciplines - essentially anything that has a spatial component. The core drivers have been, and will continue to be these pieces of business logic.

On the other side of the coin, the computer scientists, database specialists, and others supporting GIS work in a partnership, to develop the complex relational schemas, the algorithms, and implementations of these real-world processes within the digital domain - and in many ways, serve to reduce the complex technical to simpler, more accessible approaches for use by the disciplines, and for the layman alike.

Indeed, there are many potential pitfalls... all must work together in orchestration.

Roger Hart said...

This, "tech schoolization" of GIS is alreaady going on. I've dealt with GIS "Analysts" at many different government organizations. I've come across very few that really understand the science behind the technology.

Geography is not the only place you hear concerns such as yours. Replace your term "GIS jockey" with "CAD jockey" and you just as easily could be talking about land surveying or engineering.

Anonymous said...

My wife is a professor of Technical Communication who studies internet use as it relates to gender and sex (two different things). She would be interested in the MP Kwan article. Would you post the full title of this article, so I know I'm looking at the correct one? There seems to be several with feminist themes.


Catholicgauze said...

The MP Kwan articles are jointly held copyrights between the AAG and Dr. Kwan. Since Catholicgauze doesn't want to be sued I will not post them. However, perphaps MP Kwan will give you a copy if you ask her.

E-mail: kwan.8[AT-NOSPAM]

Anonymous said...

I don't want the article. I would like the Title of the article. Then I can go find a copy in a university library.

Catholicgauze said...

Oops, the title is "Affecting Geospatial Technologies: Toward a Feminist Politics of Emotion" published in the Professional Geographer.

Anonymous said...

The "lack of geography" is a serious issue in today's GIS world. Also the lack of basic skills in "graphic semiology" or graphic communication, resulting in tons of disastrous map products being realeased everyday with the pretention to support decision-making.

It is very difficult to introduce topics related to geography and graphic communication in tech or software driven GIS forum.

Despite this, mainstreaming GIS applications is a major success for modern Geography. However, Geography should be to GIS what Physics are to Engineering or Biology to Medecine.

Deborah Woodell said...

That's why good, old-fashioned shoe leather is a good tool, too. The little FIRMette for near my house shows a little railroad spur, like something where you'd park a spare engine. Uh-uh, not there in the 19 years I've lived there.

Anonymous said...

I believe the lack of training in the field of Geography is becoming an ever increasing problem in GIS Offices across the country, and I am sure it will spread around the world. These individuals are simply button pushing, non-critical thinking, machines, that produce maps that mean little to nothing. These individuals are not only coming out of the 1 year technical schools, but they are also coming out of 2 year schools as well as a few selected four-year institutions. These students should not be allowed to finish their undergraduate program until they have demonstrated the critical thinking skills necessary to produce quality, accurate maps that clearly show spatial trends.

Neonard0 said...

Great Article, but can anybody write the article the autor references? I mean he said "...One of the major geographical journals just published an article on a feminist critique of GIS and how it should be more subjective to factor in feelings ...". I would like to read that.

Catholicgauze said...


The article is "Affecting Geospatial Technologies: Toward a Feminist Politics of Emotion" by MP Kwan published in the Professional Geographer

Sarel Coetzer 2007 said...

You really don't need Geography to apply the basics of GIS. I used GIS in the Forestry industry and currently in the medical research field. I don't know how knowledge of geography would assist you or me in spatially analyzing features. What I do know is that the academics I render GIS support to don't have the time or technical skills to learn GIS, they dedicate their time to research, witting papers or acquiring funds for future projects. My point is that GIS is becoming very technical especially with open source software which requires some programming skills. For an academic or a "Geographer" to dive into the pit of constant changing open source software(oss) and programming, well good luck. You might want to stick to your commercial software which is basically a budget drainer(high maintenance costs) or you might get in a monkey to introduce you to o.s.s but be warned, you will have to feed that monkey.

Anonymous said...

Saying that you don't need to know geography to use GIS is like saying you can effectively use Matlab without math or R without statistics.

Anonymous said...

You geo people are too high and mighty about your standings. Just give it a rest. Technology moves on with or without you.

Anonymous said...

summary of this thread for nonprofressionals and GIS Anylst:

The smart folk are pondering how to setup an establishment that keeps everyone else locked out and beholden to them for their services. They then hope to use the geographic data they monopolize to prove their necessity. Information will then only flow through them. They will desire to disenfranchise the majority for the benefit of a few. Politicians will court them in mass and utilize their services secretely.

They are superior, if we need work we can apply to polish their shoes because we aren't qualified to create maps.

relax and have a nice laugh ..quite the gripping!

Catholicgauze said...

"Politicians will court them in mass and utilize their services secretely (sic)." I wish in some crazy bizzaro world.

GIS is great and the average GIS technician does more impactful geography than the average geographer in academia. No doubt on that.

What I am writing about is how many of the newer technicians have zero to almost no spatial knowledge since GIS is being taught as if it were a word processor with just buttons to press. One just has to talk to the GIS "geographers" from China and India to see this.