Friday 4 June 2010

The love/hate relationship with GIS (Part 3)

New uses of GIS
There have been a growing number of attempts to combine critical human geography with GIS methods and techniques (O'Sullivan, 2006). Here are some successful examples where researchers informed by social theory have engaged with the technology, rather than to criticise from the outside.

People Participating GIS (PPGIS) emerged out of the critic that GIS further privileged those in power and marginalised others. PPGIS pertains to use GIS to broaden public involvement in policymaking and to promote the goals of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), grassroot groups, and community-based organisations (Sieber, 2006). But it is important to be aware that PPGIS can introduce new set of power relations into a community (Crampton, 2003)

Counter-mapping is a related concept to PPGIS, referring to efforts to contest and undermine power relations and asymmetries in relation to cartographic products (Harris and Hazen, 2006). The term was introduced by Nancy Peluso (1995) describing the commissioning of maps by forest users in Indonesia as a way of contesting state maps of forest areas that had long undermined their interest in those resources.

Jeremy Crampton (2001) says that GIS technology enables us to create exploratory mapping environments in which knowledge can be constructed. This is challenging the prevailing picture of cartography as the communication of information form the cartographer to the map reader. Since maps are part of a general discourse of power, mapping should proceed through multiple, competing visualisation which are made on the spot by the user. Exploratory mapping environments are noe now easier to create with recent advances in web technologies and standards. This enables us to embed information from various sources and in various forms (maps, images, video, sound and text). The user can to a large extent determine what information is to be displayed and in what context. It is important to mention the digital divide, as exploratory mapping is only effective when people have access to the technology and knowledge to use it (Crampton and Krygier, 2005).

Combining the best of both worlds
The love/hate dichotomy with GIS seems to be related to the opposition between quantitative and qualitative research. Pavlovskaya (2006) sees this as en extension of different epistemologies and not because these methods are incompatible. For the supportes and critics alike, GIS had been firmly rooted in the quantitative camp. Pavlovskaya finds this misleading, as GIS is neither stictly quantitative nor qualitative but may be used in different types of research. Geographic databases have the capability of storing more than numerical information, and there are examples where qualitative researchers have worked with unconvential GIS data sources. As mentioned above, narratives, hand-drawn maps, graphics, photos and videos can also be stored in these databases. Feminist geographers have begun to model individual experience as emotions or webs of daily economic practices (Pavlovskaya, 2006).

Geographers have also revisited the usefulness of quantitative methods as they no longer cling to the idea that quantitative methods allow objective research, recognising that knowledge is situated (Marshall, 2006). I tend to agree with Openshaw that "the modern geographer should be a pragmatist and seek to use any and all available methods, mixing and matching different tools and philosophies, as when and were appropriate" (Openshaw, 1992). Dobson (2002) belives that "a century from now, science historians will look back and decide GIS was a major revolutionary force in science and society, not because we made better maps, but because we forced disciplines to talk to one another." Future will tell if GIS becomes the glue between quantitative and qualitative research.

  • Crampton, J., 2001, "Maps as social constructions: power, communication and visualization", Progress in Human Geography, 25(2), pp. 235-253
  • Crampton, J., 2003, "How can Critical GIS be defined?", GeoWorld, 16. p. 54
  • Crampton, J., Krygier, J., 2006 "An Introduction to Critical Cartography", ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 4(1), pp. 22-23
  • Dobson, J., 2002, "What's new about GIS?" GeoWorld, 15(3), pp. 22-23
  • Harris, L., Hazen, H., 2006, "Power of Maps: (Counter) Mapping for Conservation", ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 4(1), pp. 99-130
  • Marshall, A. 2006, "A critique of the development of quantitative methodologies in human geography", Radical Statistics, 92.
  • O'Sullivan, D., 2006, "Geographical information science: critical GIS", Progress in Human Geography, 30(6), pp. 783-791.
  • Openshaw, S., 1992, "Further thoughts on geography and GIS: a reply", Environment and Planning A, 24, pp. 463-466
  • Pavlovskaya, M., 2006 "Theorizing with GIS: a tool for critical geographies?", Environment and Planning A, 33, pp. 2003-2020
  • Peluso, 1995, N., 1995 "Whose woods are these? Counter-mapping forest territories in Kalimantan, Indonesia", Antopode, 27(4), pp- 383-406
  • Sieber, R., 2006, "Public Participation Geographic Information Systems: A Literature Review and Framework", Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 93(3), pp. 491-507

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