I feel that Aitken and Michel are slightly overreacting. “GIS Hegemony in Planning”? Those are some strong words right there. I feel that this article may be a bit outdated, having been written in 1995. Indeed, the cited predictions about the future net worth of the GIS industry were gross underestimates. 600mn systems and 6bn USD global industry worth? That’s nothing. According to a Wikipedia article (original source no longer available – yea I know), the GIS industry is was valued at 400bn yuan (63bn USD at current exchange rates) in 2007 in China alone. I don’t know whether the authors were truly appreciative of what GIS has done for us, and so instead chose to focus on criticising it.
One of their issues, if I understood correctly, was that GIS systems give too much ‘authority’ to those that use them. GIS has made doing analysis and making maps very quick and easy to do, and increased accessibility of GIS software/hardware has enabled more people to do such analysis. The authors worry that we trust in the output from the people using GIS too much. That we don’t scrutinise the underlying methods and assumptions, and that we are merely pushing buttons instead of thinking about what we are doing. In response to their urban planning examples of failures due to over reliance on GIS models, I would say that it is merely a matter of education. The kinds of models and assumptions you get in GIS are based on other domains such as urban planning, so blaming GIS will only get you so far. If you know your urban planning theory or ecology or whatever subject, you will be able to look more critically at: whether the output matches established theory, and whether the computations done in the GIS was appropriate. If you want people to truly understand what’s going on, then they have to educate themselves. GIS though, can still be useful to those with rudimentary knowledge. Many make use of statistical tests without trying to remember the exact formulas behind them. All they have to remember are the required inputs and how to interpret the results. In terms of planning – there will still be an urban planning expert sitting behind that GIS, doing the analysis. For that person, the GIS will be an extension for the field of urban planning; an enabler for the researcher to do more things more quickly. Even if they look at GIS as simply a tool, they will still understand how it works. If they don’t, then the city council should hire someone else.
Another problem they had was that the ‘interested citizen’ does not get fed all the details, but instead just gets filtered information prepared by others. Again, this is another area where the article may be out of date. Right now, it is much easier to get hold of data than in 1995 due to the internet. Whether or not information is released is not a reason to blame GIS – rather, these tend to be more legal issues that should not be in the scope of CGIS.