Thoughts on “Geographical information science: critical GIS” (O’Sullivan 2006 )

We have discussed the importance of terminology in previous weeks, and O’Sullivan hints at the elusive nature of capturing a phenomenon when he states the topic of his paper as the “curious beast known at least for now as ‘critical GIS”. (page 782) He further states that there is little sign of a groundswell of critical human geographers wholeheartedly embracing GIS as a tool of their trade. I think this has changed.

In comparing different critiques of GIS, he states that more successful examples of critically informed GIS are those where researchers informed by social theory have been willing to engage with the technology, rather than to criticize from the outside. I agree with this and think it makes sense that some knowledge of the procedures of GIS  how they work is required to illustrate how they can be manipulated to produce subjective results.

On page 784, O’Sullivan states that “Criticism of the technology is superficial”, but neglects to mention what would constitute more profound and constructive criticism. O’Sullivan does not explicate, but refers to Ground Truth and the important contributions made in that book pertaining to ethical dilemmas and ambiguities within GIS. It is interesting to note that much of the “brokering” that went on in the early days, which allowed for reconciliation between social theorists and the GIS community, came from institutions and “top-down” organizing as opposed to a more grass roots discussion, say on discussion boards or online communities/groups.

O’Sullivan notes that “PPGIS is not a panacea, and must not undermine the robust debate on the political economy of GIS, its epistemology, and the philosophy and practice of GIScience’”, and I very much agree with this statement. Although the increased use of PGIS addresses one of the foremost critiques of the applicability of GIS to grassroots communities and movements, it is not a simple goal which can be achieved and considered “solved.” Rather, the increased involvement of novices in GIS and spatial decision-making processes raises a host of new issues for the field of Critical GIS.



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