Archive for January, 2008

slaves of our (geospatial) media

Sunday, January 27th, 2008

(An excellent post written by Intro to GIS student, N. E.)

Questions of how one must classify geographic information systems (GIS) have received much attention in the years since GIS’s development. While it is most often a debate between calling GIS a science or a tool, geographers Daniel Z. Sui and Michael F. Goodchild suggest that neither of these options properly convey the relationship between GIS and society. In their essay “A tetradic analysis of GIS and society using McLuhan’s law of the media,” they describe GIS as a means of communication, the new mass media (Sui and Goodchild 2003, 7). Throughout their essay, GIS is presented with skepticism. Sui and Goodchild emphasize the abuse of GIS by companies and governments, drawing on the problem of privacy within GIS. However, they likewise address the fact that the social implications of GIS are neither exclusively positive nor negative.

To focus only on the consequences is to miss the point. Therefore, to explore the relationship between GIS and society, Sui and Goodchild (Ibid., 10-12) evoke 20th Century media analyst, Marshal McLuhan. McLuhan’s law of media is founded on four questions that they apply to GIS:

  1. What does GIS enhance?
  2. What does GIS make obsolete?
  3. What does GIS retrieve?
  4. What does GIS reverse into?

Sui and Goodchild answer these questions. First, they propose that our human faculties are enhanced by GIS. Through the use of remote sensing and aerial photography, our eyes are enhanced. Likewise, our brains are enhanced through the various spatial analysis and modeling applications of GIS. The accessibility of geographic information is enhanced. By extension, the place of GIS in society is enhanced.

These extensions are met by consequences. To the second question, “[GIS] also simultaneously make obsolete … various social practices and human faculties” (Ibid., 10). In the case of GIS, the art of traditional cartography and firsthand data collection are becoming increasingly obsolete as a result of the fast advance of GIS (Ibid., 11). In the face of this loss, GIS retrieves long lost social practices (the third question). For example, with GIS has come a return to a kind of oral culture that faded with the invention of the printing press.

Finally, implicit to GIS is a kind of reversal. Whereas GIS began as a an extension of people, soon people become a sort of extension of GIS (Ibid., 12). Environments are shifted to fit GIS, rather than further developing GIS to fit diverse environments. Furthermore, this role reversal of GIS and its environment create a kind of hierarchy between the individual and the system. The implications of this hierarchy are the loss of personal privacy with the struggle to improve the system and data collection. Thus, “we become slaves to our media” (Ibid.). Through these four areas of analysis Sui and Goodchild express the importance of viewing GIS in a holistic manner.

This notion of GIS as media continues to gain relevance. The increase in online geospatial databases, search engines such as Pipl and Wink, and social networking sites such as Facebook make it increasingly easy to find geospatial information of individuals. With these kinds of technology, tracking down an old friend takes a few minutes. The problem becomes whether it is morally right for these search engines to communicate the information of individuals. Zabasearch, a people search engine, provides both listed and unlisted telephone numbers (Ibid.). In this way, a sense of agency is removed from the individual for the sake of an accurate and convenient system. Sui and Goodchild summarize this idea nicely by stating that: we are “more concerned with what GIS does for us rather than to us” (Sui and Goodchild 2003, 14). It is important to acknowledge both the benefits of GIS and the consequences and attempt to fully recognize the social implications of GIS.

Daniel Z. Sui; Michael F. Goodchild, 2003 “A tetradic analysis of GIS and society using McLuhan’s law of the media” Canadian Geographer 47, 1: 5-17. The article is worth reading in full. It discusses the role of GIS as a mass media in much greater depth and raises interesting connections between McLuhan’s theories and GIS.

Gina Trapani. 2007, “How to track down anyone online” This post gave me insight into the roles of new search engines to disclose geospatial information about individuals without their knowledge or consent.

Nicholas Carr’s “The social graft” Another post I found quite interesting in regards to the functions of GIS and its implications on privacy.

we want your waste electronics(?)

Sunday, January 27th, 2008

Xstrata hopes to take advantage of the European Union’s waste electronic regulations and thus the EU’s needs to have its cellphones, laptops, etc. recycled. Xstrata plans to double its recycling capacity at the Horne smelter in Quebec.

I feel a bit–just a bit–of NIMBY coming on. Sure I want recycling and the city’s residents need the income. Hopefully, this recycling plant isn’t so dirty that it’s a net loss to the environment instead of a net gain.

environmentally friendly MacBook Air

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

Apple has just announced the new MacBook Air, an incredibly thin and light, full keyboard laptop with all the features that you know and love.

Apparently Apple has also addressed the critics that it looks and feels environmentally friendly but is far from it.

Apple’s frequently been in the crosshairs of environmental group Greenpeace in recent years. Jobs offered information about the environmental goals behind the MacBook Air — it has a fully recyclable aluminum case, and is “the first” to have a mercury-free display with arsenic-free glass. All the circuit boards are BFR-free and PVC-free, and the retail packaging uses 56 percent less material than the MacBook packaging.

Must resist urge to buy….

more GIS and electoral politics

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

(written by Intro to GIS student, D. A.)

One of the many uses of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is in electoral politics. In most countries, political representation is in part geographically-based (where you live is how you vote). One could statically map this data, but GIS can be used to analyse and display political data in more user-friendly and dynamic ways. An example of this application of GIS can be seen in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s coverage of the 2007 federal election in Australia. The website features a very useful, interactive map, and makes extensive use of GIS.

ABC’s geospatial visualization is based on the Google Maps platform, and it contains various layers of political data. The layers contain data on the seat make up when the election was called, key seats, seats changing hands, as well as the final predicted results. The various electoral constituencies on the map are hotlinked to pages of information that give an overview of the demographics, and voting history. During the election, it had live results of the constituency as the votes were counted. The various constituencies on the site are colour coded based on the party that controls them. A viewer can flip though the data and in seconds see how the election is playing out, where various parties are gaining, and how those gains are geographically distributed. Because all this data is superimposed on Google Maps, a visitor can even search for a specific address to see the constituency that contains it. This map provides a highly accessible, one-stop location for information about the election.

Here in Canada, the CBC has also used interactive maps to display election results, but none are nearly as user-friendly or as comprehensive as the ABC example. The most recent election, which was held in early November, was for provincial ridings in Saskatchewan. The interactive map displayed only the incoming data for that election. Considerable additional data is available online, but it wasn’t brought together. Provincial riding profiles were displayed on separate pages, as were the results for the previous election. The format was far more constraining, and provided far less information than in Ausralia. It would be great if CBC could take full advantage of the new technologies that could improve the display of election information.

Cellphone tracking powers on request. Who cares?

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

(written by Intro to GIS student, G. M., who takes a view on privacy contrary from many of the GIS students)

Information and communication technologies that have proliferated throughout developed and even underdeveloped societies have transformed our way of life…but, people ask, “At what cost?”. The cell phone is a great example of this proliferation and its potential cost. It has become a convenience few have been able to resist. One after another people have handed over their personal information and in return they received affordable mobile communication thanks to GPS satellites that constantly scan the earth’s surface and cell phone towers that periodically report on people’s locations. Little did they know they had just given up much of their privacy because their cell phone can be located within 30 meters as long as the battery is intact. A cell phone works with the same technology as GPS directional devices such as Onstar that can constantly transmit a location signal weather this is desired or not. Cell phone companies, which have been entrusted with this information, have been known to release it to government agencies, which inform the companies that the information is necessary for security purposes.

Personally I have no problem with my personal information including my approximate location being made available at any time. I feel by owning a cell phone I have given up a certain amount of my privacy but also feel safe as I carry out my regular routine. As one member of the US Justice department states “Law enforcement has absolutely no interest in tracking the locations of law-abiding citizens” (Nakashima 2007). Even when I do become a target, most likely by advertisers, I will accept this as an externality of the technological age. Whether the externality is positive or negative I have yet to decide. I’m still neutral on this as I have yet to experience any form of invasive action, so I continue my existence, comfortable with the knowledge of potential ongoing surveillance.

These geolcation technologies offer benefits that vastly outweigh costs of developing this technology. As satellites are upgraded and added to the system geolocation information will become more accurate, less expensive, and more readily available. I believe that our privacy has been looked after thus far; however, if society continues down this path we must accept further losses to what many consider a basic human right.

Using the GPS for People Tracking

Justice Department Defends Use of Cell-Phone Tracking Data

The International Consumer Electronics Show goes green

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

The largest consumer electronic show in the world is trying to go carbon neutral.

Offsetting the environmental impact of the show means eliminating the creation of more than 20,000 tons of carbon.

The show uses as much energy as it takes to power 2,600 homes for a year and the equivalent of 2.3 million gallons of gasoline.

“It’s pretty ambitious, considering we’re larger than the Super Bowl and all the political conventions,” said Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association, the Arlington-based group hosting the show.

Recycled carpet, biodegradable plastic utensils, pamphlets printed with soy ink and energy-efficient light bulbs will be used, he said. [Link added]

The ICES going green still sounds like an oxymoron to me. Despite activities at the show, the CEA does little to actively promote recycling and reuse of electronic devices, the lack of which plagues the electronics industry.

The Dark Side of GIS

Saturday, January 5th, 2008

(written by Intro to GIS student, T. M.)

Geographic Information Science is often used for constructive purposes, such as creating maps for emergency situations (consider our third assignment in the course) or spatial analysis that ensures the protection of certain environmentally sensitive areas (see our assignment #5). Indeed, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is often used for purposes that promote the well-being of people, such as mapping a city’s transportation routes to make commuting more convenient and efficient. But what is often neglected is when GIS is used in ways that are seen almost universally as detrimental to citizens. This can be seen to be the case when the sophisticated tools used in the field of GIS are used to gerrymander electoral districts.

Gerrymandering has existed for as long as there have been electoral districts to draw. The term was coined in 1811 when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry approved a voting district in the shape of a salamander. Despite its storied past, Gerrymandering has recently become more precise in the U.S. to give a distinct long-term tactical advantage to one political party over another. Using census data and electronic maps, GIS can aid in the disenfranchisement of certain voter categories, such as women, ethnic minorities and other demographics that are statistically less likely to vote for a party. Multiple techniques, such as ‘cracking’, ‘packing’ and ‘stacking’ votes can be used to dilute the strength of one party’s vote to reap gains for another.

Instead of being used in harmful way, GIS could be utilized to make the drawing of electoral maps fairer than they could have ever been without it (as GIS was used in the 2000 census). It is important to note that any tool in the hands of a person with malicious intent can be used in a negative fashion. For example, GIS can be used by the laudable for mapping out aid delivery routes in Africa or by the vicious for planning terrorist bombings. This brings about some noticeable implications: How can we encourage responsible use of GIS? Or, do we need some sort of restriction to induce the responsible use of GIS? I’m not sure that such a restriction would be possible, or even desirable. But what is certain is that one needs to reflect upon the negative nature of GIS, a story that is so often missed while we pile praises upon praises on this technology that has, for the most part, made our jobs as well-intentioned geographers easier.

Other Reading:
GIS Code of Ethics

Bushmanders and Bullwinkles: How Politicians Manipulate Electronic Maps and Census Data to Win Elections by Mark Monmonier (JStor Access Required)

Controversies in Political Redistricting GIS, Geography and Society by Munroe Eagles