Archive for November, 2015

VGI – Citizens as Sensors Article

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

In GEOG 407, we discussed the important role VGI plays in neogeography. Goodchild’s article, Citizen as Sensors: the world of volunteered geography, does a good job of exemplifying how the nature of geographic data is changing with the emergence of the Web 2.0 and crowdsourced platforms (2007). For my work on open data standards, I observed how VGI is transforming how civil society interacts with their local government. For example, I looked at an API that allows citizens to file a request with their local government to fix public sector issues such as potholes, fallen trees, and vandalism in their local neighborhoods. VGI allows the Open311 API to establish a two-way communication (acts on both the server and client sides) between government and civil society. In addition, this data is time sensitive and could introduce issues of bias and repetition that is a common problem when many people contribute VGI at the same time. As platforms develop to handle VGI, GIScience must focus on confronting common issues of sorting out duplicate information and applying statistics to live streaming data that lacks a population value.

In addition, Goodchild’s article reminds me of Dena’s discussion about the digital divide and the types of forums that exclude certain voices and epistemologies. As the article points out, only people who have access to the internet contribute VGI. Of course, these people are heavily concentrated in the developed part of the world. Therefore, we must be aware of the inequalities and biased perspectives that contextualize VGI. Finally, as technologies become more reliant on VGI, it is clear that GIScience must further understand what motivates people to contribute information. Much of GIScience will rely and apply data that has been volunteered and crowd sourced. It must also decide how to factor issues surrounding user expertise and accuracy of data being reported. For instance, citizen science must reconcile how to sort out information being reported that is perceived to be scientifically inaccurate. These questions will continue to be important topics of research within the field of GIScience.


Thoughts on VGI

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

In Elwood et al’s article “Prospects for VGI Research and the Emerging Fourth Paradigm” I am drawn to the schism described between the spatial orientation of geographers and the ‘platial’ orientation of most people who “tend to refer to locations by name, whether or not such names refer to precisely bounded areas” (363). Furthermore, Elwood et al suggest that “it is remarkable that place-names have played a surprisingly minimal role in traditional GIS”, instead adopting the spatial precision orientation of most geographers.

I wonder if it is possible for VGI to help develop a more ‘platial’ GIS and, if so, what that would look like. If people perceive the world more platially than spatially, then what phenomena are geographers (the supposed monopoly on understanding the world in spatial terms) missing major trends in political, cultural, and urban geography? For instance, I have long that transit-dependent and transit-oriented Montrealers exist in predictable axes that influence the behaviour of otherwise unlinked neighbourhoods. For instance, many anglophone Montrealers live in the West End of the city, and may attending major institutions such as Dawson College, or Concordia or McGill Universities. All of these neighbourhoods and schools are within very close proximity to Sherbrooke Street West. How does the relative connectedness of these neighbourhoods influence the psychology of the area? Does this spatial cluster inhibit flows of contacts, ideas, and investment between relatively well-educated and affluent anglophones and other residents of the city? How do francophones who live in this area perceive their belonging to their neighbourhoods and their contact with anglophones relative to other anglophones?

That example is a bit obvious, but I suspect that many other associations and flows of people impact the city in many ways. I envision that the incorporation of VGI analyses into travel surveys, for example, could help detect more of these axes. For instance, urban geographers, using travel data derived from travel surveys or even OPUS card data could evaluate the movement of Montrealers relative to likelihood of those movements based on the existing network. In other words, what flows are overrepresented given their non-ease (e.g.: 45 minutes drive or 2 metro rides and a bus transfer) and what flows are underrepresented given their ease (e.g.: only 10 minutes drive or 1 or 2 metro stops away).

Of course, it could be argued that such information is interesting but non-useful to geography. But I think there is a rich level of study that is going unexploited given the available technology and our admitted discrepancy between the way people perceive their relationship to space versus the way that geographers conceive it. Studies could be used not only to describe the phenomena of flows but also how to better provide links in the city in order to help facilitate existing but underserved flows, and also to integrate the city’s residents.


Thoughts on Drones

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

In his article “The social implications of using drones for biodiversity conservation”, Chris Sandbrook notes that “it has been argued that the use of new technology can be empowering for local groups if it provides them with the means to collect their own data, enforce rules and challenge the claims of others who may wish to mislead them” (640). Sandbrook suggests, for interest, that a community could use drones to collect data for “forest monitoring [and] carbon measurements” in the face of private interests (640). In his suggestion that drone technology could foster more citizen-driven participatory data collection and analysis, I am reminded of the stated ideals my topic (open data). It was initially and still is claimed that open data can improve citizen involvement and decision-making when, indeed, barriers of skill, time, and knowledge have prevented open data from blossoming into a democratic tool. Unlike open data, drones also incur considerable cost for use, from both the cost of the technology and of obtaining permits, presenting further challenges to ‘popular’ use of drone technology as a tool of local empowerment.

In my opinion, GIScientists have an ethical obligation not only to incorporate concerns of impact on citizens in their own “ethnical protocols” (640), but also to critically consider the validity of ‘citizen participation’ arguments used to justify drone technology, open data, and other possibly invasive tools and developments used for GIScience. If, indeed, it is found that the preponderance of data collected and manipulated using drones or open data are benefitting defence interests, governments, and corporations (as I believe they are), then the academy of GIScientists and other academics using these tools should abandon this justification and condemn other academics that use it, at peril of the tools and their disciplines eventually being outed as snake oil salesmen.

After consideration of Sandbrook’s reading, I am drawn to the opinion that not enough mitigations of the social implications of their use are yet developed, and therefore that drones should be ‘grounded’ for academic or research use, even where potential benefits exist. Unlike certain forms of data collection that are either tailored for a specific purpose (e.g.: most academic research) or well know in their methods, availability, and usability (e.g.: census data), data collection derived from drone use violate the principle of informed consent and may produce unforeseen quandaries with unknown consequences.


Social Implications of Drones – Sandbrook

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

Attending the key note speaker on GIS day reminded me that most of the commercial and government sectors perceive GIS as a tool. When Marina asked the keynote speaker about the ethical implications of remote sensing, it appeared to me that the question deviated from the topics from the presented lecture. Issues of privacy, data security, and the social risks of conservation GIS were not discussed in the body of the GIS/remote sensing presentation. GIS was mostly portrayed to the audience as a means for industry growth, environmental regulation, and increased government transparency. However, when we think of drones as a science rather than a tool, we begin to understand how the technology embodies concepts and systematic problems embedded in its fabrication and historical background.

It is incredible for me to think that fixed wing drones can operate thousands of miles away from its pilots. This notion of distance and perceived separation from the consequences of our actions has implications for how we behave ethically. This types of far reaching surveillance reminds me of the discussion of Foucault’s Panoptican referenced in Kwan’s (2002) article about feminist GIS. Drones make us aware that we can be observed even though we are unable to see the observer. As a result, applications of drones have the capacity to make regulation of those being watched a passive act. Therefore, the nature of drones are linked to methods applied by uneven power hierarchies and wide spread control. It is concerning that regulations applied to drone usage are mainly within the jurisdiction of the government and military. This means that legal systems that are not kept in check by civil society will mimic the interests of those in power. For instance, the article states that drones can be applied to catch illegal hunting of wildlife. But if the government decides to transform land that is tied to the livelihoods of indigenous communities into conservation areas, then drones become complicit in the marginalization of indigenous groups that defend their land. Again, these social implications of GIS are very relevant to our discussion last week about the capacity of maps and GIS to do evil.


Potential for conflict in VGI

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

In this article, Goodchild asks what motivates people to contribute to VGI. His use of the term asserted geographic information is very interesting to me, because I expect that as the awareness of VGI diffuses into more diverse demographics, ideological elements may cause tension in how a location is identified or described. I was actually quite surprised to know that the city of Medina, the second holiest in Islam, is so thoroughly mapped on Wikimapia, and linked to photos of important mosques. I would not be surprised if this were to cause controversy between those contributors to VGI who think that this is inappropriate and those who do not. Likewise, Uluru is a sacred sight for the Aboriginal communities who live near it, and tensions may also arise from the controversy over whether or not posting photos and information on Flickr is appropriate. While formal sources of information such as guide books might already be ignoring such questions of sensitivity, what makes VGI different is that dissident voices can assert their position. While Goodchild would describe such activity as “subversive” or “anti-social”, I think one must see the nuance in this situation, as place names are often used for asserting competing narratives. Taking the example of the disputed islands in the South China Sea, I would expect OpenStreetMap to have difficulty coping with the competing contributions of Chinese, Vietnamese and Philippine nationalists. As it stands currently, I observe that the Spratly Islands (claimed by China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia) nearly all say “Philippines”, while the Paracel Islands (claimed by China and Vietnam) say “China”. Hopefully OpenStreetMap will be able to devise more diplomatic mechanisms to prevent such tensions from escalating into the “anti-social” behavior that Goodchild fears.

  • Yojo

Watts 2012: What will the legal environment of drone operators look like?

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

Watts’s article about unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) offers a broad overview of the technological development and variety of drones. The main civilian uses mentioned in this article, such as monitoring of wildfires, scientific research and mine safety, do seem like good avenues for the use of this technology. Safety concerns are important in these contexts, though I fear that these dangers may be exaggerated sometimes, such that jobs in aviation are reduced unnecessarily. As far as the legal implications of the proliferation of UASs, the article is concerned mainly with how the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose mandate concerned with physical safety, will cope with the ambiguities that UASs present. However, this is more from the perspective of how users of drones are affected by regulations, and is less concerned with whether or not the spirit of these regulations will be adhered to. I wonder whether operator licenses may become a necessity, in order to prevent occurrences such as a drone falling from the sky and injuring people due to poor handling. Beyond physical safety issues, there are also societal issues outside of the jurisdiction of the FAA. In the United States, many laws are being passed by state governments in addition to federal regulations. Gary Wickert’s article “Drone Wars: Airspace and Legal Rights in the Age of Drones”, discusses a variety of state laws that are often quite situation-specific. Environmental scientists who use drones in the US may have to keep abreast of a multitude of state laws in order to ensure that they are not accused of harassing hunters, as in the case of Alabama, or aiding hunters, as in the case of Colorado, or taking any footage of a hunter or angler without their consent, in the case of Tennessee.



Military bound

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

I enjoyed Sandbrook’s (2015) description of some of the non-military applications of drones, as the author mentions the two can be hard to separate.  In fact I found this article to be a justification (critical justification?) of their use.  I say critical because of Sandbrook does not shy away from the negative uses of drones, he is very objective in his analysis which is greatly appreciated.  I did, however, at the end of this read find myslef asking the question: is it possible to separate drones from military use?  Of course all intentional uses of drones are not strictly for military purposes as Sandbrook shows, but it seemed in every situation he offered he also addressed some very real and very possible concerns that tie drones back to their military nature.  He even opens the article by addressing the negative connotations associated to the word ‘drone’ but embraces it for lack of a better alternative.

I suppose GIS went through (still is?) a similar period as many of the greatest advancements in GIS and remote sensing are the result of war driven technological progress. As I write this a conversation from last class stands out in my memory-that of maps kill and maps + guns= drones.  Reflecting on some of the points my classmates made, this article helped clarify one aspect of our discussion.  Though ultimately the decision to kill is that of the user (I am choosing not to discuss the idea of distance/engagement though I recognize its importance).  The way that Sandbrook showed how peoples most common response to drones are those related to fear and actions based from fear-even if their life is not at risk  (thinking of the poachers example) means that drones work through inciting fear.  They are fear-mongering devices and until this changes I believe they will be inseparable from military use.



Social Implications of Using Drones for Biodiversity Conservation: Sandbrook 2015

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

In Sandbrook’s “Social Implications of Using Drones for Biodiversity Conservation”, the ethical and social issues surrounding the use of drones for conservation research are discussed, and positioned within the bigger conversation of the benefits and costs of using such technologies for empirical research.

Drones are in their infancy with regards not only to conservation research, but to passive data collection techniques as an empirical research method. The article does a great job at giving an overview of the social benefits and the barriers that remain to be surmounted as well. I do believe that conservation techniques may be compromised through increased “hacking” knowledge, and that the article should have discussed this angle more, as it brings with it many interesting questions: How can we “protect” the data collected by the drones? And furthermore, how do we catch the culprits? Cybersecurity is an increasing field of research, and goes hand in hand with using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones).

I found that the article also brought attention to the important problem that is how these technologies will be perceived by local communities that see these technologies overhead. While the article doesn’t provide a solution, it appears that just mentioning the ethical implications of drone use is a big step in and of itself, as only a handful of conservation articles reviewed by the author bring up the issue in their research. That was shocking to me, as this article was published this year!

That being said, I really look forward to tomorrow’s discussion of this topic, especially following last week’s discussion of Critical GIS and ethics within GIScience as a whole.


Can drones ever be a neutral technology?

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

The article by Chris Sandbrook on “The social implications of using drones for biodiversity conservation” is aptly named and raises questions about the development of drone technology beyond its usefulness for research (2015) . I do realize that I am already biased against drones and that was especially obvious when I read the phrase “we are entering the drone age” (638) and my immediate thoughts were of diminished privacy and increased tracking. Perception of technology is as important as the actual capabilities and results of using that technology.

One point to which Sandbrook drew my attention was that we can all too easily end up narrowing down the understanding of drones to a good or bad binary. An important example of how this elimination of more nuanced views can be detrimental is one of drones being used to catch poachers; the drones “promote simplistic narratives of ‘good’ conservationists and ‘evil’ poachers, thereby undermining understanding of this complex issue among the wider public” (641). Furthermore, what will be the reaction if drones are used for multiple projects of varying intent in the same area? Can we really expect people with minimal technological expertise to accept and embrace drones being used for “good” conservation work while simultaneous “bad” military or third party surveillance is happening? More importantly, should we?

I especially like the emphasis on framing drones in a more holistic sense; this seems to speak to GIScience development of drones versus short-term driven tool use. However, this article felt a bit brief and could have expanded on certain points. For example the almost self-contradicting potential recommendation to remove sensitive data related to identification and privacy before the information is passed on versus the warning that hackers could access said sensitive information would have been interesting to read about in more depth. Overall, Sandbrook provides a reasonable argument that drones are not the solution to conservation struggles but rather a potential to-be-investigated part of the solution.


Sandbrook 2015 – Filling the big gap in ethical discussions

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

The Sandbrook article discusses drone use in conservation and its possible negative social consequences. I really appreciated the general direction the article takes, as well as some of the more specific aspects of the article; for example, the author’s attentiveness to language. Sandbrook addresses the fact that there are many negative connotations with the word “drone” and also chooses to avoid use of the gendered word “unmanned.”

For the future of drone use for conservation, Sandbrook sees a need for self-regulation by the conservation industry until the legal status of drones is more solidified. I am a bit skeptical about this, and the ability and desire of the conservation industry to do this. Sandbrook mentions that other technologies have used self-regulation, but doesn’t mention whether it has been effective. This section left me wondering how regulations will be agreed on and enforced.

Sandbrook presents a conflict between using drones for conservation efforts, and the negative potential social effects of drones. This presents one of the biggest ethical questions in GIScience and critical GIS: can technologies that are rooted in violent applications be separated enough from those purposes to be used positively? There is no obvious answer, but I think writing articles like this one and acknowledging these conflicts is a step in the right direction. Merely spending a section of an article on social or ethical implications might seem insignificant, but I have come to realize the lengths that some people in GIScience go to avoid addressing ethical conflicts (for example, the keynote speaker at GIS day!). Now, I feel I am less apt to take for granted the people in the field who actually acknowledge issues of ethics. As the author points out, there are only three papers which address social implications of using drones for conservation, and one of them discusses it from the perspective of eco-tourists rather than local people. It might seem obvious to us to address social implications because we’ve been doing it in class all semester, but clearly the literature is lacking in this aspect.


VGI: crowdsourcing the places that matter to people

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

The Elwood et al article raises many important and intriguing questions, many of which are very relevant to what I discussed in my presentation on critical GIS. There is definitely overlap between the topics, as is discussed in the article. I appreciated that the authors brought up how deeply political it is to create a crowdsourced data resource. The “long tail effect” that the authors discuss in terms of data contribution is really relates to the Leszczynski quote I brought up in my presentation, that just because a data set is crowdsourced and made available to everyone doesn’t mean that everyone is contributing.

Something I had never considered that the authors bring up is the “scaling up” of qualitative methods in GIS. I had looked at qualitative methods that mostly looks at individuals; for example, oral histories and narratives, and hand drawn maps. It’s difficult for me to imagine how that might look, to scale up qualitative data, but the issue of scaling up is a relevant one, considering that one of the big questions of VGI is how to deal with enormous amounts of contributed information. To do this, the authors point to a need to weave together qualitative and quantitative data in mixed-methods approaches.

I also found it interesting that the authors make such a distinction between space/place and spatial/platial, and the fact that they say that geography has long made this distinction. I’ve never been clear on the difference (or the fact that space and place are even different) so this inspired me to look into it further. I looked into Yi Fu Tuan’s work and found that he defines place as “a center with felt value.” Space, in contrast, is open, abstract and limitless. This is definitely relevant to discussions of VGI and critical GIS since, as the authors state, VGI is more place-based than traditional GIS. I hope that we can use VGI and discourses of critical GIS to explore the places that people identify and connect with.


Tuan, Y. F. (1979). Space and place: humanistic perspective (pp. 387-427). Springer Netherlands.

Citizens as Sensors: Goodchild, 2007

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

In his 2007 article, Goodchild reviews the history and important technologies that led to volunteered geographic information (VGI) as we know it today. While I myself was quite familiar with the advantages  of VGI (and some of the main data quality concerns), I was unfamiliar with the effect that Google has had on how users of this (mainly) VGI platform. The discussion with regards to Santa Barbara and the errors in georeferencing were honestly quite shocking, as I had a hard time believing that Google would allow for such a error to happen. What other errors are they not telling us about?

Moreover, I wonder how popular VGI platforms will change as more and more communities become connected – especially with due to recent efforts by Google and Mark Zuckerberg to bring Internet to ‘everyone’. Will this change how we understand underdeveloped countries? How will we integrate their language into current VGI platforms? Will we have to create a new one altogether?


GIS and Society – Sheppard

Monday, November 16th, 2015

Sheppard begins this paper with a beautiful metaphor for GIS: the escalator that geography can ride to finally occupy its legitimate position as a significant member of the quantitative and empirical sciences. I chuckled because I often find myself defending geography to my engineering buddies by saying, “Hey, but we do GIS, it’s like a real science!”

Kidding aside, this paper makes several good arguments that continue to be relevant two decades later. His first argument is that GIS is a social process rather than an apolitical technology. His historic examples of the Mercator maps and the Manhattan project were both useful technologies for one group, but tools of oppression for other groups. I think that we see this same dual process playing out today among GIS researchers, most starkly in my topic of drones. Today we have researchers working on GIS technology that can both be used to target precision fertilizers to improve agricultural output in developing countries, or it can be used to strike human targets in Yemen.

As a remedy to the slightly troubling path that Sheppard sees for GIS, he advocates incorporating social theorists to reduce epistemological biases. I think that in the early stages of the GIS discipline, it was easier to propose bringing together different disciplines. However as a discipline progresses, we see more and more branches and specializations.

For example, on the first day of class, I believe Prof. Sieber mentioned that there’s no such thing anymore as someone who just “does GIS”. You have to be specialized, you have to be highly proficient in software development. My point is that as any domain develops, researchers become so focused on their area of expertise that it perhaps becomes impossible to ask these broader questions from Sheppard. Therefore you get a situation, like in drone research, where you have the physicists and engineers on one side getting all the funding for research, and ethics studies on the other side doing all the complaining. I look forward to this lecture on critical GIS to see what productive paths have opened up towards reforming this unfortunate situation.



Feminist GIS – Kwan

Monday, November 16th, 2015

I have been looking forward to discussing the topic of Critical GIS in this course. I was particularly excited to read Kwan’s article that discussed Feminist Visualization in GIS because I have studied feminist theory for other courses and find the subject very relevant to my own personal experiences. Because feminist theory is so varying and complex, some strains of feminist theory are not necessarily compatible with the goals, strategies, and affiliations of  other frameworks of feminist theory. As a result, I was very curious to see how the article would aim to reconcile GIS with feminist thought in general. It seems that the paper focused on a multi-culturalist/difference-based perspective of feminism. However, it would be interesting to see how other frameworks of feminism fit into Kwan’s argument (radical feminism for example).

In my own research of spatial cognition, I have seen countless studies that assert differences of spatial ability based on gender. These studies attribute difference of spatial ability among genders not to socialized context, but to biological and genetic determinants. During my lecture on spatial cognition, I was surprised that no one seemed very disturbed that cognitive GIScientists were categorizing and labeling abilities based on the concept of gender. I think that it is important that we critically examine these studies to acknowledge the accomplishments of feminist thinkers in disproving worth based on socially constructed ideologies. For instance, why emphasize gender at all in these scientific studies? Aren’t there other groups that might show an even greater discrepancy of spatial ability? In scientific research, we find a focus on gender because the society we live in emphasizes these categorizations. Scientific studies that incorporate gender differences emerge from a historical context that has used labels of gender to regulate and confine people’s behaviors and capacities. When we apply epistemologies of dominance to scientific studies, they dangerously become rebranded as truth or fact. Therefore, when we do the science of GIS, we must critically question whether this science perpetuates frameworks of thinking that reinforce systematic inequalities. Anything less is doing a disservice to any movement that refuses to accept oppressive frameworks as natural or inherent.


The Nature of Progress in GIS (Sheppard 1995)

Monday, November 16th, 2015

Eric Sheppard has truly provided an unbiased viewpoint on the various sentiments towards GIS. I feel the split between techies and individuals is not as profound as it must have been in 1995, due to the more universal acceptance of computing technology in the 21st century. I was very pleased with Sheppard’s point concerning the social context of the mercator projection; it really helped reconcile some of the issues I have with understanding the broader context of the development of GIScience and how little technical progressions contribute to a greater overall social process.

I do feel that too much consideration for this overall social process can be counterproductive from a technological standpoint. I find the idea of GIS as a limited way of representing space to be a baseless critique, as I take issue with the idea that a technology that is not all-inclusive must be limiting or inconsiderate. I also believe that inequity of access to GIS tech is not a sufficient reason to halt progress, but it is certainly an important consideration in examining the societal conditions shaping GIS. I would also like to say that I do recognize my positionality as a member of the sect of society that exclusively benefits from GIS technology and enjoys the privilege of relatively unrestricted access to data created by a world I am a product of.

The last of Sheppard’s points that I enjoyed was the danger of data driven analysis. Many times I have been discouraged by the lack of availability of data in determining the direction of a project. I can see the effect this data driven analysis may have on smaller institutions and the private sector employing GIS, but I feel larger government institutions and the leaders of the GIS and GIScience filed are equipped to circumvent this issue.






Critical GIS (Sheppard)

Monday, November 16th, 2015

The paper “Critical GIS: GIS and Society: Towards a Research Agenda” by Eric Sheppard (1995) is in my eyes, remarkably forward-thinking. Sheppard’s personal insight into GIS 20 years ago is impressive when you take into account the fact that the field of GIS and technological advancement overall has changed very rapidly. He seems to get to the heart of a lot of issues. However, this relevance could also point to a less than desirable fact that even with 20 years of progress within the field there are some fundamental problems still waiting to be addressed.

I enjoyed the introduction to alternative evolutions of GIS since it was a topic that has never crossed my mind before. The most striking examples that emphasized Sheppard’s point that alternate advancements in technology and GIS have been bypassed were the references to analog computers (I could barely conceptualize how that would work) and to an “object-oriented GIS which was technically superior to a layer-based approach” (9). For younger generations who have not existed for enough years to fully experience societal evolution, it is easy to forget that the world wasn’t always like our world today, that it is actually something we created. Sheppard makes a strong point that be it technology, GIS, or the privileging of Boolean logic, doesn’t have to be the status quo. Surprisingly enough, this article more than others we have visited earlier in the semester has cemented my view of GIScience as a science. Furthermore, questioning the very evolution of GIS as a system and into a science is a valuable exercise in critical thought.


Kwan et al: Prospects for a Feminist GIScience?

Monday, November 16th, 2015

I find Kwan’s article very helpful in demonstrating the opportunities and limitations of applying GIS to Feminist geography. Though some of the specific examples of Feminist critiques of GIS used language that seemed slightly hyperbolic, I found the overall essence of the critiques to be convincing. These critiques, not only of GIS but more broadly of positivist science, point to a false sense of objectivity, especially in the sense of the “god’s-eye” view of space that GIS promotes. Since technology like GIS is more often in the hands of powerful actors, the result is that this false sense of objectivity legitimizes the marginalization that powerful actors can inflict groups whose perspectives they dismiss as “subjective”. Embracing subjectivity and applying GIS to the lived experiences of people could indeed put GIS to use as an agent of positive social change. However, one problem for the GIS community could be that this use of GIS would fall on the tool side rather than the side of GIScience. This may be unappealing to those GIS practitioners who see GIScience as the more legitimate and fulfilling incarnation of GIS. Successful application of GIS to Feminist geographical perspectives would most likely be cases of Feminist geographers using GIS as a tool. However, if this application of GIS were to lead to the posing of new questions within Feminist geography that would not have been conceived without GIS, then such cases could indeed be examples of Feminist GIScience. The examples of Feminist Visualizations described by Kwan could potentially be described as such, if they can be used to test Feminist Geographical hypotheses.

  • Yojo

GIS and Society (Sheppard 1995)

Monday, November 16th, 2015

Sheppard constructs a solid argument that to understand the social impacts of GIS will both improve our understanding of GIS as a tool (by better situating its epistemological underpinnings and their strengths and limitations) and because GIS has complex effects on society apart from positivist assumptions of general benefit. As a new method of investigation (and realm of investigation, therefore, in its own right) GIS has tended to reinforce the positivist inclinations of the “techies” while ruffling the feathers of the so-called “intellectuals” within geography.

“GIS and Society,” and, I would argue, Prof. Sieber’s course on GIScience in general, exhibit the need to bring a depth of philosophical and political debate to the forefront of geography as a discipline–or if you want, to put the now rapidly-expanding information harvest of “Big Data” under intellectual scrutiny. I am left somewhat unsure of the ability of Critical GIS, as a subdiscipline of GIS, to achieve this task on its own. What relationship, exactly, do the leading academic figures of GISCience have to philosophers of contemporary technology, if any? Are the philosophers of technology aware of the advances in GIScience, and their implications for political and social order in the world today?

If the lesson of colonialism and the Mercator projection illustrates the complex impacts of advances in technology on humanity, then we ought to engage in the same sort of scrutiny now, in the midst of this current wave of advances, rather than after the fact.


Feminist Visualization: Kwan, 2002

Monday, November 16th, 2015

In Kwan’s Feminist Visualization piece, the benefits and limitations of current GIScience (referred to as GIS by the author) research methods with regards to feminist areas of inquiry are explored from a critical GIScience perspective. Kwan details at great length the historical antecedents of feminist geography, defining it as “research [that] draws upon cultural, post-structural, postcolonial, and psychoanalytic theories, while turning away from objectivist epistemologies” (646).

For someone who does not pretend to fully grasp the importance of gender studies within GIScience, I found the article to be shocking at times, though thoughtful throughout.

I found the call for increased quantitative data collection at finer scales (ie, at the household and/or the individual level) to be interesting and reminiscent of articles that focused on (mainly) quantitative studies on geo-complexity. I ask myself: Is it possible to effectively understand individuals without gathering data at the individual level? Or rather, is it possible to understand a complex system of entities without first understanding the interactions at the finest scale? Or can we argue that society (or Kwan’s “daily lives of women”) is greater than the sum of its part (in that it is a complex system), and therefore rendering such high resolution data unnecessary?

As complexity science would have it, it depends on the question we ask of the system. In the case of critical GIS and Kwan’s article, it would seem that we do in fact require qualitative data at the individual level, as the goal is to conduct first and foremost non-reductionist and anti-oppressive research.

It is clear that human geography and GIScience are two fields that still have yet to find solid common ground on methods of research, though hope is in sight as more students seek to “straddle the fence”, as Goodchild puts it, and bring the two together.


Kwan, Mei-Po. 2002. Feminist Visualization: Re-envisioning GIS as a Method in Feminist Geographic Research. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92, 4, 645–661.

GIS and Society: Towards a Research Agenda – Sheppard 1995

Monday, November 16th, 2015

The text “GIS and Society: Towards a Research Agenda” by Eric Sheppard (1995) explores many of the often forgotten (or purposefully omitted?) externalities of GIS in addition to an analysis of the effects of the assumptions behind its development.  Sheppard touches on nearly all the social  contentions my colleagues and I have been discussing this semester.  I enjoyed this read for the broad coverage of topics so rarely discussed as well as the tone that Sheppard takes-a critical yet optimist and very rational one.  I found that I agreed with the majority of what he had to say, particularly,  the discussion on paths taken by GIS and how these have been influenced not by the research questions but rather by the availability of data.  I have experienced this first hand in every final research project in the mandatory GIS minor courses.  First, you develop a research question then you look for data and adjust your research topic in accordance to what you were able to find.  Now from the university’s perspective I suppose this would be deemed okay as students are often trying to do a class project in an incredibly short time period and do not have the ability to find or collect the necessary data to answer their questions.  However, I would argue that this is where the future of GIS is and that by allowing this it perpetuates the problem.

The fact that data availability  is driven by a market rather then the altruistic quest for knowledge undoubtedly has profound impacts for GIS.  Revisiting the tool or science debate, I think that this alone is evidence enough to place GIS as a science and not a tool.  The fact that many researchers omit these considerations leads us to view GIS as a tool.  Moreover, If we – society – want to progress then GIS will need to be universally accepted as a science.  Not to forsake tool-like functions of its application but to , instead, encourage all researchers to think about the social implications of their research.