GIScience and uncertainty

The article was thought provoking, addressing numerous accomplishments, research agendas and challenges. I appreciated the author’s self awareness and frank statements when addressing his own limitations. At times, it was overwhelming as there were a lot of points covered with 20 years of theoretical and empirical accounts of GIScience.

From the challenges mentioned, I found the notion of uncertainty intriguing; a concept that is highly influential yet largely ignored. Goodchild’s conceptual framework for GIScience elucidates how the human, society and the computer are interlinked by many variables (e.g. spatial cognition, public participation GIS, data modelling). “Uncertainty” dominates the middle of the triangle, however 3 out of the 19 papers — that were most cited, and considered classics over the last 20 years — analyzed by Fisher “report work on uncertainty” (9).

The article notes Tobler’s Law and its implication that “relative errors over short distances will almost always be less than absolute errors” (12). According to Goodchild, this has significant implications for the modeling of uncertainty. From this, it can be inferred that we have confidence in addressing an issue due to its proximity, where a relative error is less intimidating than an absolute error. Goodchild further notes the transition made in our thinking about GIScience from “the accurate processing of maps to the entire process of representing and characterizing the geographic world” (11). The emphasis on the GIScience thought process has been shifted away from accuracy on a micro geographic scale in relation to maps, towards a characteristic and representation on a macro, global geographic scale. Moving from a micro to a macro scale will entail more uncertainty, while the aim is to increase accuracy these are contrary in nature.

Despite uncertainty seen as an obstacle to GIScience progress, Goodchild takes note of it as also being a salient factor in “potential undiscoveries” (6). The process of government’s adoption and application of GIScience, and further work on third, fourth and fifth dimensions, and the role of the citizen through neo-geography and VGI are all very exciting and revolutionary.

Goodchild. (2010). Twenty years of progress: GIScience in 2010.


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