The Dark Side of GIS

(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

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