Posts Tagged ‘science’

Is GIS a Science or a Tool in Planning-Information-Critical Theory

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

So, I had a few problems with the article by Stuart Aitken and Suzanne Michel. First, I felt like the authors danced around the delicate topic of whether GIS operates as a tool or as a science in a way that was detrimental to understanding their article. Second, I wondered about applying Habermas’s theories to the idea of “planning” by making it a consensus built on mutual understanding and arrived at through respectful communication.

But let me back up, first, and give a brief summary of the article. The authors frame their writing as being in response to the troubling idea that GIS is defined solely outside of social constructions that “bolsters a rational-instrument discourse in planning” (17). In contrast, they believe GIS to be a “socially constructed” technology (27) that when used in planning should not impose one person’s agenda on others (24). As such, they worry that some GIS lord sits on high, owns the process of planning, and only allows others to engage with GIS as participants rather than having any ownership of the planning process. Such a process risks defining GIS theoretically in such a manner that makes it an exclusive field of scientific research or practice.

How the author’s defines GIS as a science or tool could potentially be very important in the discussion I describe above because it seems to be wishy-washy in terms of their view of it. On the one hand, they talk about GIS in terms of the planning process and how administrators and others use it to aid in planning of development or other projects. In this sense, it appears to be a tool. However, when the authors get into discussing Habermas, they start to deal with GIS as a field of research that has underlying theories, and to argue for a more inclusive field that includes disparate voices. In this sense, they argue for merging the academic and professional worlds into the world of everyday experience – which I agree with – in order to give average folks ownership over the field of GIS and how it operates.

So, this brings us back to the question that could easily be answered if they define GIS as tool or science. How does planning become an open, inclusive process? If we’re thinking about GIS as a field of research, it’s got unique potential to include a variety of user inputs or applied insights. In many cases, planners and those responsible for making decisions about urban plans do utilize GIS in this manner to gain insight into how better to make their decisions. I mean just look at this video where GIS applications are used in urban planning decisions acroos Addis Ababa. Plus, it’s got some good music.

Yet, I can’t help remember the days I spent as a political reporter and the dread I felt covering county votes on comprehensive land-use plans or even planning commission meetings. These meetings were almost always exclusive to those in charge (Ok, I guess the elected officials did answer in some manner to those who elect them) and subject to the prevailing views of whoever those in power might be. Sometimes, unfortunate homeowners who wanted to build something not accounted for in county plans might have been subjected to some type of harassment by the planning commission or, otherwise, be included if they could justify their new add-on to their jumbo mansion. On really good days, the planning decision might be incredibly divisive (since I worked in Northern Virginia, this mostly only occured when slow growth advocates were pitted against pro-growth folks) and the decision-makers had to come down with some type of politically defensible decision.

But the point is clear. While GIS as a science might have the potential (and in many cases is already) democratic, the planning process in many urban localities is far from it – at least not beyond the sense of being representiationally democratic. So, can GIS bridge this gap? Maybe. But I guess it depends on whether you view it as a science or a just a tool for some government planning board.

Rethink the Definition of GIS–Wright et al. reading

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

To better understand GIS, Goodchild et al. had presented a good review about the argument whether GIS is science or tool. Authors introduced the GSL-L discussion about tool and science argument of GIS chronologically, and summarized different standpoint about GIS conceptualization. Authors further examined the definition of science, to clarify that GIS is science. Finally, with GIS and “doing GIS”, Goodchild et al. concluded three poisons on GIS: GIS as tool, tool making and science. I find these three definitions converge with the development of GIS.

I define GIS as a combination of tool, tool making and science. Nowadays, research about GIS includes a large body of disciplines, such as software engineering, pattern recognition, statistics, spatial analysis, geosensor engineering and so on. It becomes more difficult to choose a side in the argument of whether GIS is science or tool. Considering the current development of GIS, it turns out to be an integration of science and engineering. By using GIS as tools, scientists can pursue knowledge discovery in different domains. From the experience and methodologies of using GIS, we can identify and formalize GIS as science. And the theories and methodologies in GIS can help us to develop better GIS tools, as better approaches of tool making. This loop continues with better GIS tools lead to more efficient scientific research. In the future, the combination of tool, tool making and science will become even tighter in GIS, and we need to review the definition of GIS with its development.


3 in 1: GIS as a tool, toolmaking and a science

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

It is difficult to reach consensus in an interdisciplinary field. Wright et al. clearly display this by bringing forth conflicting definitions of GIS, along with general comments that add more depth to the debate. As discussed in class, the definition of GIS as a science is necessary for political and financial agendas due to funding, credibility and legitimacy. However, this should not rule out the GIS field as toolmaking or a tool, in addition to science. Wright et al. state one defining characteristic, “the answer [on the definition of GIS] depends on who is involved”, where, for example, GIS developers could see it as a science, and students could see it as a tool (350). Thus, I take all three positions — tool, toolmaking and science — on GIS to be valid.

In the article, science is defined as discovery, exploration, and problem understanding not invention (351). However, science was founded by theories. Theories and frameworks have been invented. Thus, indirectly, could science also be an invention? What makes up GIS is highly convoluted, therefore it would be safe to assume that a combination of invention through toolmaking, discovery of new facts through the use of the tool can be combined. There is intrinsic meaning behind a tool simultaneously derived from invention and discovery. The debate over the definition of GIS is overwhelming, however the authors steer us in the right direction. Wright et al. conclude that “older notions of science as the equivalent of ‘hard science’ are being replaced by a more open view [of science]” (358). Progress is seen through difference, which is promoted rather than stifled. In addition to progressive inclusion, the authors’ contend GIS is perceived as a “phenomenon” that encourages discussion and critical thought. I believe this to be a significant shift of perceptions on discovery, practicality and utilization rather than on a specific definition.

Wright et al. (1997). Forum GIS: Tool or Science?


A changing definition for “science”?

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

20 years of progress: GIScience in 2010 (Goodchild)

I thought it was interesting how 2 out of the 3 participants Goodchild interviewed had an issue with the word “discovery” when asked about “the ten most important discoveries of GIScience to date” (7). On one hand Marc Armstrong replaces “discovery” with “transformations”, namely from one medium (paper) to another (computer) while Sara Fabrikant replaces the word with “rediscovery”; to her, GIScience is more about seeing the world from a new light. Further, these 2 participants both emphasize the idea that GIScience is the combination of many disciplines and its research is performed in “… a variety of scientific paradigms” (9). Both participants seem to value GIScience as a field that takes an amalgamation of knowledge we already know and applies it to spatial information to access new knowledge that we otherwise could not. They acknowledge GIScience not as a “new” science per se but as a new science born from previous fields of study.

At this point, Network Science springs to mind. Many things about the relatively recent development of network science are similar to that of GIScience. Network science, like GIScience, is interdisciplinary; it draws from and has relevance to many fields. Although scholars have studied networks long ago, they had few unifying theories to show to it, which motivated the formation of a Network Science. The National Research Council writes:

“Despite the tremendous variety of complex networks in the natural, physical, and social worlds, little is known scientifically about the common rules that underlie all networks. This is even truer for interacting networks. Ideas put forth by scientists, technologists, and researchers in a wide variety of fields have been coalescing over the past decade, creating a new field of thinking—the science of networks…
Does a science of networks exist? Opinions differ” (p. 7).

Perhaps these developments in Network and GI Science support the idea mentioned by Wright et al. of a change in the understanding of what constitute as “science” in the modern world.

National Research Council. (2005). Network Science. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2005.


Tool and toolmaking wihtout a science?

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

GIS: Tool or Science? (Wright et al.)

Plotting GIS along a continuum of tool, toolmaking and science really helped me clarify my thoughts when it comes to thinking about what we actually mean by “doing GIS”. Personally, I think GIS must be all three things simultaneously. For instance, if GIS was merely a tool, a means to an end, one still needs to choose the appropriate analysis and to interpret the output. How do you judge whether your analysis is appropriate without others studying it through application? Or judge whether your data sets accurately reflects reality? These questions must be explored through GIS research.

However, how the concept of GIS as “toolmaking” can be separated from GIScience is still unclear to me. According to Wright et al., a GIS toolmaker should be able to perform critical analysis of/reflect on the technology’s capabilities and think about the social impacts of the tool (356). But how does one critically analyze and reflect on how well the tool is performing without also being a GIScientist? What kinds of criteria are used to judge whether a tool is good (aka able to visualize/model spatial concepts “correctly” with GIS)? Otherwise, how is a GIS toolmaker any different than a computer scientist or software engineer? This leads me to two conclusions: 1) GIS cannot occupy only one of the three positions on the continuum and 2) the next generation of GIScientists must also well versed in computer languages.

I would have really liked to see the authors elaborate on this new emerging notion of science that is more open. Science is then defined as “the pursuit of systematic and formulated knowledge and as such [it] is not confined to any particular epistemology” (358). How important is it to have to closely tie science to epistemology (positivism)? If we agree with this new definition, can History be considered as much of a “science” as Biology?

– Ally_Nash

Twenty Years of Debate

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

Posted by sah:

Twenty Years of Progress… to me, this translated to Twenty Years of Debate. While reading Goodchild’s article on the evolution of GIScience, the question that came to mind was really, “Why are we still debating”? GIScience, as it is defined by Goodchild, has evolved as a technology, and perhaps discipline, but also largely as a debate, over the last twenty years—and it would appear that it really has been debate that has dominated this field for its recent history. In class we came up with some interesting reasons as to why the debate may still be raging—legitimacy as a field and science, and thus funding and prestige for practitioners being a large aspect of this. That may be all well and good, albeit a topic for another post, but as a topic of Goodchild’s article, I was a little disappointed.

The debate is surely interesting, but was not, according to the abstract and introduction, what the article was expressed to be about: history AND accomplishments and future advancements. There could have been much more emphasis on the successes and evolution, and not just who deems a success a success. Goodchild’s personal reflections and the institutional accomplishments were most interesting, as well as the final section, Looking to the Future. This encapsulated what I anticipated of the article, and highlighted critical thoughts, most interestingly, the proper education of such a rapidly evolving and increasingly popular [tool, technique, science], and the way it can be used by the public. The proposed advancements raise a lot of questions about how GIS can be applied in the future, and what challenges this may present. In my mind, this could in fact be a reason to continue the debate: will we consider this a tool to be properly taught, or a science to be above the everyday use and understanding of the citizen?

Goodchild, Michael F. “Twenty Years of Progress: GIScience in 2010.” Journal of Spatial Information Science. (2010): 3-20. Print.