Deep mapping

L.A. Cicero
Zephyr Frank, who says he’s more technology-friendly than many of his colleagues in history, is geo-coding maps of Rio de Janeiro to recreate 19th-century neighborhoods and their social networks.

"Location matters" is the mantra of geographers when they are asked to define their field. That emphasis on place provides the backdrop for the technological reasons for geography's comeback. The convergence of physical and digital data—resulting in phenomena such as remote sensing, Google Earth, the geospatial web and geographic information systems (GIS)—allows specialists and laypeople alike to cross-reference spatial data and to interact with formerly two-dimensional maps.

GIS software can be loaded on any high-end computer, where it can store, retrieve, map, display and analyze data with a shared geography. Different sorts of information are layered, like a cake, on top of each other, allowing for querying between the layers.

For example, a building layer might include the date of construction, building materials, address, ownership and use. A census tract layer might include income, ethnicity, age and education. A researcher armed with all that data could measure their correlation and their change over time, and then construct a map.

Stanford has a site license to the software, which is manufactured and owned by a company called ESRI, and Branner Earth Sciences Library has a full-time GIS specialist, as well as a GIS librarian, on its staff. And the new Environment and Energy Building, which will house the Woods Institute for the Environment and which is due to open its doors in December 2007, will include a GIS lab.

One of the reasons for geography's shaky status at some universities, both now and in the past, is its broad reach. It encompasses projects and paradigms from the social sciences, yet also ranges deep into the land of technology and quantification. It resists definition, which can be a challenge for discipline-based institutions.

But thanks to GIS and similar advances, the technical end of geography's spectrum is thriving. Although no one at private universities is proposing that geography departments be revived as such, they are reappearing under new guises. Harvard recently opened a Center for Geographic Analysis and plans to hire faculty.

For Karen Seto, assistant professor of geological and environmental sciences, "GIS means 500 things to 500 people. People think it's a mapping tool. They think it's only for visual display." But it's far more, she said. It is an analytical tool that is bringing geography back into prominence.

Seto researches land use and urbanization in China by using satellite remote sensing and GIS. Every year she teaches Fundamentals of GIS. Her students range from freshmen to PhD candidates who suddenly realize they might be able to use GIS for their research. They think it's about making maps, she said, but "there's a danger in people thinking GIS is just software, just technology."

"Just because you know how to use GIS doesn't mean you understand geographic concepts," she said. "A person who uses Microsoft Word doesn't necessarily understand grammar or syntax. Many people misuse GIS by not understanding the underlying geographic laws and theories behind the spatial data, which can be a very dangerous thing. Geography is a way of thinking."

Professor Michael Goodchild opened the Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science at the University of California-Santa Barbara in 1999, with National Science Foundation funding, to ensure that the social sciences did not get left out of the GIS revolution.

"In the best of all possible worlds, GIS would be synonymous with geography," Goodchild said. "But GIS is usually seen as merely a software application, and it gets handled through the library. The idea that there is any intellectual value or principle behind GIS gets lost."

As used by social scientists, journalists and humanists, GIS can, of course, be simply another tool allowing them to literally add depth to their work. But it is also a recognition of the enormous impact that spatial information, perception and conceptualization have on social problems and relations.

The examples are infinitely varied. One of the university library system's academic technology specialists, Claudia Engel, for example, is helping Paulla Ebron, associate professor of cultural and social anthropology, teach a seminar this quarter on globalization and cities. Using GIS and other technological tools, Engel said, students can "develop a multiple-perspective analysis of cities" that include Calcutta, Johannesburg and São Paulo. "They learn how spatial representations are made, what these data mean and what sorts of decisions are involved in making a map," she said. They also consider economic indicators, housing construction, income and demographics to see how neighborhoods change over time.

Zephyr Frank, an assistant professor of history at Stanford, is part of a team of scholars working to reconstruct the urban space of mid-19th-century Rio de Janeiro. Using GIS, he and his colleagues in Brazil and at Brown University are designing vector graphic maps of Rio neighborhoods that incorporate geographic, cultural and demographic data along with 19th-century police and notarial records. Thus, they will be able to discover who lived where, how they earned their living, what they got arrested for, where they moved, who their neighbors were and how they lived.

A group of scientists led by Earth Sciences Dean Pamela Matson used GIS to understand patterns of population growth and their correlation with land use in Mexico's Yaqui Valley. One of Matson's former students, David Lobell, now a postdoctoral fellow at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, has used GIS to study agriculture and global warming. Biologist Paul Erhlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies, leads a research group on the reintroduction of a butterfly species onto Stanford lands that includes a GIS specialist on its staff.

And Monica McDermott, assistant professor of sociology, has used GIS to study commercial data, specifically the use of the word "Dixie" in business names, to track racial attitudes in the South. GIS to some degree offers a way of uniting the physical sciences and the social sciences, whose tensions have at times plagued geography.

As an example, Helga Leitner, a University of Minnesota geographer who spent 2005-06 at Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, described her department's Environmental Equity Project. Participants, working with community groups, scientists and state and local agencies, used GIS to study ways in which environmental hazards intersect with economic and racial inequities.

As the amount of accessible online data grows, there are potential drawbacks: security flaws, piracy, identity theft, blackmail and invasion of privacy, to name a few. But there also is a potential political benefit in having so much information available to the public. Put simply, it can act as a democratizing force.

The opportunities are being seized upon by a group of scholars and activists engaged in "public participation GIS," or PPGIS, which emerged in the late 1990s. The idea is that GIS can empower communities vis-à-vis local authorities. Leitner and her husband, Eric Sheppard, who also was at Stanford last year, are at the forefront of the this movement.

"GIS has had a profound effect" on geography, Sheppard said. "It attracted students, gave geography public viability, it created jobs. It also challenged the discipline because it is very precise; it's more aligned with the quantitative end of the discipline. In some ways GIS is a branch of the information sciences, but it's so much more."

In Michael Goodchild's opinion, "GIS is the Trojan horse. It's sufficiently close to the core of the discipline that it can serve as a shield for the rest of the discipline, a motivating core." Goodchild told Nature magazine earlier this year that he thinks Google Earth will lead more and more people to GIS. "Just as the PC democratized computing, so systems like Google Earth will democratize GIS," he said.

Skeptics—and there are some at Stanford—who wonder what all the fuss over "just another software tool" is may have to get used to the changing profile of the discipline formerly known (at least at most private universities) as geography, because GIS will be a big part of it.

"I don't know what's going to happen to geography down the line," said geographer Billie Lee Turner of Clark University, a leader of his profession. "There are going to be these GIS programs," such as the new one at Harvard, "and loose amalgamations of people moving between and among them. Or maybe a chunk of geography will move into the GIS sciences and another chunk to human environmental sciences."

As for the reinvention process and the discipline-poaching, he said, "Some individuals might say, 'Wait, that's mine.'" But others argue that it doesn't matter what you call it, it just matters that it's being done.