Maps + Databases + Internet = New Scientific, Civic, and Political Tools

By Howard Rheingold

Geographic information systems (GIS) are visible maps that are combined with computer databases. The elements of the map, from streetcorners in urban systems to creekbeds in wilderness surveys, serve as windows into the database. Click on the streetcorner and see the income level of the neighborhood, or where telecommunications networks are distributed. Click on the creekbed and look at the underground resources, or see how the surrounding forest looked ten years ago, a hundred years ago.

GIS can be used as a political weapon as well as a scientific tool. GIS proved to be a potent political instrument in Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign strategy: Databases combined voting patterns with precinct maps and literally made visible to campaign planners the concentrations of "Reagan Democrats" who were crucial to Clinton's strategy. By knowing where to concentrate resources, the Clinton team gained a strategic advantage. Another political use of GIS is to uncover "redlining," illegal exclusion of specific racial groups by realtors in certain areas.

Because it makes patterns and trends visible in a map form, instead of representing them abstractly as numbers and graphs, GIS can be either an exploratory tool like a microscope, or a tool for advocacy, like a printing press. Political activists can amplify their influence by showing decision makers what they are talking about. Eric and Steve Beckwitt of the Sierran Biodiversity Institute helped convince the U.S Congress to preserve some old-growth forests in Californiaby using GIS to demonstrate how big the forest used to be, and how little is left. And a Portland, Oregon-based group, Ecotrust, successfully teamed up with GIS specialists to convince the government of British Columbia to protect the remaining remnants of North America's rainforest from logging.

According to Erin Kellogg, Ecotrust's director of policy and communications, ""Kitlope Valley in British Columbia is part of the surviving remnant of this continent's temperate rainforest. We gathered information about temperate rainforests from a wide variety of sources and published a report illustrated with GIS maps. The map-illustrated data proved to be a key element in our political strategy.''

Sometimes, the objective of GIS is to stimulate insight in the mind of an expert --.the power to understand the way a watershed evolves, or the relationship between geographic features and the presence of petroleum, for example. Sometimes, the objective of GIS is to stimulate insight in the mind of a voter or decision-maker. In either kind of use, GIS helps people think about issues that otherwise would be too abstract to grasp easily.

Managing cities, for example, is a complex task that is getting more complicated every day. The problem is not necessarily a lack of information, but a lack of a way to make the available information easily accessible and understandable. Huge amounts of information exist about environmental changes, urban planning, resource use, transportation patterns, demographic shifts, but the sheer size and complexity of this mass of data makes it impossible to use the information to plan and manage. By using a map as the interface to the data, and a computer database to match points on the map to relevant data, it becomes possible to not only track and update, but to visualize data patterns at various scales. Look at a map on a computer screen, click on a point that interests you, ask for data, and you know how many people have moved into an old neighborhood, or the location of toxic wastes within a city, or the areas of maximum traffic at rush hour. Now, with the advent of the Worldwide Web, it is possible to turn GIS systems into websites, and give entire populations access to this sophisticated tool.

Harvard's "Massachusetts Electronic Atlas" makes maps and data available for queries and searches regarding the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The atlas is a joint project of Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Geography Department of the University of Massachusetts -- Boston, and the Harvard Map Collection. Anyone with Internet access can view a map of the Commonwealth, choose an area within that state, zoom or pan the map, query and view data about "communication, economy, education, employment, environmental regulation, health, income, physical features, population, race, real estate/lodging, transportaion, and political boundaries for cities and towns in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. With the 1990 Census aging and widely available, the atlas focuses on alternative and more recent sources of demographic, business, and environmental information collected from numerous databases in the public domain. In the future, we plan to add additional federal, state, local, and commercial information, including historical maps of various regions." People who use the Massachusetts Electronic Atlas can use up to 15 different search filters at once, and can download maps and associated data.

MIT's Digital Orthophoto Browser makes available searchable aerial photos of the Boston area, linked with key data. Each cell on the map is 4 kilometers (about 2.5 miles) square, representing an 8,000 by 8,000 pixel digital orthophoso image. By choosing settings and clicking on the map displayed on the web page, people can zoom, pan, and download photos. They can enter search terms for neighboroods, ZIP codes, and principal features.

The Together Foundation and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements sponsors a site that lists six hundred projects from ninety five countries that offer successful approaches to managing urban and rural environments and improving access to quality housing.

The Green Maps published at offer GIS thumbnail views of environmental sustainability resources in Copenhagen, Denmark, Athens, Georgia, Montreal, and Gouda and Utrecht in Netherlands.

My source for GIS information and up to date information about environment and technology is George Mokray's remarkable "Alist."

The unexpected collision of two unrelated technologies sometimes creates an altogether new technology with properties of its own. Put a television screen together with a typewriter keyboard and a microprocessor, and you get a personal computer. Combine computers and telecommunication networks and you get the Internet. Maps are an ancient communication device, computers are more recent. In combination, these two tools have spawned something new and powerful, and therefore worth keeping an eye on.

GIS, especially when it is available through the Web, makes it possible for people to envision, understand, and plan. But a tool is only a tool. It takes people with vision and purpose, working together, to make things happen. Increasingly, technology furnishes the tools we can use to help make our cities and our planet work in a more humane and sustainable manner. But whether these tools can build better tomorrows is up to the people who use them.

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©1998 howard rheingold, all rights reserved worldwide.