The Newest Road to Fame and Fortune Is Mapping the Road
By Lee Gomes
The Wall Street Journal, B1
Monday, July 14th , 2003
can taunt physicists or make fun of chemists, but don’t mess around
with geographers. Just ask Barbra Streisand. Or Saddam Hussein.
unstoppable star and the unlocatable dictator have each learned the
hard way about the power of a new kind of computer-assisted geography
that has been storming onto the technology scene, putting a spring into
the collective step of the world’s underappreciated geographers.
Streisand made news in May when she sued a conservation-oriented Web
site displaying thousands of sequential aerial photographs of the
entire California coastline, linked together by computer. She
complained that the photo taken above her Malibu estate was an invasion
of her privacy.
Hussein saw much of his army decimated by geographically aware “smart”
weapons, while 3D topographical animation chronicled the rout for the
world’s television viewers.
episodes are examples of GIS, or “geographic information systems,” the
PC-enabled smart maps that are doing for any number of fields what
spreadsheets did long ago for numbers. These days, you can’t study
migration patterns or predict a town’s water usage or reapportion a
legislative district without sitting down at a terminal and practicing
field has been around for years, but it got a huge PR boost during the
Iraq war, which put it on the, ahem, map as far as the general
population is concerned.
Positioning Satellites are the best known of the GIS tools, but they
are just one part of this revolution in “spatial awareness.” Other
technologies include lidar, an optical version of radar that allows
low-flying airplanes to digitize the terrain beneath them. GIS software
ties all these systems together, creating maps overlaid with any sort
of data you have on hand.
the 1980s and 1990s, some students of cartography began to look at the
history of maps through the lens of postmodern criticism. They didn’t
see the familiar chronicles of stout-hearted explorers. Rather, they
began viewing maps as ruling-class tools designed for “reifying power,
reinforcing the status quo, and freezing social interactions within
charted lines,” as one writer put it.
those critics would have less to complain about, as the new breed of
GIS maps is turning those old cartographic power dynamics upside-down.
Rather than celebrating colonialism, maps today are often created to
stir up social change.
evolution was clear throughout the displays last week at a San Diego
conference sponsored by ESRI Inc., the biggest GIS software maker. Maps
showed rare big-leaf mahogany trees in South America, endangered
chimpanzees in West Africa and rush-hour traffic in Yakima, Wash. If
you are a social problem, or are otherwise endangered, marginalized or
dispossessed, someone is probably using GIS on a PC right now to map
much is happening in GIS that Jerry Dobson, a University of Kansas
professor who is president of the American Geographical Society, says
that the tools of geographers are changing society today as much as the
tools of physicists did at the time of the atomic bomb.
so geography students are walking taller. At last week’s conference,
Marson Klein, who teaches at American River College in Sacramento,
Calif., was passing out “Geography Is Bad A—” stickers made by one of
her students. After years of suffering jokes about memorizing state
capitals, geographers ought to be forgiven if they are a bit
intoxicated by the sudden air of respectability-especially in a country
with such a famously map-challenged population.
Dague and Paul Billock, who are now pursuing GIS graduate degrees at
the University of Redlands near Los Angeles, laugh about the sexy,
crime-fighting geographers suddenly in the movies and on TV.
the film “K-Pax,” for example, someone hunting for a murderer, but
having only a few scraps of information, asks a GIS computer to display
every slaughterhouse near a river in the 505 area code. A map is
instantly drawn and the crime all but solves itself. (In real life, of
course, GIS, like everything else involving computers, is never that
easy. But that’s another story.)
Dague’s work involves helping a local municipality use GIS to keep tabs
on its sewer system. It may not be as glamorous as fighting crime, but
it’s that rarity for many in technology these days: a job.
hard to argue against improving information about social problems, but
one hopes the new army of GIS warriors will guard against the siren
songs of PCs that lure people into endless tinkering of data, past the
point of useful analytical returns.
should they forget that not all knowledge spews forth from the font of
a microprocessor. The aforementioned traffic map of Yakima, for
instance, showed a regular afternoon jam along South 40th Ave. One can
hear the town’s residents complaining, “They needed a computer to tell
Article reproduced with permission from author.