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Posted on May 29th, 2012

Back to School – GIS and Public Policy

In an article titled, GIS, Public Service, and the Issue of Democratic Governance by Akhlaque Haque at the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), Haque seeks to explain the presence and necessity of GIS in local governments. According to the author, government agencies now produce 90% or more of their own data and their desire to work with private providers has since overridden the need for the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) that was established in 1994 by President Clinton.

GIS has allowed various local governments to work together, such as in Kent County, Michigan where 20 cities and townships have banded together to streamline issues such as road maintenance, environmental issues and expansion opportunities. It can also be seen in a web-mapping project undertaken by the county health department of Birmingham, Alabama, the EPA and the UAB where they post ozone information and provide hourly updates of air quality.

When considering the intersection of democratic values with GIS, Haque posits that it could have both positive and negative ramifications. On one hand, it could facilitate greater levels of individual participation in the democratic process; while on the other hand, it could concentrate critical information in the hands of the elite citizen base with access to GIS. There are real concerns that GIS is not – and will not be – a ‘technology of the masses’; therefore only a select few will understand its capabilities and this could lead to abusive power relations. However, it could also lead to the empowerment of communities when the ‘Force’ is used for good: maps can be generated to communicate specialized knowledge of areas/ecosystems; community profiles can be created easily; and the ability to share information with other localities can greatly increase.

GIS has significant implications for our modern democracy. The use of GIS in redistricting is powerful evidence of its worthiness and potential input to fair political decisions. It can also be a tool for resolving land disputes. Not too long ago 83% of Ellis Island was declared to be under the jurisdiction of New Jersey and GIS provided the data to settle this 160 year old dispute. GIS is also crucial in the request of capital development funds as in the majority of community and land improvement projects, maps are a significant requirement when the decision to allocate money takes place.

In a study done in the UK, GIS was shown to alleviate funding issues in the public sector. GIS has been used to help plan, develop and manage local assets; as well as to provide security for those assets, enhance capabilities of disaster forecasting and enable lower-cost citizen developed solutions. Many officials hoped to make it easier to share GIS data with other governing bodies and sub-contractors. These officials found that GIS had significantly improved efficiency in the transportation, flood management and recycling-waste management sectors.

In this case, it might be preaching to the choir to proclaim what GIS can do for the world. As GIS continues to become ‘mainstream’ and as its capabilities continue to be recognized and heralded, it’s clear that it will be pivotal in solving the problems of tomorrow. GIS can also be utilized to analyze historic problem solving practices to evaluate how issues were handled, and how they could have been better resolved. This type of historic modeling allows us to better anticipate the problems of tomorrow, and will thus help us find more efficient approaches to solving our impending challenges.

Public policy is founded in democracy, and where did democracy start? Athens, Greece. The Parthenon is dedicated to the goddess Athena, for whom Athens is named, and thus is a powerful symbol of democracy. Image Enhanced by Apollo Mapping and collected by the satellite, WorldView-2, on March 31, 2012. (Image Courtesy: DigitalGlobe)


Justin Harmon

Staff Writer


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