[This post is a slightly enhanced version of an email I sent to the Humanist mailing list today in response to this message asking about the value of GIS curriculum in scholarship. Here, I begin by quoting the relevant parts of the original post]
At my university, a vice president has been arguing that there is no place for a GIS (geographic information systems) curriculum because now everybody can get that kind of data and everyone can make maps.
What is your sense of it? Is GIS really dead as a discipline? (And have I thus completely missed what’s going on?) What arguments would you put forward? What are the arguments stronger than the ones I have suggested above?
Thinking that GIS has no place in a curriculum anymore because of the proliferation of GPS devices and (let’s say) Google Maps strikes me as a rather ill-informed position to take, considering practitioners of GIS have not even figured out what it is (or what the “S” in it stands for). How can a moment be over before it is even a moment?
During the past two decades, geography journals have repeatedly flared up with arguments over whether GIS is a tool or a science (thereby becoming a (sub-)discipline), whether use of GIS automatically aligns the practitioner with the military/corporatist history of GIS, and whether such a thing as a qualitative GIS can possibly exist, thereby ”freeing” GIS from its allegedly quantitative and positivist roots. Recent articles by Marianna Pavlovskaya give general histories (and useful bibliographies) of the debates, from John Pickles’s broadsides in the late 90s to Mei-Po Kwan’s feminist rehabilitation of GIS in the last decade.
Furthermore, collected volumes published in the past few years, like Hillier and Knowles’s Placing History, published by ESRI (the publishers of the ArcGIS software package), and Cope and Elwood’s Qualitative GIS (usefully and succinctly reviewed by Daniel Lewis), published by Sage, give accounts of several GIS projects that could simply not be accomplished without GIS (as well as geography!) training that goes beyond hours of asking the internet for driving directions or geotagging photos.
What the vice-president seems to have in mind is what many have called ”Neogeography,” the sort of DIY punk geography that could be the equivalent of the cheap handheld movie camera or portable four-track recorder. But film schools did not close because of the cheap handheld (this seems a useful comparison to me), nor did, and this is vitally important, film studies departments or the companies that make large, pro cameras.
That is, neogeography is a new approach to the creation/collection of geographical data, but the old forms (census tract tables, for example) have not lost their importance at all–nor have they become, I suspect, more intuitive. Similarly, assuming that GIS is “only” making maps on Google Earth would probably be considered an insult by even the people whose chapters were rejected in the volumes mentioned above.
Additionally, for historians, the ease of creating maps of today’s world means virtually nothing when what one cares about is the world from over a century ago–a massively labor-intensive project documented, for example, by Anne Kelly Knowles in her effort to imagine, using GIS software, what General Lee was able to see from his post at Gettysburg. The data she used was not available to ”everybody.” She had to create the data by hand from historical topographical maps. That also means she had to know–have been trained–how to create that data.
Finally, I can give my own personal experience, which was that of a year-long course in GIS, for which a course in statistics (not ownership of a Tomtom) was a prerequisite. Outside of a short unit on using GPS devices to make a small map of campus, nothing we did in those 30 weeks fits the description of Neogeography given on Wikipedia (or is recognizable in the VP’s concern). An iPhone won’t teach spatial analysis, how to measure clustering, what a nearest neighbor is (and why that is or is not important), how to correlate income data from the federal census with crime or transportation data provided by the city, or how to answer even a basic personal (non-academic) question, like, ”where should I live if I want to live within 200m of the subway, within 20km of work, in a neighborhood with an average per capita income of at least $20k, and with < 20 property crimes in the past month?”
Hopefully this email has given some arguments (and suggestions for further reading) about how GIS (or geography) can’t be simply brushed off because of the ease with which one can make “mashups” on the internet.