With the growth of digital mapping and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) becoming available to many people in the form of online services like Google Earth and Yahoo maps – the way people do business is rapidly changing. Using data derived from GPS systems and other sources such as satellite photography, aerial photography and physical surveys, the kind and quality of information available to organizations is greatly enhanced – and not only to the benefit of Wall Street.
“GIS is a very useful tool which can be used to solve the world's problems,” says Patrick, a geographer who blogs at http://www.catholicgauze.blogspot.com (for privacy reasons, he is known on the web by his first name.) “With a simple database or spreadsheet I could show you data on a famine in Africa but all you would see are the names of the countries and a bunch of numbers. With GIS I can make a map and show you where there is surplus food and where that surplus could be distributed.”
GPS Data and GIS Systems
The use of GPS technology in the digital mapmaking process has made possible a number of innovations, including the integration of GPS data into aerial photography expeditions, with exact GPS positions being recorded at the time of each photographic exposure. These images and coordinate data are then imported into GIS maps. On the ground, portable and lightweight GPS devices are used to collect positions and attributes of physical geographical features, with the classification of attributes assigned from a pull down menu. The data can then be output to popular GIS software applications for compilation into digital maps.
Technological innovations in GPS and GIS have occurred on a parallel course, with breakthroughs in each field often benefiting the other. The increasing ubiquity of the Internet and the growing affordability of GPS and GIS systems should lead to increased visibility of these technologies, as seen in the availability of digital maps found on Google Earth and at Yahoo.com.
A Catalyst For Change
Indeed, if a recent media project at Google is any indication, GPS and GIS-enabled mapmaking may not only change the way we view the world, it may contribute to improving the lives of those in it. In collaboration with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the folks at Google unveiled in April an unprecedented online mapping initiative to bring awareness of the Darfur crisis to the public, in the hopes of creating positive social change.
"At Google, we believe technology can be a catalyst for education and action,” said Eliot Schrage, Google Vice President of Global Communications and Public Affairs, in a recent press release. “‘Crisis in Darfur’ will enable Google Earth users to visualize and learn about the destruction in Darfur as never before and join the Museum’s efforts in responding to this continuing international catastrophe” (cited from http://www.google.com/intl/en/press/pressrel/darfur_mapping.html.)
As online users use virtual technology to fly over Africa, they’ll see actual photographic images of the devastation that bears witness to the ongoing destruction of 1,600 villages by the Janjaweed militia and Sudanese forces – including 100,000 homes, as well as mosques, schools, and other critical structures, according to the release.
The project uses data compiled from sources as diverse as the U.S. State Department and the United Nations, as well independent photographers and Holocaust Museum. The virtual experience can be viewed by downloading the free Google Earth software at http://earth.google.com . Additional information about the museum’s Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative can be accessed at the website of the Holocaust Museum at www.ushmm.org/googleearth .
‘Neither Good Nor Evil’
Geographer Patrick, who developed a master’s thesis using freeware GIS software, and is currently a graduate teaching assistant in environmental geography, says he feels that due to the widespread availability of network-based programs, “GIS is about to go through such a radical evolution that it will surprise many….These new tools are also incredibly easy. I predict it will soon be possible to earn a degree in GIS from your average tech school.”
Patrick runs a Windows® XP-based laptop with a variety of GIS applications, favoring open-source software and freeware for most of his work, and uses the popular ArcGIS application from ESRI for the most complex data and image crunching. He suggests that, like any tool, the benefit to society of using geographical information systems depends on the intentions of the user: “GIS is a great tool but that's all it is,” Patrick told me, “it is neither good nor evil. What matters is who is using it and the goals they wish to accomplish. As a culture we must continue to teach morals and ethics. This is the best and only reasonable way GIS can have a positive effect on the world.”
As tools like Google Earth and similar GIS platforms bring the world closer together, every single one of us gains billions of neighbors every time we log onto the Internet. Hopefully this fact will make it harder to turn our back on the plight of developing communities in crisis, like Darfur.