AAG 2015 notes – day 1

At 8:00 I’ve attended the Digital Connectivity, Inclusion, and Inequality at the World’s Economic Peripheries  session asking ‘what difference people expect better connectivity to make at the world’s economic peripheries’. I took notes from the presentations of Nancy Ettlinger, Dorothea Kleine and Lisa Poggiali.

Nancy Ettlinger analysed crwodsourcing from governance perspective – using Foucauldian analysis. She looks at rationalities of non-inventive but skilled activity. There are some differences with innovative activities – but the treatment people is the same. The line between classes and intellectual outputs became blurred – data collection, translation, patterns. Algorithms are managing non-innovative work. There are algorithms that are being deployed turning the crowd into human computers. Third party platforms such as AMT that broker requests for jobs and workers. There is also feedback to the software during the process. Crowdsourcing spanning the globe, and the active learning is going to the computers. The work regime is wage-less with less than $10c for an hour of work. Employment is not linked to payment, and the labour is people on demands – people are commodified – most of the crowd are dispersed and working at home. There are IT people in ‘body shopping’ – code monkeys in the IT industry. Precarisation of the workforce. Acceleration of time to completion of tasks magnifies job insecurity. While the companies are working in the regular economy, the workers are actually in the informal sector, invisible, and insecure. Need to imagine new frontier of resistance across the digital landscape will require cooperative-based on web 3.0 network.

Dorothea Kleine – looks at digital inclusion and female enterpreneurship in chile and Tanzania. ICT4D is an emerging field, a lot are focusing on economic growth – the paper focus on capabilities approach (Amartya Sen). The choice framework provide a way to deal with the capabilities approach. The discourse of ICT4D – includes powerful neoliberal framing. Under which conditions women are invited to be included? In ICT4D, women participation is becoming more central (it wasn’t before). Too much ‘counting of women’ and not on the relationship and power. There is focus on female entrepreneurs – invited to become responsible neoliberal subjects who are ‘excited about change. They are if there are conformist, reformist or transformative approach to what ICT4D is. In Tanzania, they found issues of limited mobility, access to IT only in specific places – many female participants wanted a secure job. In a participatory video, they use videos to explore gender violence – but then it was offered to turn the experience into a venture with films – so instead of transformative, it found a conformist trajectory. In Chile, they follow a group of women learning IT. Only minority explored entrepreneurial activities – wanted to be employed. Business ideas competition an indigenous women won, she lost regular employment in teaching the local language, and because of the lost of the job, she looked for opportunities to get some funding – she was able to charge story telling about indigenous practices. ‘I sell my culture. I am not going to give out information just like that, I can’t’. The knowledge moved from public good, to commodity. Women Enterprise Development discourse is conformist and reformist – and what about the women who are not successful? Conformist trajectory peddling impoverished vision of the world. entrepreneurship.

Lisa Poggiali analysing informal settlement mapping in Muhimu (not the real place name) in Nairobi. There are plenty projects in Nairobi and ICT4D became a topic – Silicon Savannah. Most of the narrative, the iHub received special attention – various events and tech-hub. Muhimu is a place where technology is implemented – Miroslav and Sarah (the people behind the initiative) carried out work with local people to record things that don’t work. Maps are symbolic conduit – there is exclusion of slum dwellers from digital technologies. The maps provide a way to map an area – the land is owned by the state. The mapping project using satellite imagery with donated areal maps they were able to create a representation of their area. The mapping infrastructure will encourage bringing resources – so they mapped sewage, incomplete public toilet. They assume that mapping will lead to action by the project initiators Sarah and Miroslav . The map provides a way to allow the locals to emerge as experts that are respected – it created a sense of anxiety for the participants. Noticing that local data collection can be eclipsed by other, more powerful. There is a dominant narrative of digitisation is about efficiency, and dealing with corruption. The digital is assumed to make corruption impossible. During the period or research, there was no results from the mapping.

At 12:40 1487 Where’s the Value? Emerging Digital Economies of Geolocation (panel session) with Jeremy Crampton, Rob Kitchin, Elvin K. Wyly, Agnieszka Leszczynski, and Julie Cupples. Only captured some of the discussion. It started with the observation that the data brokers need to continue and convince the businesses that there is value in geolocation. Like any other business, big data is sold to businesses as ‘something that works and increase revenue’. This is part of a wider claims about efficiency, productivity etc. Within Smart Cities – there is scepticism by public servants at city level that don’t believe the narrative, so there are situations, such as the UK, where the government invests in ‘creating the market’ for large IT corporations. There is a perception that the data in itself has value. Data will have value down the line.
Regarding the concept of value – Elvin: there is proliferation of what is value – the concept of monetization and turning new things into value. Multi dimensional concept of personhood and it circulate among institutions which construct it. The illusion of the value is preformative in the way that it plays in the world. Julie noted that in universities there is work on creating meaningless correlations from data and offer simplistic policy conclusions.
Julie: People have different levels of technical competancies and therefroe they are locked into a wider system. Quant Self movement is participatory to a larger extent, and subverted by the individual at the same time. There is no way to be outside the system as non-participation is also costly. Rob: there are changes inside – e.g. legal framing as in right to be forgoten, under which condition Uber is allowed to a city. The objects are moving so fast, and the legal situation has not captured their operation and come with solutions. Although this is self serving narrative, there is a question about to what degree it is possible to put the genie back in the bottle – although it is possible to consider to legislate ‘privacy by design’. Agnieszka noted that teens and social media that there are complex and creative approaches to have anonymity and obscurity that are happening. Many teenagers disabled location information in apps – different cohorts are working differently with the services. We want to control flows of information about ourselves, but we can’t do that – we don’t know who got our data and what they put it for. Rob: the project ‘the Secret life of Data’ provide an insight to the black boxes through which data is travelling. Elvin: there is digital Murphy Law is operating – there are conflicting laws in operations that conflict with each other and can’t work towards common goals.
Rob: doing the work and critiquing Big Data, there is plenty of inertia and resistance within the political system so neo-liberalism is not the only force in operation. The global financial crisis amplified neo-liberalism instead of causing it to think. Sharing economy is worsening the conditions of labour.  It is easy to see technology in utopia or dystopia, but it is important to understand how it shaped and evolve. Elvin: there is struggle between utopia/dystopia – we need to be careful of Silicon Valley libertarian approach that information is only good. Rob: There is an alternative to the California Ideology if you want to compete with them. The effort of merging data is fairly challenging.

2:40 1587 #CritGIS: Social Justice and GIS: Past, Present, and Future –  aimed to ‘reflect, reconsider, and prognosticate on the social, political and ethical issues that GIS brings to bear’. The paper in this session included the following.

Clinton Davies looked how reporting of social care work at disciplinary tools to produce power structures. Specifically looking at Homeless Management Information Systems. Data reporting reinforce structures through the different organisations. Looking at Critical GIS and Critical Data Studies. The act of reporting data- what the reporting does? looking how controlling how people go through their everyday, you get an understanding of the power hierarchies. Part of the question is to see if the information system and data management impacted organisational structures such as mergers.

Jonathan Cinnamon looked at ‘The data divide: Placing data in the context of social justice’. Data-driven economy emerged recently, with data as raw material, but there is also interest in the concept of data – there is little inquiry to data in compared to information and knowledge. Kitchin (2014) noted the need to ask what data are and what they do? What force data have in the material world? What divisions are inscribed in the data landscapes? Some the division are being exposed – between data rich/poor , producer/consumer , and people/their data. Rich/poor – the places and people who can produce data or use it. The second gap is between producer and consumer – those that produce data have the ability to shape the world. The producers shape the world according to their worldview. There is also separation between people and the data that they produce.
The questions – what are the social and material consequences of these divides? What tools social justice theory can be used? Harvey in ‘Social Justice and the City ‘ defined social justice as ‘a just distribution justly arrived at’ – Rawls justice theory was and is influential in geography.
However, Nancy Fraser work on justice is useful – we living in abnormal justice in what, who and how of justice and deeply contested. It is difficult to evaluate it. She suggest principle of parity of participation – justice require social arrangement that permit all to participate as peers in social life. She identifies maldistribution, misrecognition, and misrepresentation as the dimensions of justice. So we can see in data divide the maldistribution of uneven geographies and at the city level and between cities. There is also misrecognition in status hierarchy – none counting in the census, or Manovich (2011) concept of data-classes. There is also misrepresntation within the companies that are collecting data are subject to laws of a different teritory and you can’t have proper political control. He argue that open data movement as attempt to redistribute data, recognition can be a movement to reconnect people with their data and give them control over it.

Ellen Kersten described her PhD work in  ‘Spatial triage, spatial justice? A critical evaluation of geospatial approaches to health equity research and policy’ – She looked at health in terms of medical model and a socio-ecological model. Looking at Amartya Sen definition of health equity, with elements from public policy, place and health, community development and critical GIS. Spatial analysis of health equity in terms of life expectancy for example. There is an element of place that appear in these narratives. She compared quantitative tools that are based on GIS but they are missing many aspects that are missing and not captured in numbers so simply. These health atlases play the role of triage to decide who will get funding and who won’t. In the past, spatial triage was used in public renewal and done by experts, targeting neighbourhoods. Today, it is cauched in ‘best return to investment’, a bit more participation but the scale counties/regions and above, and more organisations are involved. The future seem to go further to return on investment and monetary benefits.

Jill Gambill and Mariana Alfonso  – A Radical Trans-Disciplinary Approach to Sea Level Rise Planning in the Southeast. They explore challenges – coastal communities are facing challenges of climate change, but with denial – political ban on climate change discussion while at the same time there is a need for sea level rise planning, and trying to do something about it. Knowledge productions – one in theory and one in politics and actions. Communities in the Souteast of the US are trying to have climate change adaptation policies and actions so they are ready. The approach is to meet communities where they are and having a dialogue – how to deal with flooding and sea level rise and not the source of it. Thinking what will enable the dialogue. The community decide the see level rise that will be model, identify who is vulnerable and then decide on actions. They make information accessible – they develop graphics that helped communicate history of sea level rise. They are focusing on who will pay the costs of climate adaptation – with valuable areas receiving subsidy, so some of the wealthy areas are benefiting. Retreat is something that is not being discussed yet – just starting. The approaches are around engineering resistance, instead of resilience – expensive infrastructure have life span of just 25 years. There are also revealed preferences in action, as in allowing more building in vulnerable places. Doing the modelling with GIS is challenging – you don’t want to create an impression of safety when there isn’t one. Need to visualise the social implications of issues such as sea level rise.

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AAG sessions – Critical GIScience, GeoWeb and Citizen Science

The Association of American Geographers conference is just around the corner – between 21 and 24 April, held in Chicago. I’ve already marked some sessions that I think worth noting (and was involved in the organisation of several sessions, too). Here is a list of interesting sessions, following suggestion to do so by David O’Sullivan and Jim Thatcher:

Tuesday 21st April

8:00 1187 #CritGIS: Pedagogies of Critical GIS – session exploring ‘the pedagogy surrounding critical engagement with societal implications of contemporary digital geospatial technologies’, with Matthew W. Wilson, Ellen Kersten, LaDona G. Knigge, Alexander Tarr,  Francis Harvey, and Clinton Davis.

At the same time, there is a mini-symposium of three sessions, starting with 1156 Digital Connectivity, Inclusion, and Inequality at the World’s Economic Peripheries  (papers session) asking ‘what difference people expect better connectivity to make at the world’s economic peripheries’.

10:00 1256 Digital Connectivity, Inclusion, and Inequality at the World’s Economic Peripheries 2 (papers session)

12:40 1456 Digital Connectivity, Inclusion, and Inequality at the World’s Economic Peripheries 3 (papers session)

Also at 12:40 1487 Where’s the Value? Emerging Digital Economies of Geolocation (panel session) with Jeremy Crampton, Rob Kitchin, Elvin K. Wyly, Agnieszka Leszczynski, David Murakami Wood, Julie Cupples and
Sam Kinsley

2:40 1587 #CritGIS: Social Justice and GIS: Past, Present, and Future –  aimed to ‘reflect, reconsider, and prognosticate on the social, political and ethical issues that GIS brings to bear’ (papers session)

Wednesday 22nd April

For most of the day, there are four sessions dedicated to reflection on Public Participatory GIS or Participatory GIS.

8:00 2153 Looking Backwards and Forwards in Participatory GIS (Papers session)

10:00 2253 Looking Backwards and Forwards in Participatory GIS: Session II (Papers session)

1:20 2453 Looking Backwards and Forwards in Participatory GIS: Session III (Papers session)

2:40 2553 Looking Backwards and Forwards in Participatory GIS: Session IV (Panel session), including Bandana Kar (Chair), and Renee Sieber, Nancy J. Obermeyer, Melinda J. Laituri and myself as panellists.

In Parallel, there are a set of session on critical studies of data and crowdsourcing, including

8:00 2125 Critical Data, Critical Technology: In Praxis (papers session) a session exploring ‘how practitioners are mobilizing data, technologies, and analytics in ways that resonate with ‘critical data and technology studies’.’

10:00 2225 Critical Data, Critical Technology: In Theory 1 (papers session)

1:20 2425 Critical Data, Critical Technology: In Theory 2 (papers session)

After these symposia, there is a citizen science / VGI papers session

3:20 2543 Utilizing Citizen Science for Supporting Geospatial Applications

Finally, there is a papers session about Critical GIS and teaching

5:20 2627 Teaching and Doing Critical GIS in the Undergraduate Classroom ‘This session focuses on the challenges and possibilities of teaching and doing critical GIS in the undergraduate classroom.’

Thursday 23rd April

8:00 3153 Big Data – Perils and Promises (papers session) ‘This session focuses on research on big data, geoprivacy and their applications, and seeks to contribute to current debates about the usability of big data in near real-time applications (e.g., crisis mapping, network analysis).’

But also two sessions on Spatial Big Data and Everyday Life, with ‘papers along methodological, empirical, and theoretical interventions that trace, reconceptualize, or address the everyday spatial materialities of Big Data.’

8:00 3150 Spatial Big Data and Everyday Life I

10:00 3250 Spatial Big Data and Everyday Life II

10:00 3253 Citizen Science and Geoweb (papers session) ‘Given the growth of both Geoweb and Citizen Science, this session focuses on research contributing to current debates about the role of citizen science in Geoweb in generating useful data and information for scientific research’

1:20 3444 New Directions in Mapping 1: Research, jobs, and teaching outside the academy  Panel with Britta Ricker (chair) John Bailey, Andrew Hill, Charlie Loyd, Alan McConchie, and Alyssa Wright.

3:20 3544 New Directions in Mapping 2: Open Source, Crowd-sourcing and “Big Data”

But at the same time there is another critical GIS session

3:20 3545 #CritGIS: On the Political Economy of Geospatial Technologies, a panel with Eric S. Sheppard (chair), and Craig M. Dalton, Laura Beltz Imaoka, Francis Harvey and James Thatcher. ‘The panel considers the degree to which political economies have shifted in the development of GIS since its proliferation in the mid- to late-1990s’

Friday 24th April

8:00 4173 Beyond motivation? Understanding enthusiasm in citizen science and volunteered geographic information (papers session) a session that Hilary Geoghegan and I organised. ‘This session seeks to explore and debate current research and practice moving beyond motivation, to consider the associated enthusiasm, materials and meanings of participating in citizen science and VGI.’

There are two session on OpenStreetMap that Alan McConchie and I organised, Taking the 10th birthday of OSM as a starting point, this session will survey the state of geographical research on OpenStreetMap and recognising that OSM studies are different from VGI. The session is supported by the European COST Energic (COST Action IC1203) network: European Network Exploring Research into Geospatial Information Crowdsourcing.

1:20 4444 OpenStreetMap Studies 1 (papers session)

3:20 4544 OpenStreetMap Studies 2 (papers session) 

OpenStreetMap in GIScience – Experiences, Research, and Applications

OSM in GIScience

A new book has just been published about OpenStreetMap and Geographic Information Science. The book, which was edited by Jamal Jokar Arsanjani, Alexander Zipf, Peter Mooney, Marco Helbich  is “OpenStreetMap in GISciene : Experiences, Research, and applications” contains 16 chapters on different aspects of OpenStreetMap in GIScience including 1) Data Management and Quality, 2) Social Context, 3) Network Modeling and Routing, and 4) Land Management and Urban Form.

I’ve contributed a preface to the book, titled “OpenStreetMap Studies and Volunteered Geographical Information” which, unlike the rest of the book, is accessible freely.

Geographic Information Science and Citizen Science

Thanks to invitations from UNIGIS and Edinburgh Earth Observatory / AGI Scotland, I had an opportunity to reflect on how Geographic Information Science (GIScience) can contribute to citizen science, and what citizen science can contribute to GIScience.

Despite the fact that it’s 8 years since the term Volunteers Geographic Information (VGI) was coined, I didn’t assume that all the audience is aware of how it came about or the range of sources of VGI. I also didn’t assume knowledge of citizen science, which is far less familiar term for a GIScience audience. Therefore, before going into a discussion about the relationship between the two areas, I opened with a short introduction to both, starting with VGI, and then moving to citizen science. After introduction to the two areas, I’m suggesting the relationships between them – there are types of citizen science that are overlapping VGI – biological recording and environmental observations, as well as community (or civic) science, while other types, such as volunteer thinking includes many projects that are non-geographical (think EyeWire or Galaxy Zoo).

However, I don’t just list a catalogue of VGI and citizen science activities. Personally, I found trends a useful way to make sense of what happen. I’ve learned that from the writing of Thomas Friedman, who used it in several of his books to help the reader understand where the changes that he covers came from. Trends are, of course, speculative, as it is very difficult to demonstrate causality or to be certain about the contribution of each trends to the end result. With these caveats in mind, there are several technological and societal trends that I used in the talk to explain how VGI (and the VGI element of citizen science) came from.

Of all these trends, I keep coming back to one technical and one societal that I see as critical. The removal of selective availability of GPS in May 2000 is my top technical change, as the cascading effect from it led to the deluge of good enough location data which is behind VGI and citizen science. On the societal side, it is the Flynn effect as a signifier of the educational shift in the past 50 years that explains how the ability to participate in scientific projects have increased.

In terms of the reciprocal contributions between the fields, I suggest the following:

GIScience can support citizen science by considering data quality assurance methods that are emerging in VGI, there are also plenty of Spatial Analysis methods that take into account heterogeneity and therefore useful for citizen science data. The areas of geovisualisation and human-computer interaction studies in GIS can assist in developing more effective and useful applications for citizen scientists and people who use their data. There is also plenty to do in considering semantics, ontologies, interoperability and standards. Finally, since critical GIScientists have been looking for a long time into the societal aspects of geographical technologies such as privacy, trust, inclusiveness, and empowerment, they have plenty to contribute to citizen science activities in how to do them in more participatory ways.

On the other hand, citizen science can contribute to GIScience, and especially VGI research, in several ways. First, citizen science can demonstrate longevity of VGI data sources with some projects going back hundreds of years. It provides challenging datasets in terms of their complexity, ontology, heterogeneity and size. It can bring questions about Scale and how to deal with large, medium and local activities, while merging them to a coherent dataset. It also provide opportunities for GIScientists to contribute to critical societal issues such as climate change adaptation or biodiversity loss. It provides some of the most interesting usability challenges such as tools for non-literate users, and finally, plenty of opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations.

The slides from the talk are available below.

Critical GIScientists, we need to talk about GIS and the oil industry…

The Guardian’s Political Science blog post by Alice Bell about the Memorandum of Understanding between the UK Natural Environment Research Council and Shell, reminded me of a nagging issue that has concerned me for a while: to what degree GIS contributed to anthropocentric climate change? and more importantly, what should GIS professionals do?

I’ll say from the start that the reason it concerns me is that I don’t have easy answers to these questions, especially not to the second one.  While I personally would like to live in a society that moves very rapidly to renewable energy resources, I also take flights, drive to the supermarket and benefit from the use of fossil fuels – so I’m in the Hypocrites in The Air position, as Kevin Anderson defined it. At the same time, I feel that I do have responsibility as someone who teaches future generations of GIS professionals how they should use the tools and methods of GIScience responsibly. The easy way would be to tell myself that since, for the past 20 years, I’ve been working on ‘environmental applications’ of GIS, I’m on the ‘good’ side as far as sustainability is concerned. After all, the origins of the biggest player in our industry are environmental (environmental systems research, even!), we talk regularly about ‘Design With Nature’ as a core text that led to the overlays concept in GIS, and we praise the foresight of the designers of the UNEP Global Resource Information Database in the early 1980s. Even better, Google Earth brings Climate Change information and education to anyone who want to downloaded the information from the Met Office.

But technologies are not value-free, and do encapsulate certain values in them. That’s what critical cartography and critical GIS has highlighted since the late 1990s. Nadine Schuurman’s review is still a great starting point to this literature, but most of it analysed the link of the history of cartography and GIS to military applications, or, in the case of the volume ‘Ground Truth’, the use of GIS in marketing and classification of people. To the best of my knowledge, Critical GIScience has not focused its sight on oil exploration and extraction. Of course, issues such as pollution, environmental justice or environmental impacts of oil pipes are explored, but do we need to take a closer look at the way that GIS technology was shaped by the needs of the oil industry? For example, we use, without a second thought, the EPSG (European Petroleum Survey Group) definitions of co-ordinates reference systems in many tools. There are histories of products that are used widely, such as Oracle Spatial, where some features were developed specifically for the oil & gas industry.  There are secretive and proprietary projections and datums, and GIS products that are unique to this industry. One of the most common spatial analysis methods, Kriging, was developed for the extractive industry. I’m sure that there is much more to explore.

So, what is the problem with that, you would say?

Well Architect

Fossil fuels – oil, coal, gas – are at the centre of the process that lead to climate change. Another important thing about them is that once they’ve been extracted, they are likely to be used. That’s why there are calls to leave them in the groundWhen you look at the way explorations and production work, such as the image here from ‘Well Architect‘, you realise that geographical technologies are critical to the abilities to find and extract oil and gas. They must have played a role in the abilities of the industry to identify, drill and extract in places that were not feasible few decades ago. I remember my own amazement at the first time that I saw the complexity of the information that is being used and the routes that wells take underground, such as what is shown in the image (I’ll add that this was during an MSc project sponsored by Shell). In another project (sponsored by BP), it was just as fascinating to see how paleogeography is used for oil exploration. Therefore, within the complex process of finding and extracting fossil fuels, which involves many engineering aspects, geographical technologies do have an important role, but how important? Should Critical GIScientists or the emerging Critical Physical Geographers explore it?

This brings about the more thorny issue of the role of GIS professionals today and more so with people who are entering the field, such as the students who are studying for an MSc in GIS, and similar programmes. If we accept that most of the fossil fuels should stay underground and not be extracted, than what should we say to students? If the person that involved in working to help increasing oil production does not accept the science of climate change, or doesn’t accept that there is an imperative to leave fossil fuels in the ground, I may accept and respect their personal view. After all, as Mike Hulme noted, the political discussion is more important now than the science and we can disagree about it. On the other hand, we can take the point of view that we should deal with climate change urgently and go on the path towards reducing extraction rapidly. In terms of action, we see students joining campaigns for fossil free universities, with which I do have sympathy. However, we’re hitting another difficult point. We need to consider the personal cost of higher education and the opportunity for well paid jobs, which include tackling interesting and challenging problems. With the closure of many other jobs in GIS, what is the right thing to do?

I don’t have an easy answer, nor can I say that categorically I will never work with the extractive sector. But when I was asked recently to provide a reference letter by a student in the oil and gas industry, I felt obliged to state that ‘I can completely understand why you have chosen this career, I just hope that you won’t regret it when you talk with your grandchildren one day in the future’