Geography and Data

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The Economist recently ran a fascinating article about the emergence of geographical databases and their uses for presenting and analyzing data.

All this has made it much easier to create maps that explain—at a glance—something that might otherwise require pages of tables or verbiage. “A percentage or a table is still abstract for people,” says Dan Newman of, a group based in Berkeley, California that charts the links between politicians and money. “With maps, you can show people how an abstract concept connects to where they live.”

Political scientists are just starting to get with the program. James G. Gimpel at the University of Maryland is one of them. He describes one of his on-going research projects as follows (from his website):

Joined by my colleague Wendy Cho (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), we are using new geographic analysis tools to investigate the spatial distribution of campaign contributors and volunteers to political parties and candidates.   We are leading a new investigation that will use flow maps to show patterns of cross-state voter mobility and the redistribution of the electorate through migration.   We are advancing the application of new methodologies for the exploration of a variety of political phenomenon.

This is close to the kind of work I see myself doing as well. I would like to learn as much as I can about geospatial analysis and GIS tools to be able to bring them to bear on questions of policy outcomes. I can often think of the small scale story of how geography affects local policy outcomes–a rancher living a hundred miles from the county seat is unable to attend a meeting about the location of a county road and thus does not have his/her voice heard.[1. Interestingly enough, if we could reasonably calculate the costs associated with attending the meeting, we could estimate a threshhold of benefits that must be reached before this rancher would attend the meeting and be heard.] But, the real power here would be in aggregating up this information and see how it plays out in representation on state and national issues as well. Personally I would like to focus on state policies, specifically education policy, but I would like to see tools developed that help us answer local and national questions as well.

Another interest along these lines is the ways that technology is changing these geographic constraints. From virtual education programs for rural schools to open government initiatives that put government data on the web to be accessed anytime and anywhere, the role that geography plays is shifting fundamentally. As a self-professed geek I would certainly like to look at the ways that emerging technologies are reshaping the ways geography enables and constrains political participation and policy outcomes.

John Geraci has an interesting post over at O’Reilly Radar on this very subject:

What we really want (or what I really want anyway) is not simply government transparency, but an open civic system – a civic system that operates, and flourishes, as a fully open system, for whatever level we happen to be talking about – federal, state, city, neighborhood, whatever. And transparency is a big part of that open civic system, but it is still only one part.

Mr. Geraci has come up with an interesting way of organizing the different interactions necessary for truly open government as follows:

  • Government to Citizen (G2C)
  • Citizen to Government (C2G)
  • Citizen to Citizen (C2C)
  • Government to Government (G2G)

Obviously the G2C stuff is happening a lot now with the Obama administration and social scientists have been using government information sources to help promote this openness for quite some time. Technology has really accelerated the opportunities here though, and it is something to keep an eye on. Further on the post John points out some emerging examples of the other types of data being used for open government (such as a project that allows city residents to report bad roads and lobby for them to be fixed).

If technologies like these continue to develop they may abate many of the main barriers to participation found in rural areas. Yet other costs will remain. Something a lot of advocates of open and transparent data sources seem to forget is that this transparency is only accessible to a small audience, namely the tech-savvy and well-connected advocates. True government transparency does not mean simply providing the data on a website in an open file format, it also means civic education to make citizens aware of the information available to them and inculcate them with a responsibility about the use of that data. Pretty soon information literacy will not simply be a skill for researchers, students, and technologists, it will be a fundamental part of civic engagement in much the same way literacy was a hundred years ago.

Yet, if we can learn anything from the “old” literacy, it is this: a literacy gap will develop along some lines[2. These could be racial, social, economic, geographic or some combination.] and, if unattended, that gap could lead to policy outcomes that disproportionately affect the literate population at the expense of those left behind.

Where are the advocates for Education 2.0? (Sounds like a topic for a future post…)


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