How Political Influences Can Impact Public Mapping

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The most important facet of working with maps is the ability to assist those around you: your audience. For GIS professionals who are focused on developing data sets and their respective maps for researchers, their audience is specific. They can have a fairly reasonable expectation as to what type of person they’re helping. Varying slightly are the types of maps that focus on public data, where your audience can be a huge range of people of all beliefs and demographics.

Maps are intrinsically a humanistic product, without the group in question that’s using them, there’s no point in them existing. When you’re focusing on a specific set of public data, as in the case of wheelchair accessible pathways, you are approaching a specific demographic,  but the personalities of that group can vary widely.

This brings me to some recent work of mine, mapping gender-neutral restrooms for transgender students, on a college campus. It would be reasonable to argue that this type of map could have a political motivation. Although, political affiliation should have no bearing on what types of maps and data are available to the public. Transparency and accessibility of data is key. Regardless of progressive or conservative beliefs, everyone should be able to access data that’s important to their livelihoods and safety. But smaller, and less focused on groups can be overlooked when GIS turns its view to the public sector, exceedingly so when the demographic in question works as a talking point in politics.

Often, these beliefs in action don’t take the form of direct opposition. The concern of being affiliated with a specific viewpoint often manifests itself as just inaction, or an unwillingness to look into an issue. When data is seen as more useful to a specific, smaller subset of the population, it can be overlooked entirely. This tends to be attributed to the belief that time and effort should be invested into more far spanning mapping topics, and that there’s no time to work with niche data.

Recent work for Kutztown University of Pennsylvania’s GLBTQ Center.

Playing into this inaction is simply those in the public being uninformed of the options available to them. People may feel that maps for specific topics should exist, but they’re not sure who to contact to document them or how to go about it themselves. Barriers like this keep people from reaching out and making these concepts a reality.

But whose responsibility is this? Obviously, there isn’t a sole individual or group who can address these issues on their own. It’s possible to simply see a problem and offer to help; however, more often than not smaller projects like this can be glossed over for bigger budget work. In all probability, it may be impossible to implement large scale change on this type of issue.  But that shouldn’t be the case, should it?

If anything, the on-line presence of GIS education and GIS professionals are continuing to move mapping forward in a more public oriented direction. The more individuals in this field that can be reached through email or social media, the more likely it is for information to be dispersed in a way that’ll be used to complete these undervalued projects.

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