November 25, 2003

Geographic Method Proves Utilitarian

Print More

Last Wednesday, Nov. 19, Prof. Emeritus John Cloud, peace studies, a geographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, spoke in Mann Library to celebrate Geographic Information Systems Day, 2003. GIS Day is part of the National Geographic Society’s Geography Awareness Week, which is intended as a time for teaching the general public about the real-world applications of GIS.

GIS is a tool, a method of organizing data related to geographic location. It provides a way of looking at space-related data. One way to visualize it is to imagine multiple transparencies representing different characteristics of the same geographic area.


For example, one could represent the parks in the area, another transparency, the historic district, another the restaurants. If the transparencies were placed on top of each other, a process called map overlay, correlations between the transparencies that might not be immediately apparent from looking at the transparencies separately appear.

Cloud’s lecture was called “Layered Truths: Uncovering the Complex Histories of Geographic Information Systems.” He explained that GIS goes back to the Urban Housing Crisis before the advent of computers and digitized data systems. The national program started off as an effort to determine where housing conditions were poor and in need of improvement and allowed New Dealers to identify the subset of the population that deserved to get help the most.


When conducting the surveys of all of the housing units in the area, there were initially six categories examined, but two more were added — one category was if the people in the household were white or not. There was overlap between four of the categories of data regarding housing: low rent, poor conditions, old and non-white. Because the agencies involved tended to be less helpful toward non-white populations, the program was used to discriminate against minorities. Non-white areas were targeted for red-lining, meaning that the residents of those areas would not be given loans. Many times, the data was hidden from the general public.


Cloud sought to convey that although GIS is often heralded as wonderful and the technology of the future, it is a tool that can be used for good or for bad. He said that GIS, “has a bright future” and “it’s all about bringing the tools of GIS to the powerless.” He also referred to the late Scottish Prof.-Emeritus Ian McHarg, landscape architecture and urban planning, University of Pennsylvania, who was concerned with using GIS, or at that time map overlay, for environmental and social factors. Cloud said that he believed McHarg thought that the hidden layers, the key ones that are used for making important decisions, should be visible to the public.

“They can use these layers and maps to find the poorest neighborhood and ream it out with a freeway because they won’t make as much of a fuss as a wealthier neighborhood,” Cloud said.

Cloud also said in an interview that “revealing secrets is the recurrent theme here; it is important to make these hidden layers public.” He also addressed the role of GIS in the military. “The first Gulf War was the first GIS war; the War on Iraq was GIS on steroids, everything was completely integrated and coordinated from a bunker in Florida,” he said.

“Civilian GIS is the visible tip of the iceberg; most GIS applications are classified,” he added.

Cloud stressed that GIS is just a tool and will only help with certain problems.

“I liked his presentation because he tied in the social conflict theory with GIS,” said Randall Frank, who works for CIT computer support, in response to the lecture.

Before and after the lecture there were representatives from companies and organizations related to GIS and Cornell departments using GIS displaying posters and telling people about their work and services. Environmental Systems Research Institute, a company that makes GIS software was represented by Paul Rooney. He said that at the university level, “ESRI provides software to departments for academic research uses, using GIS technology in solving problems.”

“GIS is more likely to be used in an applied way; it’s the infrastructure that makes answering questions with space-based data possible,” but encourages, “anyone with an interest in knowing where things are to check out GIS,” he said.

Jeff Piestrak, computer support specialist at Mann Library, is a member of the Cornell University Geospatial Information Repository team. He explained that people can download data from the library’s website.

“We’re not a creator of data, we’re an online repository,” he said.

There is a GIS station in Mann Library where people can manipulate data and make maps; there are also teaching and information programs on GIS. Elaine Westbrooks, metadata librarian at Mann Library, said, “Metadata is what describes and tells you everything about data sets.” She answers questions people have about using CUGIR.

Ed Bugliosi from the United States Geological Survey had a poster and explained a project carried out that used GIS in seeing how water moves underground or over land.

Some Cornell departments had posters of their GIS related research; these included city and regional planning, landscape architecture and crop and soil sciences. Megan Molique, a prospective graduate student, was working on a project with Prof. Stephen DeGloria, resource inventory and analysis, titled: “Estimating Critical Phosphorous Loading Areas in Six Mile Creek Watershed.” After the lecture she said, “The extent to which you can use GIS is incredible.”

She said that she is still new to GIS but believes it has many practical applications.

“When searching for driving directions on the internet or looking at the weather on TV or the internet, most likely GIS is being used to provide people with information,” she said.

Archived article by Vanessa Hoffman