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| "One day, we'll each be a number." Gloomy prognostication or canny prediction?
|PHOTO: OWEN EGAN|
In some ways, it may have already come to pass. According to new geography professor and GIS specialist, Renée Sieber, GIS (geographic information science) is now being implemented in a hot marketing tool called geodemographics, which matches personal buying habits to place.
While arguably a boon to retailers, GIS-driven consumer profiling can reduce an individual to a "concatenation of numbers," since "you are what you buy."
The "geo" part of the new term refers to the all-important location of the like-minded consumer hot spots.
For Sieber, who has a joint appointment in McGill's School of Environment, GIS in the marketplace is just one of many ways it can be employed.
In 1998, Sieber's PhD in urban planning from Rutgers University was about GIS and environmental activism. Sieber's other work has examined such diverse applications of GIS as community activism, patterns of crime incidence, biological conservation and land use issues.
GIS's more apparent use in human geography and demography can reach into public health and epidemiology. It is versatile enough to apply almost anywhere.
Essentially, GIS is used "to organize, to manage, to analyze, to visualize spatial data."
The first word is the key: there always has to be "a geographical or spatial reference," says Sieber. "It can be an address. It can be a GPS — a global positioning systems point. It can be latitude and a longitude. It can be a neighbourhood or public health district."
Whatever its point of reference, a GIS application represents a series of layers, each of which corresponds to a particular variable.
"You stack the layers and make inferences or correlations among [them]." They become translated into numbers, which, in turn, become equations — algorithms. But this mathematical formulation is far from being neutral, lifeless or bias-free.
In fact, a large part of Sieber's research — including what she did prior to joining McGill last September — has examined the ethics of GIS. How are data gathered? To what extent are those data available to the public, especially members of disadvantaged groups? Can GIS work against, as well as for, the public interest? Can distressed communities use GIS to fight crime, enlarge green spaces, take back their sense of place?
And then there's the bugbear of privacy, and the sneaky ways our personal habits are studied, the data bought and sold and the results put completely out of our control. Clearly, the average citizen should at least be aware of GIS.
Sieber is currently teaching a course on GIS and the Web, and another on the socioeconomic applications of GIS. She holds a seminar in the School of Environment on environmental research. Last November, at the end of Geography Week, she organized a GIS Information Day, which drew 300 attendees. The 60 demonstrations featured GIS industries, as well as academic presenters. The eagerness which greeted this display of GIS applications suggested that Sieber is not the only one who recognizes the wide-ranging utility of this exciting tool.