Geographic information systems increase participation

Monday - 6/21/2010, 6:32pm EDT

Sukumar Ganapati, assistant professor of public administration, Florida International University

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Geographic information systems (GIS), like Google Maps, are becoming more and more a part of our daily lives.

And as technology becomes more widespread, citizens are more involved in creating and receiving geographic information over the internet.

What does the future of this technology look like?

Sukumar Ganapati, assistant professor of public administration at Florida International University, and author of the report Using Geographic Information Systems to Increase Citizen Engagement.

He says GIS was largely used only as a technical tool until the 1990's. Today, he says it is increasingly being used for "social linkages."

Public participation using GIS is on the rise. Ganapati says services like Google Transit, which allows users to gather real-time traffic and navigation information overlaid on to Google Maps, are examples of this phenomenon.

This kind of citizen volunteered geographic information (VGI) helps GIS become more accurate and immersive.

"Essentially, citizens act as censors in the field who are intelligent enough to gather information about their surroundings," Ganapati says.

GIS users can even influence government behavior.

"There is a use of GIS for public participation in planning and decision-making," Ganapati says.

For example, Ganapati says the city of Portland used GIS tools to gather citizen feedback about proposed public transportation route expansions.

Ganapati says this technology also has important implications for disaster management.

Citizens can integrate tools like Twitter and text messages with GPS and Google Maps to track disaster progress. This has already been seen along the Gulf coast to track the spread of oil.

GIS gives citizens a chance to be involved in "reporting incidents as soon as they happen so action could be taken on that as quickly as possible," Ganapati says.

Government transparency is another use for GIS technology. For example, data on spending or crime rates by area can be layered on to a map for citizen use.

Despite all of the uses of the technology, privacy and security are still concerns. Some people may worry that their personal information will be released.

"As the use of information grows so much more, there is even more of a concern for what extent there will be privacy of individuals," Ganapati says.

But he also says most GIS applications would use aggregate data rather than individual data, minimizing the risk.

Further attention should be paid to reducing the likelihood of individual data leaks, Ganapati says. This is an important issue for the future of GIS technology.

"There is always a fine balance between increasing transparency and having security and privacy," Ganapati says.

Rachel Stevens, the author of this post, is an intern at Federal News Radio.


Also on Federal News Radio Ganapati was also on the Business of Government Hour