What is GIS and Why Should I Care?

What is GIS?

At its core, GIS is all about maps. A geographic information system (GIS) is a tool for gathering and analyzing spatial data (data that has a geographic location). GIS has its roots in geography, which is the study of our earth and everything on it. GIS is a framework for gathering data about human and environmental systems and analyzing and visualizing that data using maps.


Why do maps matter?

Human’s are innately visual, and we can understand our world through visual diagrams like maps. We also have the ability to visualize and understand patterns in the world around us, and so we naturally respond to maps. Through map design we can display data in a way that makes it easy for anyone to understand and respond to.

The Geographic Imagination

Maps are also ways for us to imagine our world. They tell stories, and represent things that are happening in the real world through graphics. Maps are incredibly powerful in that the create something that is called a “spatial narrative”. The spatial narrative is a story that is told about the world through a spatial medium– maps. According to Geographer Jen Jack Gieseking, “maps, mapping processes, and images that represent space are literal and figurative physical representations of the geographical imagination”. So our geographic imagination literally informs the way we think about the world around us. This means maps are influential, and are often deployed as tools for those in power to reinforce whatever narrative they want to portray. This is why geographic literacy and data literacy are so important. By teaching the public how to take back the spatial narrative into their own hands, and to navigate spatial narratives that are being deployed by those in power, we get one step closer to dismantling systems of oppression.

Right: a redlining map of Oakland, CA; Left: a map of unlawful detainer evictions in the Oakland area 2005-2015

Understanding the Geographical Imagination

Spatial Justice

Spatial Justice is a concept first introduced by urban geographer Edward Soja. It reflects on the inequalities that are produced through spatial relationships (think redlining and residential segregation) and then reproduced and reinforced by spatial narratives displayed on maps. Spatial Justice is about people’s control over how a space is imagined, as well as how it is actually used and lived in. It is both a goal and a tool to be used in the process of planning for and governing communities. In the words of Ed Soja, spatial justice “seeks to promote more progressive and participatory forms of democratic politics and social activism, and to provide new ideas about how to mobilize and maintain cohesive collations and regional confederations of grassroots social activist.”

The Mapping Action Collective centers the idea of spatial justice in all of our work. We believe that maps and GIS are powerful tools that can be used (for better or worse) to create a narrative and have a social and political impact. Maps are often created and controlled by those in power, but there is also a rich history of community-driven mapping that often gets overlooked. In the hands of the people, maps can be a way to elevate marginalized narratives and use data to support social change.

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