Geographic information systems, or GIS, has radically changed geography and mapping over the last few decades. As I tell my students, on the one hand, GIS means that anyone with access to the software can make a map, making cartography a much more populist endeavour. On the other hand, GIS means that anyone with access to the software can make a map; the quality and cartographic integrity of computer-generated maps isn’t where it used to be now that anyone can push some buttons.

But that’s a rant for another day. I had a long post planned today in response to a couple of interesting articles in the Sunday paper(s), but that can wait for tomorrow. I came across a news story that’s extremely important for GIS and mapmaking in general. Basically, a group of engineers and surveyors is suing the federal government because a law from 1972 requires that all “surveying and mapping” work contracted by the federal government must be done by a company licensed in engineering or surveying. In other words, any GIS application that receives money from the U.S. government would have to be done by a licensed engineer or surveyor. As the legal briefing paper on the Association of American Geographers’ website says:

“It could damage many industries, programs and applications, ranging from federally-funded, mapping-related, academic research programs to major electric utility companies using GIS-based management programs; from urban planning to agricultural production; from environmental studies to national defense; and from archeology to homeland security. At the individual level, it could affect the enormous number of GIS and mapping scientists and professionals within the computer science, information technology, planning, forestry, and geographical sciences communities. At the societal level, it could stunt the dynamism, creativity, and innovation that has characterized the U.S. computerized mapping and GIS industry up until now, and in turn undermine the country’s economic and technological competitiveness in the global economy.”

I teach GIS, and in any given quarter, about half of my students are geography majors. The rest are in anthropology, biology, criminal science, national security studies, public health, and other majors and Master’s programs from across the spectrum. If the surveyers and engineers win, local police could not use federal funds to institute a program to reduce crime using spatial analysis techniques. Public health officials could not use federal funds to study the placement of clinics or the spread of disease.

GIS has been hailed by many within geography as a way to get the spatial back into social science. While there are often disagreements within universities over the location of GIS education (i.e., should everyone take GIS within the geography department, or should urban planning, criminal justice, archaeology, etc., all have their own courses), the fact remains that one of the strengths of GIS is its applicability to a wide range of subjects, so that people can apply their particular expertise in epidemiology, sociology, ecology, etc., to the problem at hand. If they all have to hire certified engineers to do their mapping for them, people who know how to run the software but little about the problem they’re trying to solve, that could be disastrous.

More information here.