Sunday, February 3, 2013

Mapping and the Art of Doing GIS

I read the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance quite some time ago, but I think that book has influenced my thinking more than I often admit to myself.  Why else would I attend a talk on Plato's Gorgias and Education (Windsor Building at Royal Holloway a couple of weeks ago), and cultivate an ongoing fascination with thinkers like Strabo, Cicero and Homer?  Why is the GIS guy reading all this stuff?

The reason I'm reading all this stuff (I had to defend my reading habits after I'd defended my master's degree at Carleton University and my supervisor said, "you sure read a lot for a GIS guy") is, first, out of general scholarly interest and a belief that it behooves teachers in sciences and humanities to be well read in a range of subject areas.  This is the same reason why I read The Times and The Guardian on a daily basis, to the point of being a bit of a news junky.

The second is that I'm fascinated by the idea of quality in general, by all things qualitative and how they overlap and inform quantitative considerations and stereotypes.  I believe there is an art to doing science and that aesthetics is as fundamental to doing science as are repeatability and falsifiability.  The idea that scientists are just hit on the head by great ideas is a myth.  Instead the best scientists must cultivate and channel creative powers in order to focus them in the most productive directions.

Creativity has been studied by some of the best scientists of all time, from Albert Einstein to David Bohm to Stephen Jay Gould. The diagrams and illustrations scientists use to convey their ideas benefit deeply from artistic endeavour, with atlases being at the forefront of such artistically informed scientific devices for communication (see Objectivity by Daston and Galison, published by Zone Books; or The Atlas of Science published by MIT Press).

Quality, art and creativity may not be strictly identical areas of inquiry, but they have a great deal of overlap between them.  Furthermore, they have a great deal of overlap with the business of doing science, and this includes the business of studying geographic information science and the geoweb.  Spatial information arts; visual arts of science; scientific illumination and drawing; randomness and chance in probability and statistics; visualisation of paradigm shifts and the charting of scientific progress: these are heady topics.  But they are all to some extent mappings, and as such they are worth paying attention to.

I am planning a manic project for very soon, one in which I will avoid ruffling the feathers of private citizens and/or authorities.  I want to explore public footpaths in Egham using my by now well developed method of systematic wandering.  I will document how public footpaths edge up against issues of privacy, surveillance and security.  Hedges, fences, windows, railway tracks, walls and all sorts of other boundary are encountered in my Egham rambles, and on Saturday as I was tromping through the mud to widen my horizons, I came to feel it high time someone made this map.

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