Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Feminism, Geography and GIS

I attended my first ever Landscape Surgery today at Bedford Square.  The subject was, first, the history of how women came to gain admission as fellows of the Royal Geographical Society and, second, the possible renaming of the Women and Geography Study Group (WGSG) at the RGS (now with IBG since the 90s).  The Geographic Perspectives on Women (GPOW) group of the Association of American Geographers was mentioned as a similar group that keeps women in the title.  The debate revolves around whether or not to remove the word 'women' from WGSG's title and replace it with 'gender.'  The argument against this move is that it might de-politicize and take some of the focus on women away.
Image from The Geographical Journal article discussed at today's meeting in Bedford Square

The history of how women came to be included in the RGS, very nicely summarized by Innes Keighren at today's Landscape Surgery session, shows how much has been gained over the last century and a half or so, from the creation of spaces (including 'powder rooms') within the RGS such that women are able to participate, to the realization by men that the inclusion of women in geographical society will not necessarily lead to serious geographical research being turned into a tea party.  One of the most edifying parts of today's talk was when Katie Willis and Harriet Hawkins, at separate times in the discussion, reflected upon how radical certain texts from the 80s or the 90s seemed at the time they came out.

I was left wondering if WGSG includes any GIS people.  It seems to me that some of the issues around inclusion of women might be re-played out a bit in the development of GIS over the last half century.  In GG3090, Critical GIS and the Geoweb, we devote a large part of one lecture to feminism in GIS, noting along the way how early development of GIS was a kind of geek-heaven filled with hyper-competitive young men.  We show a video of Nicolas Chrisman with his big white beard explaining how the team at the Harvard Graphic Lab decided to solve technical issues around topology by a process of Darwinian selection, involving large sticks and bashing metaphors.  I follow this video up with one by Nadine Schuurman explaining her work in health and GIS.  The contrast is a comment upon how far we have come in GIS.

I was pleased this last semester to see so many women in GG3090, a strong majority in fact.  This should not be that surprising since the makeup of the Royal Holloway student population is a strong majority female.  But in the land of GIS it is worth noting that GIS does have its dalliance with a masculine past.  We do, more recently, also have a tradition of feminism developing, through the work of people like Nadine Schuurman (also part of GPOW) and Mei-Po Kwan.  We also have the work of Matt Wilson, Sarah Elwood and Agnieszka Leszczynski, all of whom appear in the 2009 volume Qualitative GIS. This text featured prominently in both the master's workshop run 10-14 December as well as the third year critical GIS/geoweb course at Royal Holloway.

Is GIS masculinist? I don't think so. But I could not have said this with such confidence even a decade ago when what Schuurman, Kwan and others were writing was still very new and risky. This only points out that what we take for granted today is the result of long struggle and overcoming bias, stereotype and exclusion.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mapping Europe's Borderlands

I've spent a good deal of time these last two weeks in Montreal reading Steven Seegel's magnificent book Mapping Europe's Borderlands, and begun writing a review that will appear in the pages of Cartographica in the next few months.  Ahead of that I want to recommend this book as an excellent primer on critical cartography.

University of Chicago Press link to the book

Here's the blurb from the dust jacket:

The simplest purpose of a map is a rational one: to educate, to solve a problem, to point someone in the right direction. Maps shape and communicate information, for the sake of improved orientation. But maps exist for states as well as individuals, and they need to be interpreted as expressions of power and knowledge, as Steven Seegel makes clear in his impressive and important new book.
Mapping Europe’s Borderlands takes the familiar problems of state and nation building in eastern Europe and presents them through an entirely new prism, that of cartography and cartographers. Drawing from sources in eleven languages, including military, historical-pedagogical, and ethnographic maps, as well as geographic texts and related cartographic literature, Seegel explores the role of maps and mapmakers in the East Central European borderlands from the Enlightenment to the Treaty of Versailles. For example, Seegel explains how Russia used cartography in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and, later, formed its geography society as a cover for gathering intelligence. He also explains the importance of maps to the formation of identities and institutions in Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania, as well as in Russia. Seegel concludes with a consideration of the impact of cartographers’ regional and socioeconomic backgrounds, educations, families, career options, and available language choices. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Close Up At A Distance

Am I ever excited!
This book just arrived in my pigeonhole:

(It's actually published by Zone)


The maps in this book are drawn with satellites, assembled with pixels radioed from outer space, and constructed from statistics; they record situations of intense conflict and express fundamental transformations in our ways of seeing and of experiencing space. These maps are built with Global Positioning Systems (GPS), remote sensing satellites, or Geographic Information Systems (GIS): digital spatial hardware and software designed for such military and governmental uses as reconnaissance, secrecy, monitoring, ballistics, the census, and national security. Rather than shying away from the politics and complexities of their intended uses, in Close Up at a Distance Laura Kurgan attempts to illuminate them. Poised at the intersection of art, architecture, activism, and geography, her analysis uncovers the implicit biases of the new views, the means of recording information they present, and the new spaces they have opened up.
Her presentation of these maps reclaims, repurposes, and discovers new and even inadvertent uses for them, including documentary, memorial, preservation, interpretation, political, or simply aesthetic. GPS has been available to both civilians and the military since 1991; the World Wide Web democratized the distribution of data in 1992; Google Earth has captured global bird’s-eye views since 2005. Technology has brought about a revolutionary shift in our ability to navigate, inhabit, and define the spatial realm. The traces of interactions, both physical and virtual, charted by the maps in Close Up at a Distance define this shift.
Could this be the next Information Arts (also an MIT publication).  While it's obviously not on that encyclopedic scale, this book clearly updates (at least part of) that gap.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Hampstead Heath to British Library walk

This morning I completed a survey of the 'lost' River Fleet from the watershed on the north side of Hampstead Heath.  At Hampstead Station, on the Northern Line, I had coffee at the nearby McDonald's.
Realizing I was hungry I had an Egg McMuffin too.  Then I walked up the hill to where the view from the highest point of land in London was spectacular, if a bit of a hazy blue.
There had been a delay as the Northern Line was not running between Charing Cross and Euston.  However, the fact that I had caught the 8:23 Southwestern train earlier that morning from Egham to Waterloo more than compensated.
Then I followed the actual stream down past a couple of ponds, the headwaters of the Fleet.  
This led me to the upper reaches of Camden where the river promptly went underground.
A nice bookstore kept me browsing a few moments before I attempted to follow the lowest contour downhill to downtown.  

At this point I had to adjust after one wrong turn.  Eventually I ended up at a market -- very bustling -- right in Camden Town.  
Two donuts with espresso replenished energy, that and the facilities at the market (not far from a little underground stall selling antique maps).

The guidepost maps started appearing on the pavement and I quickly realized I was close to the British Library.  Making my way down past St Pancras church, a sign there told me of how the original site looked out over the River Fleet.

I had stayed true to course after all!

I then spent two hours reading a biography of Keats, a book which inspired the Hampstead Heath walk.  This blog entry was written for the most part during a break from reading in the British Library.  

Afterwards I walked to Russell Square tube station to connect up with the Jubilee line at Green Park, and then onward to Waterloo Station (the Northern Line had discontinuous service).

It didn't hurt that the weather was fine!

PostScript: I came home and ate a big salad.  Much needed after all the mcmuffins and donuts.