top of page
Search
  • Writer's pictureKevin Haynes

Why GIS Professionals Must Embrace the Rich History and Philosophy of Geography

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) professionals play a critical role in shaping how

Robot and human finger touching with DNA graphic

we understand and interact with the world around us. From tracking the spread of diseases to analyzing natural resource management, GIS has become an indispensable tool in a wide range of fields. However, in the rush to master the latest software and technological advances, it is easy to overlook the importance of having a solid foundational understanding of the history and philosophy of geography. In this blog post, I will argue that GIS professionals must embrace the discipline's rich intellectual history and engage with the philosophical questions that underpin their work. By doing so, they can better appreciate the power and limitations of GIS as a tool for understanding the world and make more informed decisions about how to use it.

How Understanding the History and Philosophy of Geography Can Help GIS Professionals Make Better Decisions

As GIS technology becomes increasingly integral to decision-making in a wide range of fields, the importance of a solid foundational understanding of the history and philosophy of geography cannot be overstated. The study of geography has a rich history and a complex philosophical underpinning, which can provide valuable insights into the evolution of GIS and its broader implications. By exploring the historical and philosophical foundations of geography, GIS professionals can gain a deeper understanding of the theoretical and practical aspects of GIS, and develop more effective strategies for leveraging its potential.

Firstly, knowing the history of the geography allows GIS professionals to appreciate the evolution of geographic thought and how it has contributed to the development of GIS technology. Understanding the historical context in which geographic concepts and techniques were developed can help GIS professionals to better understand the underlying assumptions and limitations of these approaches, and to critically evaluate their relevance and applicability in modern GIS applications.

Secondly, the philosophy of geography provides a theoretical framework for understanding how we conceptualize and represent space and place in GIS. By exploring questions such as what constitutes a geographic object, what is the relationship between space and time, and how we understand spatial relationships, GIS professionals can gain a deeper understanding of the conceptual foundations of GIS and how it relates to other disciplines.


Thirdly, a broader understanding of the history and philosophy of geography can help GIS professionals to contextualize their work within the broader landscape of geographic thought, and to appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of the field. This can help to foster collaboration between GIS professionals and other researchers and practitioners and to advance the development of GIS technology in a way that is grounded in the broader context of geographic theory and practice.

The Role of Historical and Philosophical Understanding in Building Ethical and Inclusive GIS Technology

In this next section, we will explore the important topic of ethics in GIS. As we have seen, the historical and philosophical foundations of geography can help GIS professionals critically examine potential biases and assumptions in their work. But beyond that, an ethical understanding of GIS is also essential to ensure that the technology is used in a way that promotes the common good and respects the rights and needs of all stakeholders. We will examine the concept of spatial justice and other ethical frameworks that can guide GIS professionals in their decision-making. Additionally, we will look at the GIS Code of Ethics and how it can be applied in real-world situations. By exploring these topics, GIS professionals can ensure that they are practicing their work in a responsible and ethical manner. One reason is that the historical development of geography, including its colonial and imperialist past, has shaped the way we think about and represent places and people. Understanding this history can help GIS professionals to critically examine and challenge the potential biases and assumptions that may be embedded in their work, and to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes or perpetuating inequalities.

Additionally, a philosophical understanding of geography can help GIS professionals to think more deeply about the ethical implications of their work. For example, the concept of "spatial justice" emphasizes the importance of ensuring equitable access to resources, services, and opportunities across geographic space. Understanding this concept and others like it can help GIS professionals to design and implement projects that prioritize the needs and well-being of all stakeholders, including marginalized or disadvantaged communities.

Finally, an ethical understanding of the history and philosophy of geography can help GIS professionals to practice their work in a way that aligns with professional codes of ethics and standards. For example, the URISA International GIS Code of Ethics emphasizes the importance of promoting the responsible use of GIS, ensuring the accuracy and integrity of data, and respecting the privacy and confidentiality of individuals and communities. Understanding the broader ethical context of GIS can help professionals to apply these principles in their work, and to make ethical decisions in complex and challenging situations while upholding the values of the URISA International GIS Code of Ethics.

Map Graphic

In conclusion, a solid understanding of the history and philosophy of geography is essential for GIS professionals. By exploring the evolution of geographic thought and the theoretical foundations of GIS, professionals can better appreciate the potential and limitations of the technology. Additionally, an ethical understanding of GIS is crucial to ensure that the technology is used in a way that promotes the common good and respects the rights of all stakeholders. GIS professionals must critically examine potential biases and assumptions in their work and make decisions that prioritize the needs of marginalized or disadvantaged communities. By embracing the broader ethical context of GIS, professionals can make informed decisions and uphold the values of professional codes of ethics and standards. As GIS continues to shape our understanding of the world, it is more important than ever for professionals to engage with the rich intellectual history and ethical considerations that underpin their work.


1 Comment


Joseph Kerski
Joseph Kerski
Aug 23, 2023

Indeed Kevin many thanks - I wrote a book called Interpreting Our World which touches on some of these foundational themes and shows how Geography and GIS are revolutionary ideas and technologies!

Like
bottom of page