Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens


How GIS reveals discrimination in urban planning

Does this sound at all familiar?

Not all local governments appreciate the rise of GIS-driven advocacy, especially when their own data is used as a hammer against them, and they have begun to restrict public access. Some have pulled data off the Web in the alleged interest of national security; others charge exorbitant fees to produce it or deliver jumbled masses of data that are difficult to manage or decipher.

Turns out though that it’s not from the UK, but the US, from a fascinating article about how GIS helps to demonstrate discrimination being practised by towns and cities – and how when that is revealed by mapping, the reaction tends not to be to get rid of the discrimination, but to get rid of the troublesome access to the data that reveals it. After all, it’s so much cheaper to do the one than the other:

Mebane, the Cedar Grove Institute’s first case study of municipal discrimination, passed an Infrastructure Information Security Policy shortly after the study was published; the policy limited infrastructure data access to qualified engineering firms and town agencies. The city of Modesto, Calif., locked in a legal underbounding battle, pulled its infrastructure data off the Internet after the lawsuit was filed, citing national security grounds. “There’s no conceivable national security interest in where the traffic lights are in Modesto,” scoffs Ben Marsh, the institute’s chief mapmaker. A recent appellate ruling in California rejected a similar national-security rationale, as well as a copyright argument by Santa Clara County, but whether that opinion stands as precedent remains to be seen.

However…

Though restrictions on access to government data could prove troublesome, advocacy groups that use GIS have already been finding data sources outside of government. In particular, data collected by community residents have become an effective supplement to the “official story,” as University of Washington professor Sarah Elwood calls government data.

Elwood has used GIS not only to map problems but to build the capacity of underserved and disadvantaged communities to advocate on their own behalf. Simple walking surveys that catalogue infrastructural deficiencies — potholes in sidewalks, missing stop signs, burned-out streetlights — fill gaps in the public record that mask actual conditions on the ground. With locally produced data, Elwood says, “You can tell a very detailed and very current, compelling story about neighborhood needs.”

If that reminds you at all of fixmystreet, it ought to – that’s precisely the sort of idea it sprang from.

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