People, Paper, and Computers: Population GIS

GIS topographical elevation model. GIS also holds exciting opportunities for visualising population. (c) Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Sacks

Advanced geographic study and analysis increasingly requires expertise in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS training can take on varied forms, from rudimentary interactions with Google Earth to manipulating vector and layered data in ArcGIS. The gradual acceptance of GIS as an integral tool in studying geography lies in fact that its original, military-state purpose has since been constantly tweaked, expanded, and applied in new and exciting ways.

Population analysis is undoubtedly one of GIS’ most important current applications. Historically, maps were coloured or marked by hand or paper printer, utilising data that was, more often than not, out-of-date by the time the chart (or atlas) was published. GIS completely changes this paradigm. Map data on migration, health, commercial and social distribution, and immigration, just to name a few, can be instantly updated. Increasingly, this can be accomplished remotely, using a network of pocket GPS systems, mobile computer hardware, and satellite communications. In his recent Geography Compass article, David Martin (University of Southampton) not only chronicles the development of GIS population analysis, but also posits future possibilities, and the problems and solutions they may pose.

Population data is one of the oldest and most prominent factors in surveying and cartography. Most domestic and national surveys were commissioned through the need for updated population census data; indeed, it is extraordinarily difficult to govern a municipality without such information. For instance, in a September 2002 Area article, Peter Collier and Rob Inkpen (both University of Portsmouth) highlighted the Colonial Office’s requests for population surveys necessary for ‘the efficient administration of new colonies’ in the nineteenth- and twentieth century British empires (277). Martin brings us forward into the twenty-first century, discussing both GIS’ transformative advantages, as well as the sluggishness (or, more exactly, lack of creativity) in its adoption. The traditional chloropleth (shaded area) map, he notes, still predominates GIS-produced population charts (655). Too, although some countries (e.g., the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada) maintain comprehensive geographic and population statistics (657-59), many other countries have only begun to adopt GIS toolkits.

These issues appear, however, to be nothing more than temporary obstacles in GIS proliferation. Martin highlights the ‘Population 24/7’ project, funded by the British Economic and Social Research Council, as a progressive programme intended to provide fluid, constantly-updated information on population issues that matter most to local councils, constabularies, hospitals, and community groups. His article serves as a superb addition to a growing body of scholarly GIS literature.

Peter Collier and Rob Inkpen, ‘The RGS, Exploration and Empire and the Contested Nature of Surveying‘, Area 34.3 (September, 2002): 273-83.

David Martin, ‘Directions in Population GIS‘, Geography Compass 5.9 (October, 2011): 655-65.

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