Senior Research in Geography – GEOG 0700: Programming for GIS

"How can we make GIS do something different?"

Professor Sarah Elwood from the University of Washington posed this question to me one November afternoon towards the end of the fall semester, as we discussed her research on feminist GIS practice over Skype. At the time, I was working on a podcast for my senior seminar, Feminist Geography, that asked the question, "What does it mean to make maps in a feminist / critical way?" After a healthy literature review and two other interviews with experts in the field, I was still struggling to answer this question. I knew that feminist GIS had something to do with questioning how cartographic knowledge is made, with challenging the reductive technique of representing human experiences of space as points, lines, and polygons, and with breaking the boundary between cartographers and the subjects (objects?) of their maps. But it wasn't until I spoke with Professor Elwood that I received the insight I craved. The goal of all this was related to one simple idea: that we could be doing GIS differently.

Fast forward to the start of the spring semester, and here I am trying to figure out what, exactly, that might look like. What would it mean to do GIS differently? What tools would we use? Hadn't all of the tools been invented already? Where would I start?

Well, the answer to that last question was somewhat obvious: the internet. As I perused the methods sections of different papers by feminist and critical geographers, and spent hours trying to figure out how certain maps and visualizations were made, I began to realize that these cartographers were using more than your standard geoprocessing toolkit – they were using code. I had known for a long time that GIS people and computer scientists had a lot to talk to each other about, but I had never realized the full extent of the connection. Particularly when I discovered the open source world led by CartoDB, Mapbox, the QGIS Project, Development Seed, Leaflet, the PostGIS folks, and all of the other hundreds (perhaps thousands) of developers out there working on this same problem, my mind began to churn in excitement. I could see a new bridge forming, a connection whereby code, GIS, feminist epistemologies, and smart design could come together to make maps that truly did something different. My next task was to figure out how I could do that myself.

Here, in my last semester at Middlebury, I have decided to dedicate my capstone senior research to this exploration. With the excellent guidance of my faculty advisor, Professor Joseph Holler, I will be pursuing an extensive and ambitious self-designed syllabus to learn the coding techniques necessary to make new kinds of maps. This will, of course, involve a lot of making "old kinds" of maps, of experimenting with traditional techniques to see where I might be able to do things differently, to deviate from the master plan. The ultimate goal of this research is to produce a framework for how we might go about learning (and teaching) GIS differently, using a code-based approach that emphasizes creativity, novelty, universality, and smart design alongside a critical epistemology of self-reflexivity, positionality, accountability, and social justice. In this pursuit, I hope to cultivate both technical and philosophical skill as a young cartographer and developer. I am a self-taught programmer, and have become adept at coding largely through determination, commitment, and sheer stubbornness (and let's of course be sure to mention the amazing pooled community knowledge on Github and Stack Exchange). I am passionate about making maps that tell impactful stories and empower marginalized voices. And I want to dedicate my life to changing how we think about cartographic knowledge and the process of making it. I hope, in this senior research, I can begin to do just that.

To view a preliminary syllabus of the research, click here.