Blog Post

On Web GIS, Access, and Googlization

The county where I live just had a property auction last week. That's a sale where all the tax delinquent properties are sold to the highest bidder, often at rock bottom prices. It's often the case that the owners of these properties decide that's it's no longer cost effective for them to maintain the house/yard/apartments or whatever, so they stop paying their taxes and after a certain period these properties become the county treasurer's (but mainly their neighborhood's) problem. The capital consolidation and human and capital flight in this region of the country, which has been greatly affected by the macroeconomic trends of recent years (housing bubble, relocation of manufacturing overseas, the finance industry crisis) is reflected clearly in the tax sale: there were over 1,100 properties on the auction block this March. This is a lot. Under 100 of them are empty parcels with no buildings. Many are multi-unit dwellings. Delaware County has a population of around 115,000 (and shrinking).

Before the auction I had couple of exchanges with the local GIS Coordinator for Delaware County. His online map of the tax sale properties functioned through the web app of ESRI (the primary proprietary GIS software), but I was curious how a slightly more user friendly and embeddable map could be created and shared. Around that time I stumbled upon Google Fusion Tables, which can map spreadsheet data (like addresses or latitude/longitude) right onto a Google Map. I gently suggested to my GIS Coordinator friend that he look into this for the tax sale map and then, poof, there it was: efficiently color coded and everything. If you're curious about the spatial distribution of tax sale properties in Delaware County, Indiana (who isn't?), here it is:

(Note the lack of tax deliquent properties around Ball State campus compared to the high concentration of such properties particularly south of the White River. Last century, south Muncie was the area with most of the manufacturing employers and neighborhoods of blue collar workers. Now Ball State University and Ball Memorial Hospital are the major employers in town.)

But I mention all of this not because I think Google is so swell nor because a tax sale is all that interesting, but because the generation of this map -- in fact, this GIS -- highlights a couple common issues within contemporary Critical GIS research: proprietary vs. free access, amateur vs. professional GIS, the rise of Neogeography, access to geographic information, as well as the more general role of GIS for the public good.

A couple brief remarks on the expression of these topics locally: the Delaware County Department of Geographic Information quickly adopted the Google API in this context (over the proprietary ESRI software) because it provided a more flexible and accessible way to share the map. Keep in mind that this is not really a "map" in the traditional sense -- it's more than that, it's an example of publicly accessible GIS. MapQuest (which is still around!) may have been the first site to offer GIS applications for daily life available to tens of thousands, then millions and tens of millions of people. Google Maps was released in 2005 and the rate of increase of usage, interactivity, and number of applications has surely been geometric. Thus the rise of "Neogeography" in the sense of "our" everyday practice (that is, for those of us with regular internet access) and in the attention bestowed upon it by scholars (like Andrew Turner, Jeremy Crampton, Mark Graham, and Matthew W.  Wilson). I also find it significant that a local government organization was able to quickly incorporate the Google Map. I have heard since that a neighboring county has latched onto this idea and posted their tax sale map using Google as well. Does this portend to the eventual demise of ESRI and proprietary software? Perhaps, but let's not pretend that there is no reason for resistance to the Googlization of spatial information: Google is a proprietary company, too. It doesn't license Google-brand applications, but instead licenses our personal information to advertising companies. (Have a look at the 'Terms of Use' on every Google Map: users are officially not allowed to "(b) copy, translate, modify, or make derivative works of the Content or any part thereof; (c) redistribute [...] (d) reverse engineer, decompile or otherwise attempt to extract the source code of the Service or any part thereof, unless this is expressly permitted or required by applicable law;" HUH?!)

Finally, the overall role of GIS in this context showcases a bias toward privilege and technological literacy familiar to our previous generation's technology/technocracy. I heard reports that questions asked at the (in-person) 'training seminar' on how to navigate purchasing a piece of property from the auction were answer with "you can look that up online." The auction itself took place online, the first time this was the case here. Clearly, this tilts the playing field toward real estate companies and property hoarders who are internet savvy, and away from local people of modest means, many of whom seek to purchase property simply to improve their own neighborhoods. There are some spatial ironies lurking here: people seeking to purchase a derelict property next door to them have less resources to make this happen compared to the big investors located far away. While online maps have perhaps streamlined the accessibility of such spatial information, this has been done in the service of certain interests. Which certain interests do I mean? Likely the same interests that created that derelict property in the first place (see first paragraph).


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