fourth draft, Steve Ventura, 9/24/97
 with Will Craig, Renee Sieber, Carolyn Merry, Dan Weiner, Trevor Harris, Geoffrey Jacquez
 derived from first draft UCGIS white paper by Jeffrey Osleeb and Melinda Laituri
 Please send any comments to the editors.


 As GIS becomes a more ubiquitous tool in society, it is incumbent upon the education community to ensure access to the technologies and data to disadvantaged groups and impaired individuals. The first goal of this education priority is to ensure access to such groups and individuals. This goal includes determining what is the necessary "spatial literacy" to effectively use GIS. The unique visual approach and spatial logic that are inherent in GIS may provide an additional related opportunity for educators -- to interact with individuals who have difficulty learning with traditional methods.

As an increasingly important tool in decision-making, public and private services, and other programs and policies affecting the quality of human life, it is important for students of GIS to understand the impacts of GIS use. These are considerations of GIS equity -- if and how the benefits of technological advancements are distributed throughout society. The second goal of this education priority is to ensure that everyone receiving GIS education is aware of a broad range of access and equity issues. This could ultimately lead to the development of a "GIS ethics" component in our curricula that would influence the general use of geographic information science.



At least two pairs of access-related issues should be considered in GIS education:

The first two items deal directly with issues that are pandemic in higher education -- even as affirmative action is being dismantled, we still must find ways to be inclusive. GIS education may have some unique contributions to make. As an emerging technology, new careers in GIS have the potential to attract members of society such as women and minority groups who may have been bypassed by other technological innovations. We need to learn how to create opportunities for marginalized members of society to participate in technology-based education.

 With its emphasis on visual approaches and spatial reasoning, GIS may provide new tools and approaches for teaching students who have difficulty learning through traditional teaching methods. Several cognitive and ergonomic sciences seek to understand and improve learning of students with physical or mental handicaps. As the pedagogy of GIS matures, we should understand how these disciplines can help us, and what GIS may contribute to these disciplines.

The increasing ubiquity of the computer, and arguably spatial literacy, demand that all members of society have access to computers, Internet connectivity, and training and education to understand how to use these tools. This is a particularly acute problem in rural and inner city areas in this country and in developing nations throughout the world. Access to hardware and networks are a necessary start, and these will likely be addressed as part of broader initiatives. However, geographic data bases and user interfaces that are accessible, understandable, context sensitive, and culturally relevant are needed to overcome barriers to effective GIS use. In this case, interaction with sociologists, anthropologists, planners, community activists and others with experiential expertise is needed to understand how to make geographic knowledge and power understandable and useable. Similarly, appropriate policies concerning data access and use are needed to ensure a positive stream of benefits from collection and use of data while protecting individual and group rights such as privacy.

As part of this and other initiatives, it will be necessary to examine what knowledge and training are needed to achieve spatial literacy. It is not enough to merely provide access to data and tools. Also, spatial literacy will be context- and culture-dependent. Therefore, as UCGIS educators, we will need to teach our students how to teach others about GIS in a way relevant to circumstances and audiences.


Social equity can be considered the outcome of societal and individual choices; in this light, GIS only plays a role in helping to inform (or mis-inform) the choices and their justification. Inequity can also occur when choices are constrained or when GIS is used in the exploitation of resources that others depend upon. In this case, initial decisions about GIS implementation such as what information is included in the system and how it is organized and presented influence outcomes. Students need to understand that GIS implementation and use can have a significant role and impact, affecting or bypassing different groups in varying ways.

Because of the substantial potential for GIS to influence social benefits and individual opportunities, GIS education needs an ethical foundation. A "GIS ethics" component would not necessarily advocate particular outcomes, nor even advocate that GIS is an appropriate tool for all situations. Rather, we should develop curricula that includes topics such as GIS costs and benefits, access and data sharing, privacy, and an understanding of the how spatial information is used to support or justify decisions. Situations where GIS clearly has an important role would be presented. Examples include environmental justice cases, identification and protection of land and resource rights, and decision-support systems for multi-party controversies to illustrate the impact of GIS.

At a minimum, GIS education should ensure that students understand the role and impact of GIS in society(s). Of course, we don't fully understand this, and so our curricula should be linked with research such as UCGIS's "GIS and Society" and should include empirical and experiential knowledge. With the addition of appropriate examples and cases, this could be expanded to an understanding of specific interests and needs of disadvantaged groups in which GIS may play a beneficial role. Finally, if we get students outside of the classroom, these lessons may be learned by helping disadvantaged groups understand the uses of geospatial information. Workshops, field trips, and similar activities can help students understand how to make GIS and spatial information culturally relevant, and perhaps even experience how it can lead to community empowerment. Lifelong learning will result if we can help students understand issues of equity and access in both curricula and "real-life" learning situations.

Importance and Benefits

Since its inception, U.S. society has recognized that access to education is a fundamental part of a free and democratic society. As we move into the new "information age," it is important to this ideal that we learn the new dimensions of access and equal opportunity, and create new and appropriate methods for ensuring these. Benefits will accrue to both the individuals that avail themselves and to society as a whole. Some observers suggest that GIS access and use even have a democratizing influence. Consistent evidence is still lacking, but the opposite outcome also remains a possibility. Others suggest that technological innovations tend to bolster the status quo. Effective efforts to ensure access may help prevent abuses of power that are facilitated by information technologies.

Increasingly, GIS is becoming an important tool in decision-making for natural resource and infrastructure management, land use and transportation planning, commerce and even national interests. The computerization of society is transforming knowledge and the social processes associated with its transmission. While GIS can enhance the decision making process through use of increasing amounts of information, the creation of increasingly accurate maps and output, and decreased processing time - what happens to community participation? In particular, what happens to disadvantaged, marginal members of society? It is incumbent upon the educational institutions to add spatial literacy to its lexicon of what comprises an educated person and an involved citizen. As developers and proponents of GIS, we must not only become aware of both negative and positive impacts, but help others understand these as well.

At an individual level, access means opportunity -- for people who may typically be excluded from technological education, and possibly for people who may not learn well through traditional methods. It is very likely that computers train people to think differently than other educational experiences. While in the past women, minorities and other disadvantaged persons feared technology or were excluded, the computer appears to have been universally embraced by disparate members of society. While GIS is very technical and requires sound training, it is also highly visual. If this is the case, then training in and with GIS may be beneficial in addressing the needs of those groups that have traditionally been left behind by the technological revolution.

UCGIS, as a multidisciplinary organization, has the opportunity to address the issues of the role GIS will play in designing of new curricula for the disadvantaged and disable. By bringing together experts including educators from different grade levels, geographers, mathematicians, lawyers, engineers, economists and others, a revolutionary new curricula could be developed that is both visual and applications oriented. As a result these technologies have a very high chance of providing new methods of teaching the learning impaired such subjects as geography, mathematics, history, computer applications and etc. that may have in the past been too difficult in the past. At the same time, the technology may be able to be exploited to train those segments of the population who have systematically been prevented from participating in the global technological revolution that has occurred over the past thirty years as a result of cultural barriers.

The education process can also be used to provide benefits directly. Workshops, case studies, student research, and so forth can involve "real world" projects with disadvantaged or dis-enfranchised groups or segments of society. For example, campus maps developed by students, possibly even served through public access terminals, can provide GIS-based route-finding and building access information for the physically handicapped. Environmental justice studies may be good opportunities for students to learn GIS in society concepts while providing assistance to local citizens. Almost no community is without land use issues that may be amenable to multi-party negotiations facilitated by GIS. These and many more examples help prepare students to be useful members of society, not just learn some skills.

Priority Areas for Research and Action

1. In collaboration with appropriate experts from other disciplines (e.g., education and child development specialists), studies should be undertaken to determine how the visualization methods and spatial logic imbedded in GIS impact on the learning processes for the learning impaired students or even socio-economically disadvantaged groups. The National Science Foundation recently announced an initiative known as Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence / Learning and Intelligent Systems. The initiative "seeks to stimulate interdisciplinary research that will unify experimentally and theoretically derived concepts related to learning and intelligent systems, and that will promote the use and development of information technologies in learning across a wide variety of fields." Although the solicitation does not target learning in particular audiences, inclusion of this could strengthen a proposal.

2. Through case study research and professional discussions, and perhaps in conjunction with the `Learning with GIS' initiative, we should determine "what is the minimal 'spatial literacy' needed to use GIS (as a concept, not a technology). GIS students must understand this, as they will be teaching in communities, to other professionals, to disadvantaged groups, and so forth. To promote the benefits of GIS, these students will need to know what to teach and how to teach it in a way that their audience understands. So, the case studies and discussions must include methods for learning about cultures, communities, traditions, languages, and so forth. This will provide the basis for translating their issues into GIS concepts and functions, and for providing culturally relevant instruction in basic GIS concepts (and engaging community members in process).

 This understanding of minimal spatial literacy will also be useful as GIS is adopted and adapted to other disciplines. Many of us will be involved in "in-reach," working with colleagues to help them understand the uses, limitations, and impacts of GIS.

3. If an inventory of UCGIS lab development and maintenance experiences is undertaken [[as was suggested during discussion of `Supporting Infrastructure' on 6/16]], the case studies should include questions about what has worked and not worked for improving access to physically handicapped students.

4. A component of the GIS and Society research initiative (as adopted by UCGIS in 1996; see should be directed toward developing a framework for categorizing and assessing GIS impacts that can be incorporated into GIS curricula (as well as support GIS and Society research). The framework needs to go beyond the NCGIA "Use and Value" initiative and include explicit consideration of who benefits at what cost, and who gets excluded.

5. The new NCGIA Core Curriculum in GIScience has several topics that, by name at least, could contribute to instruction in access and equity (e.g., topics under User interaction, Making it work, Supplying the data, The social context, and Application areas). Suggestions and/or templates on how to assemble these into a GIS ethics course and which might be useful for a lessons in access and equity in introductory courses should be developed. Either of these would be enhanced by well-documented case studies that illustrate the issues (e.g., where, when, and how GIS has influenced quality of life) and by ideas and approaches for workshops and exercises that get students into communities.