Measuring and Representing
Accessibility in the Information Age

Description  Leaders  Meeting Report
   Participants  Abstracts


A Meeting of Specialists

Asilomar Conference Center, Pacific Grove, California, 19-22 November 1998

Concepts of potential and realized interaction and accessibility are central to geographic theory and models. Current models are based, however, on physical notions of distance and connectivity that are insufficient for understanding new forms of structures and behaviors characterizing an information age. Accessibility and spatial interaction in the traditional physical sense remain important, but information technologies are dramatically modifying and expanding the scope of these core geographical concepts. Through technological, structural but also social developments, an increasing range of transactions takes place in virtual space, or in some new hybrid space combining the physical with the virtual. Of importance also is the influence of new forms of communication on the use of and investment in traditional transportation infrastructure. Moreover, just as space can be fragmented so too can time, as activity rhythms in one place become increasingly synchronized with those in distant places. Geographic information science and technology, themselves products of this new information age, potentially have a major role to play in helping reconceptualize, measure, represent, monitor, and plan for the new emergent geographies.

Accessibility, both within and to communications and transportation networks, is the central concept in the geographic definition of opportunity. Since humans communicate continually as a part of knowledge building and social interaction, gaining access to a computer is equivalent to changing one’s accessibility within the broader flux of society. Since the information age has not made the information society ubiquitous, it is essential that geographical and planning models incorporate measures that reflect restructuring of geographical space and space-time differentials in accessibility to virtual networks. Models of how institutional and other contingencies influence who has access to whom, what, when, and where, via physical and especially via virtual contact, are also required for assessment of policy approaches to reduce inequalities in opportunities for social and economic interaction. Analytical measures and computerized visualizations of accessibility are needed to reflect hardware and software availability, inadequacies of education and training, cultural factors, and differential relevance of the Internet to everyday life. Such measures and representations of accessibility will contribute insights and reference points for judging efforts to mitigate the perpetuation of 'information poverty' for certain places and social groups.

This specialist meeting will examine how geographic information science can assist research into the geographies of the information age. By helping to reconceptualize accessibility through appropriate representations of accessibility opportunity and inequality, this Varenius initiative seeks expanded models of space (and time) that encompass both the physical and the virtual.

Questions and Goals:

Some of the key questions that require consideration follow. (1) What are the information age counterparts to the accessibility and potential surfaces developed for interaction in physical space? (2) What space-time topologies need to be developed to accommodate both the physical and virtual worlds? (3) How do emerging conceptions of virtual space map onto traditional conceptions of geographic space and how do we handle their interfaces analytically? (4) How can interactions and accessibility gradients within these new hybrid spaces (and space-times) be represented and visualized within GIS? (5) How useful are traditional spatial interaction and urban computable general equilibrium models for the analysis of the new forms of accessibility? How should they be altered? (6) What are the technical and societal impediments to network access in different social domains, particularly for geographic information? (7) What representations can highlight patterns of lack of access independently of the lack of interaction?

The goals of plenary and small-group sessions will be to identify and demonstrate conceptual and analytical approaches for accessibility research in the information age, to review and demonstrate possible contributions for GIS in representing geographies of the information society, to formulate an agenda for continuing research and research proposals to be assisted in part by Varenius seed grants, to establish a communications network of accessibility researchers, and to organize reports and publications from papers and discussions.