By: Kiron Lebeck
Reading of genocide, torture, and indiscriminate murder leaves one with a sad image that is soon forgotten, but actually seeing pictures of people affected by these atrocities leaves a permanent imprint in one’s mind. While this is an extreme circumstance, this kind of visual data has been made widely available through the democratization of geographic information.
Democratization is an enabler; it brings more information to the people and, by doing so, gives them more power to act. Through the use of programs like Google Earth, people can spread and receive information across the geo-web, a term coined for the integration of visual and textual information online. Although this highly accessible data yields compelling benefits for both users and non-users of the geo-web, only the limited numbers of geo-web users actually have direct access to this information. According to Bodum and Jaegly (2006), “Everyone – in places where the technology is available – can potentially publish his or her own information” (p. 237). The freedom to spread one’s own opinions and knowledge to large numbers of people through the Internet is limited only to those with, essentially, an Internet connection. Internet World Stats: Usage and Population Statistics breaks down the worldwide usage of the Internet as of June 30, 2010, into several regions, demonstrating that internet usage is proportionally highest in more developed areas, such as North America, Europe, and Australia.
Despite their inherent disadvantage, those with limited access to geographic information can, in fact, benefit from the democratization of information indirectly. In a Mongabay (2009) interview, David Tryse described the implications of several Google Earth applications that he created for conservation efforts. He stated, “It’s impossible to care about something if you don’t know it exists” (Mongabay, 2009). Tryse also proclaimed:
“In seconds anyone can zoom in to see the huge fires from Shell’s gas-flaring operations in the Nigerian delta or follow the discolored toxic runoff along a hundred kilometers of rain forest river downstream from a goldmine in Peru or Indonesian Papua.” (Mongabay, 2009)
Conservationists and humanitarian activists that use Tryse’s applications, combining textual data and visual, geographic information, may gain better insight into causes they never would have been exposed to otherwise. In turn, their efforts could benefit the disadvantaged people living in regions like the Nigerian delta or Indonesian Papua who lack Internet access. This process represents a trickle-down approach to spreading and applying information, relying on those with direct access to geographical information to dispense their knowledge among less privileged people elsewhere.
Democratized information can facilitate crucial environmental and humanitarian efforts, but the broader implications reach people on a much more personal level. They denote a responsibility of those fortunate enough to access this information to act on it. The usefulness of geographic information extends only as far as people are willing to apply it, leaving room for activists and average people alike to impact their own lives, the lives of others, and the world as a whole.
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com (March 31,2009). Development of Google Earth a watershed moment for the environment. http://news.mongabay.com/2009/0401-tryse_interview_google_earth.html
Bodum, L. & Jaegly, M. (2006). The Democratizing Potential of Geographic Exploration Systems (GES). In A. Abdul-Rahman, S. Zlatanova, & V. Coors (Eds.), Innovations in 3d geo information systems (pp. 236-239). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
Gasmonso (2006, November 13). Retrieved from http://religiousfreaks.com/2006/11/13/another-catholic-nun-jailed-for-genocide/