GIS is a powerful tool that is becoming increasingly accessible to untrained users and the general public. This accessibility can be a good thing. But what happens when the data is applied incorrectly?
A good example is a recent situation in New York in which a newspaper pulled the names and addresses of gun owners to create a map for an article on gun ownership. The map has since been criticized for its potential to inadvertently aid criminals seeking to target homes that don’t own guns. A gun advocacy group fired back by posting a map of newspaper publishers who own guns on another website.
In my own practice, GIS is a profitable means to share knowledge and create excitement by fostering a new understanding. I was dismayed to see this same technology applied in such a negative way.
Part of me wants to say that some regulatory body should be able to stop this misapplication of mapping technology. However, such regulatory action could also stifle the very resourcefulness that has allowed me to create my own niche in the GIS market. Although it is disappointing to see people using GIS tools to push an agenda and create shock marketing, the fact that it happened at all is a sign that GIS is becoming a part of a standard toolset to share information, as ubiquitous as Microsoft Word and Web browsers.
Should we be happy to see mapping technology, the same tools used in our professional lives, coming to a very public forefront, or is this unfortunate incident a warning that future regulation will be needed to oversee this powerful process? The question is a difficult one to answer. At the very least, this incident should serve as a note of caution to those seeking to apply geospatial data to make sure they are doing so in a way that is helpful, not harmful.