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Discussing GIS with the HDSI Faculty Co-Directors

A geographic information system (GIS) is a spatial computer system that analyzes and maps data by displaying data related to positions on the Earth’s surface. GIS integrates location data with descriptive information and can show a variety of types of data on one map, such as streets, buildings, and vegetation. By connecting seemingly unrelated data, GIS provides a foundation for people to easily view, analyze, and understand spatial patterns, relationships, and geographic context. Organizations and institutions across all disciplines are utilizing GIS to improve communication, efficiency, management, and decision-making.

In a recent interview with the Harvard Data Science Initiative (HDSI) Faculty Co-Directors Francesca Dominici and David C. Parkes, the two discuss what particularly excites them about GIS right now and the questions they implore our Corporate Members to consider when thinking about GIS data being collected.

Dominici, Clarence James Gamble Professor of Biostatistics, Population and Data Science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, emphasizes the significance of GIS data in informing us of how the context of the location in which people live affects their health.

“What is affecting our health enormously is the water that you drink, the air that you breathe, the neighborhood you live in – whether you can walk to parks whether or not you have a doctor close by,” said Dominici. “What I like about GIS is this is a way of building research data platforms that provide very detailed information about the context of where you live. As has been demonstrated in the scientific literature, the context – how much violence is in the neighborhood, whether you can walk to buy healthy food, whether you’re living next to a power plant – has a major effect on our health and wellbeing.”

Dominici points out that all of people’s major life decisions encounter GIS. For example, where people buy houses or where they send their kids to school. GIS provides a way to quantify these variables and allows scientists to study the degree to which people’s location and access to resources has a long-lasting effect on wellbeing.

GIS has also proven to be helpful in comprehending the issue of violence and shootings in the U.S. Data collected from GIS not only shows the locations of shooting events, but also provides an assessment of the crime rate, mental health, and policies of the neighborhoods in which this type of violence has taken place.

“Thanks to GIS, you can really disentangle whether it’s a lack of access to mental health support, high crime rates, or a large number of gun stores in the area,” said Dominici. “GIS has better enabled us to pinpoint what is the cause of an undesirable or traumatic event and disentangle that cause from the many other concomitant factors that are correlated with that cause.”

While GIS has become essential in informing public health analyses and decisions, it has also increasingly affected behavior in other sectors as well. Parkes, George F. Colony Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, points out how GIS is driving business decisions, such as where supermarkets or banks consider opening a branch, how insurance firms decide on insurance rates, or how cities map bus routes.

“You can see it’s not just individuals’ decisions but it’s also decisions by businesses, by governments, and by cities,” said Parkes. With this knowledge, Parkes poses the questions of where the GIS data is coming from and who is controlling that data.

“Some people are pushing things onto Google Maps, other people are bidding for the right to show me what I’m seeing, and Google and other firms that look like Google are also harvesting a ton of data as we all walk around and move around the city,” said Parkes. “And then that data is somehow reflected back into GIS. It’s really interesting the data is getting enriched in various ways and then you can also think about the fairness implications of all of this.”

In the rich data ecosystem developed by GIS, there is competition for ownership of data, which can be problematic in that it is uncertain whether this data is being equally populated and accurate for different types of neighborhoods.

“I think these types of questions of the evenness of the data are things I’d like our Corporate Members to think about,” said Parkes. “Is the data there because there’s a commercial interest in data being there, or because higher socioeconomic classes have a better ability to push data there?”

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