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A review by Spencer Keller of Geoffrey Duh's presentation to the Water Justice Seminar

Jiunn-Der (Geoffrey) Duh – Associate Professor of Geography, Director of GIS Programs, Portland State University.


“GIS, Spatial Thinking, & Environmental Justice”


As a student in the GIS Certificate program here at Portland State University, I was thrilled to learn that Geoffrey would be giving a talk on GIS and spatial thinking as it relates to decision making and environmental justice. My focus is on critical GIS, behavioral geography, and web mapping, but I earned my BS in Environmental Studies, so I’ve always had a bit of an environmental sociology background. I think that learning how GIS can enhance research is very beneficial because it pairs well with natural sciences, sociology, anthropology, urban planning, transportation, health, and so many other fields, but to do good research with GIS also requires one to be critical of GIS practices. How GIS can inform environmental justice is an interesting topic because it can be approached at different scales with different data granularity and for that reason, it was very important for Geoffrey to not only discuss the power of GIS and spatial thinking but to also discuss how easy it is to lie with maps.

Geoffrey focused on two case studies, one focusing on the whole United States and one focusing on Philadelphia. The first looked at U.S. counties and the intersection of health-based drinking water violations and length of time out of compliance and racial, ethnic, and language vulnerability. The second looked at the distribution of green storm water infrastructure in Philadelphia and identified factors that contribute to the inequitable distribution of infrastructure. Both of these studies chose an appropriate areal unit (county, census tract/block group) to answer their research questions and inform decision making. To answer questions at the county level, it would have been inappropriate to use state-level data, and to answer questions about neighborhoods it would have been inappropriate to use county-level data. This is one of the easiest ways in which a map can lie. Users of GIS hoping to inform an environmental justice issue, then, must be aware of and acknowledge the assumptions and generalizations they make of their data in order to justify their results.

In closing, I’d like to say that the field of GIS specialists needs more people with diverse perspectives and lived experiences. Map-making is historically dominated by able-bodied white men and there is a lot of work yet to be done in bringing forward the voices of marginalized people and decolonizing data and the internet. Fields like public participatory GIS and narrative story-mapping have a lot of potential for responsibly collecting and displaying both quantitative and qualitative spatial data from communities facing environmental injustice.



Spencer Keller is a student in the GIS Certificate program at Portland State University and will be working toward the MS in Geography starting in Fall 2020.












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