Volume 4, Number 3 (2011)

Geographic Information Systems: A Critical Look at the Commercialization of Public Information

Safiya Umoja Noble

This paper is a political economic critique and exploration of the ways that private-sector companies in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) industry have emerged and consolidated themselves. This includes a discussion about buying, analyzing and selling spatial data mined from the Internet and other public resources, and how this is packaged and sold to other corporations for profit. I detail GIS research and development projects and the activities that are fueling growth. One of the fastest growing sectors of the GIS business is data mining and information processing, where companies are able to capitalize on the flow of information through proprietary systems or public networks like the Internet, and as such, are accumulating great wealth. GIS software projects are often the outgrowth of direct political and economic policy and funding, and industry giants are afforded greater access to purchasing huge data sets and labor to analyze and re-sell it. Public adoption and usage of GIS tools via the Internet is creating competitive tensions within the GIS industry and producing complex new partnerships. What is most critical to explore at this moment are the details of the industry, who it serves, and in whose interest. An understanding of the GIS terrain will better equip the public in making informed decisions about how state policies and consumer practices are contributing to, or disrupting, these activities.

Keywords: GIS, political economy, communications, data mining, Internet, critical information studies, public good

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