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The value of GIS in big data and AI to empower civic decision makers

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED GIS WHILE studying geocollaborative decision-making for crisis management over a decade ago. Back then, GIS seemed like an obscure field and its software was used by only a select few who could install it and navigate the different menus and sub-menus to produce actionable results. A lot has changed since then. When I re-entered graduate school a few years back to study cities using data at NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, I re-discovered GIS. Except this time, almost everything was on the web and the cloud. Platforms such as CartoDB, Tableau and RESTful methods have exponentially improved usability and made GIS accessible to masses of non-native technology users. The ability to rapidly create accurate, functional and customizable data-driven narratives is a powerful skill that is actively shaping decision making at various levels of government. GIS, I argue, is an enabling medium for this.

The common operational picture

A concept that I have found helpful to bridge the worlds of urban operations, public policy and GIS development is the Common Operational Picture or COP. This is a concept that originated in the military and relies heavily on a GIS to allow many stakeholders to make decisions using a common platform. Simply put, a COP offers a “bird’s-eye view” of an information landscape. The COP is an ideal use-case for many GIS platforms used in data-intensive and collaborative environments. The COP is “first and foremost, a visual representation of relevant information characterizing a situation.” (USJFCOM, 2008) It represents a centralization of information to allow shared understanding. This definition has many similarities with the ethos of the professional GIS community. The COP is an ideal sense-making tool to help decision makers avoid being overwhelmed by the fire-hose effect that big data usually has.

A distinguished software developer writes that “software development is fundamentally about making decisions” and so I argue that geographically situated software development should focus on decision making that much more because location, navigation and spatial thinking are unique elements of higher order cognition. ARGO Labs focuses on the common operational picture in municipal settings. Our Street Quality Identification Device or SQUID project uses low-cost sensors to collect thousands of images of streets, combines it with ride quality data, and presents this data on a map to allow different stakeholders to make proactive and cost-saving decisions for citywide street maintenance. The COP, I argue, is also useful to implement equitable decision-making. Creating a GIS powered COP lowers barriers to create shared goals and manufactures common ground; a vital need in contested and bureaucratic settings. GIS therefore is, vital to reduce the frictions between the source of data and when decisions are made.

Complimentary artificial intelligence Walter Kirn, an accomplished writer says this about Artificial Intelligence. “In a field where reality testing is difficult under the best of circumstances, wherein authenticity can be assumed, an AI takeover may prove undetectable”.  The hope and hype of AI to automate decision-making in difficult information environments is a powerful signal guiding technology development and adoption. Yet, there is evidence to suggest that in such settings, AI is better applied to compliment rather than substitute human decisions. Again GIS through the COP lens offers many solutions. Our work with the California Data Collaborative combines earth observations and satellite imagery with computer vision techniques to classify irrigable and landscaped areas, a key missing data point for CA water managers. We are actively working to carefully combine advanced analysis with decision making tools in municipal contexts to identify potential efficiencies that, not only assist better delivery of critical public services, but also help guide informed and fair policy-making.

To conclude, some of this may just seem like a rebranding of well-understood GIS concepts. We at ARGO Labs believe that it is important to translate entrenched vocabularies or technical jargon from one world (GIS) to another (public policy, planning and municipal operations). To this end, the Common Operational Picture is useful to organize collective energies around generating shared understanding and empowering decision makers. The GIS community has overcome many technical and organizational challenges around geographical data which if abstracted can be helpful to un-tangle similar yet obscure challenges in the public domain.

Written by:
Varun Adibhatla

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