Geo-ICT is hailed in geo-community as crucial for the improvement of governance processes. But, how is geo-ICT actually used in public governance processes? What are the implications for geo-informatics education when the focus is on ‘geo-ICT in use’?
Governance refers to the processes, rules and rationalities that affect the way in which power is exercised at different jurisdictional levels, particularly regarding openness, participation, accountability, effectiveness and coherence. Governance processes include a) inter-governmental processes, b) participatory public policy formulation, and c) the provision of relevant information services to citizens. These processes often have a geographic component when related to spatial problems. When governance is mediated by flexible information infrastructures, it becomes electronic governance (e-governance). In geo-community, geo-information infrastructures (GII) – also called spatial data infrastructures (SDI) – properly embedded within the overall information infrastructure are assumed to be crucial for improved electronic governance. This assumption is analysed in this article (Georgiadou, 2008).
Geo-information infrastructures (GII) and inter-governmental processes
A popular claim in our community is that when GII is available, we will be able to concentrate on the real issues – food security, water supply, environmental regulations, law enforcement, national security, poverty alleviation etc – without worrying about the availability of geo-information. With GII, geoinformation will be available to people who need it, when they need it and in a form that they can use it in order to make decisions. However, building a GII is a Herculean task. Building a GII assumes the alignment of government organisations (e.g. national mapping agencies, cadastres and other geo-information providers) with national e-government strategies, national ICT policies and supra-national directives as well as with each other, across organisational (and often national) boundaries.
Even within a single government agency, the task of aligning the agency’s business with technology strategy has proven to be daunting, fraught with difficulties and often failures. Aligning multiple government agencies with different business models, different workflows, and diverse technology strategies and systems means harmonising their business models, integrating their workflows, and making their systems and services interoperable.
Pertinent questions: How do these harmonisation and integration processes evolve over time? How do human agents strike a dynamic, often precarious, balance between global uniformity and local conditions? How do large-scale and densely interconnected geo-ICT artifacts co-evolve with the various social institutions and communities (both local and global) that develop, regulate, use, and change them? Echoing Orlikowski and Iacono (2001) we may ask, how, exactly, is the GII in a specific country now different from that of the 1990s, how do these differences shape contemporary uses of GII, and what do they bode for the future in that same country?
How is geo-information used in public policy formulation?
Another popular belief in our community is that the relationship between high quality geo-information and public policy is unproblematic, linear and direct. We often assume that research either leads policy and hence policy is evidence-driven or research follows policy and hence research is policy-driven. However, high quality geo-information and spatial research appear to have at most an indirect, even ad hoc impact on public policy. In many cases, public policy formulation requires geo-information that is not available, at least not in timeframe necessary to be relevant for the resolution of the issues of the day. Also, policy problems require a particular kind of evidence that typically is not immediately at hand. The policy-making process and the information generation process have quite different dynamics. While the generation of high quality information has a relatively long gestation period, policy formulation tends to be less predictable and often is heavily influenced by events of the day. Although, high quality spatial research and geo-information do feed into public policy formulation in western liberal democracies, science-based politics is an illusion. Political arguments remain more important than scientific arguments in choosing between public policy options. Spatial research, usually provided by spatial research think tanks in western nations, has only an ‘enlightenment’ function for policy makers; it makes the values, goals and instruments of policy makers more clear (see e.g. Davoudi, 2006).
Pertinent questions: How exactly do policy makers use geo-information and spatial research? Do ‘policy maps’ require a different cartographic language than traditional maps, a language that can deal with the fuzziness, the vague borders and intentions of policy makers? What happens in nations lacking spatial research think tanks, nations with younger democratic traditions, more resource constraints, less equitable welfare distribution and less available factual evidence? Can civil society be empowered with geo-information and play a role in public policy formulation?
Do GII satisfy information needs of citizens? Do they also empower citizens?
GII are widely promoted as crucial for fulfilling the geo-information needs of citizens. Despite the record of failure of GII initiatives in the developing world to provide relevant geo-information services to citizens, some GIIs have been hailed as resounding successes. A case in point is the Bhoomi (meaning land) land records information infrastructure implemented in the southern state of Karnataka in India in 2001. By October 2004, over 22 million farmers had accessed Bhoomi. Copies of land records can be obtained on payment of about 30 US cents, without long waiting periods or the need to make several visits, without ‘unofficial payments’ to the intermediaries, at decentralised locations (kiosks), where kiosk operators run and maintain the system at a local level. The farmers (usually illiterate) authenticate themselves with bio-logon metrics at Indian-made machines that look a lot like ATM machines and are easy to use. The Bhoomi project improved the quality of service to citizens, rendered land records administration easier, achieved financial sustainability and curbed corruption. It has been deemed so successful that other Indian states decided to replicate it. Citizens as consumers of geo-information are well served, but are they also empowered politically and socially through access to information? It seems not. Bhoomi may have failed to increase the political freedom of citizens, to enhance their security and to increase transparency in their dealing with government.
Pertinent questions: How is power redistributed between actors when building a GII? Who pays sometimes invisible costs and who benefits? Do GIIs enlarge the gap between citizens who are capable of using geo-ICT tools and those who are not? Do GIIs automate the status quo of governance processes, freezing organisations into patterns of behaviour and operations that are difficult to change once they have been computerised?
Implications for geo-informatics education
If our purpose is for geo-informatics graduates to be able to tackle these questions, we should make geo-ICT in use a substantial part of geo-informatics education. Governance is not just another GIS application domain. It is about our lives as citizens and professionals. Geo-ICT is a social force, so it is important to take an interest not only in how it functions and how to make it function, but also in how it is actually used in fundamental governance processes (Dahlbom and Mathiasen, 1997; Kling, 1998). Such a perspective will embed geo-informatics education in a social context, making geo-ICT in use a fundamental part of geo-informatics education, built upon the foundations of both technical and social sciences.
Dahlbom, B. and Mathiassen, L., 1997. The future of our profession: There is more to being a good engineer than a high level of technical competence, Communications of the ACM, Vol. 40, No. 6, pp. 80-89
Davoudi, S., 2006. Evidence-based planning: Rhetoric and reality. disP, 165(2), pp. 14-24.
Georgiadou, Y., 2008. Using geo – information: from a market to a polis perspective : inaugural address, Chair in Geo – information for governance, Wednesday, 17 December 2008, ITC Enschede, The Netherlands. Enschede, ITC, 2008. See https://www.itc.nl/library/papers_2008/scie/georgiadou.pdf
Kling, R., 1998. A brief introduction to social informatics. Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science – Revue Canadienne des Sciences de l’Information et de Bibliotheconomie, 23(1-2), pp. 50-85.
Orlikowski, W. J. and Iacono, C.S., 2001. Research Commentary: Desperately Seeking the “IT” in IT Research – A Call to Theorizing the IT Artifact. Information Systems Research, 12 (2), pp. 121-134.