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The Power of Pictures
The most vocal advocate of the benefits of GIS is also the world’s leading seller of GIS software and services: Jack Dangermond, founder and coöwner of a Redlands, CA, company called the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI). (Its motto: “Better decisions through modeling and mapping our world.”) Every summer, Dangermond presides over the ESRI User Conference, an international geography jamboree that brings together thousands of digital mapmakers from around the world. ESRI publishes some of the finest work displayed at the conference in a glossy “map book,” released annually. In recent years, these books have borne such high-minded titles as Sustaining Our World and Serving Our World.

This grandiose vision comes from Dangermond himself. “Our science is making a better world for human existence and economic development and arguably could be something that counterbalances everything negative about globalization,” he says.

The power of GIS, Dangermond argues, is that it lets us witness the world, from deforestation in the Amazon to crime in local neighborhoods. And having seen what’s happening, we can imagine changing it. GIS, Dangermond believes, “will allow us to create a better future.”

According to many, digital mapmakers have had an idealistic streak from the beginning. The most comprehensive volume on GIS, The History of Geographic Information Systems, opens with an essay by landscape architect Ian McHarg, who advocated “transparent-overlay maps” in the 1960s as a way for planners to see more clearly the aspects of nature – forests, wildlife, and marshes – that new roads and buildings would obliterate.

Those physical overlay maps inspired a generation of environmentalists, including Dangermond, who studied landscape architecture at Harvard University. The idea of creating maps from layers of data became the heart of GIS, and it’s the secret of its power. Using software like Dangermond’s, people could combine census information, satellite photos, and many other types of data to reveal relationships that were never obvious before.

At first glance, the value of GIS seems self-evident. It’s hard to imagine a more innocent and enlightening technology than a map. Maps reveal the truth about our world, and the truth, as the saying goes, will set us free. Or will it?

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