Applying GIS and Geographic Analysis to Support Equity and Social Justice

I was honored to have been awarded one of seven 2019-2020 Ethical GEO fellowships by the American Geographical Society. 

I have been influenced during much of my GIS career by William Bunge, a geographer whose work pre-dated GIS, but perhaps foreshadowed it in his book Theoretical Geography. My interest in GIS for issues of equity and social justice was sparked by Bunge’s work at Wayne State University and Detroit, in particular the Detroit Geographical Expedition and Bunge’s other classic book, Fitzgerald: The Geography of a Revolution. Fitzgerald for me is a powerful expression of GeoPower – the democratization of geographic analysis for social equity.

I work for King County GIS in Seattle, Washington. Though I am a geographer and GIS professional, I am responsible for promoting the use of GIS by King County and the communities that the county serves. During my 21-year career with the county, GIS has been developed to a high-level of maturity. It is also a widely utilized business solution – no fewer than 6000 of King County’s 15000 employees are GIS users.

I have taught a class at the University of Washington titled ‘GIS for Public Policy’. How are public policies formulated? In democratic societies, we like to think that we elect leaders who will deliver on their campaign promises and who will enact policies and invest in programs that serve the best interests of all the communities that they serve. But all too often elected leaders are overly influenced by special interests, lobbyists, and campaign donors. The result is that many segments of our communities do not benefit equitably from their government.

Inequity in policies, practices, and systems create inequity in our communities

There is an important distinction to be made between equality and equity. I’ll write about this more in a future blog post, but in a nutshell, equal access to resources does not result in equity. 

Now many local government agencies and some states have started to analyze their policies, investments, and programs on the basis of equity and social justice (ESJ). King County and other agencies require that investments and programs be evaluated for their impact on long-term equity, to help achieve eventual social justice.

The best way to analyze the impact of government polices and programs on segments of the population is by geographic analysis. This GeoTruth mapping is the foundation for understanding how inequity persists in our local communities. Within King County and other agencies, geographic analysis of the equity of investments and expenditures is being required. GIS is the geographic analysis tool for this process. 

Pro-equity policies, practices, and systems focus on the root-causes that lead to inequity in our communities

King County, assisted by a small handful of other GIS professionals and ESJ practitioners, has recognized the need and started the process to develop GIS for ESJ best practices. Others who have stared working on this project come from URISA (Urban and Regional Information Systems Association), GARE (Government Alliance for Racial Equity), and pioneers in academia developing concepts of Critical Race Spatial Analysis.

Feel free to reach out to me to learn more or to discuss how you might help.

Greg Babinski is Marketing and Business Development Manager for the King County GIS Center in Seattle, where he has worked since 1998. Previously he worked for nine years as GIS Mapping Supervisor for the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland.  He holds an MA in geography from Wayne State University. At Wayne State, Greg was influenced by William Bunge and his pioneering work with the Detroit Geographical Expedition.