GIS Gains Popularity in 2012 Elections

Birgit Nazarian, Writer, specializing in IT and HR | 2/9/2012 | 15 comments

Birgit Nazarian
Geographic information systems (GIS) -- software and hardware that manipulates and analyzes geographical data -- is becoming a more popular tool for hopeful politicians. A decade ago, only a handful of highly trained specialists could create, analyze, and make use of GIS data. Now there are downloadable desktop versions that almost anyone can access.

Two of the more user-friendly versions used for campaigning are ArcGIS and Political Maptitude.

The technology was originally used for redistricting, but its applications have expanded to include campaign strategy. By merging voter lists with census and geographical data, campaign strategists can develop more effective ways to target voters.

Lighter versions of GIS platforms, combined with the increased availability of relevant data, make a powerful tool allowing campaigners to save time, money, and resources. The popularity of mobile devices further facilitates the collection of data in the field by canvassers on neighborhood walkthroughs. State-level or presidential candidates can use Web-based GIS applications to access information from a central location and zero in on a region or precinct. This example from Google shows results from the Nevada caucus.

Candidates running in recently redistricted areas can also use GIS tools to understand their new district and boundaries. With updated data, they can build a strategy that works to their advantage. In the campaign outreach phase, canvassers carrying smartphones or tablets can add and update data for the centralized campaign database on the fly. They can also track and be tracked via GPS as they place signs, hand out campaign materials, and get feedback from voters. Back at campaign headquarters, strategists can track all this progress and adjust their actions for optimal efficiency.

And as updated data accumulates, a larger picture of the campaign forms. A candidate’s appeal to voters and predictions about the election can be made while there is still time to influence voters’ opinions. The process also creates richer, more useful data for future campaigns.

But winning elections isn’t the only way politicians can leverage this technology. Once elected, they can use it to continue to serve their constituency. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calls geospatial technology (which includes GIS) a “High Growth Industry.” This market is growing 35 percent a year, and its commercial sector is growing 100 percent a year, the bureau says.

GIS applications are so versatile and flexible that they can be used with great success for planning and determining the wisest use of resources. The technology is already used widely for public safety, property assessment, environmental management, economic development, and other data-related tasks in government and industry. FEMA uses it to determine flood risks. In Nebraska, it’s used to ensure ample supply of flu vaccines. There are dozens of other case studies on the Environmental Systems Research Institute Website describing innovative uses of GIS technology.

As this information proves valuable to elected officials, they will undoubtedly acknowledge and encourage the use of GIS technology in government. This is sure to create a more efficient public sector.

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bnazarian   GIS Gains Popularity in 2012 Elections   2/14/2012 10:26:07 AM
Re: GIS Democracy
Agreed, @WaqasAltaf, GIS technology has potential to do great good: help control infectious diseases, model environmental impact on regions from human or other natural variables, manage land and resources, and using data, the governments of the world can learn how to help the people who most need it. I bet we could tick off dozens more positive uses for it than we could negative ones.

But, I did think it was interesting when I read about how it was being used to give politicians an edge. I always find it interesting how people come up with ways to apply technology in the way it suits them. Look how the use of Twitter by people participating in uprisings in other countries suprised many people, including their own governments. The rest of us were just using it casually as a way to comment to friends on mostly mundane daily topics.
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WaqasAltaf   GIS Gains Popularity in 2012 Elections   2/14/2012 10:02:38 AM
Re: GIS Democracy
@ Birgit

Thats pretty amazing stuff (preventing destruction from floods through GIS). I think technology such as GIS is of such a nature that should have more positive than negative uses hence my criticism only extends to it being used for evil political motives. For e.g. it is extremely important for the government to know the exact details of population in different geographical areas for it to build effective and well directive development plans.
bnazarian   GIS Gains Popularity in 2012 Elections   2/13/2012 11:23:39 AM
Re: GIS Democracy
This uses for GIS are huge and varied. Recently a friend of mine told me how it can be used to test and prevent flooding in areas by using GIS to create an actual 3-D model and then testing the model.  It might not stop hurricanes or tornados from forming but a lot can be done to predict behaviors: political or geographical. It's cool stuff, very valuable for a lot of uses. I'm not such a political animal myself, but we all know technology is used for the greater good and not so greater good of mankind. 
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WaqasAltaf   GIS Gains Popularity in 2012 Elections   2/12/2012 2:37:38 AM
Re: GIS Democracy

I am sure how GIS is effective in reducing the campaign costs down and helps candidates in understanding where their performance is not up to the mark or people are preoccupied with other candidates. However, the only way the benefits of GIS can flow to the voters (or the masses) is when a successful candidate starts development programmes in constituencies where his vote bank was weaker and he intends to obtain the support over there as well for the next elections. Otherwise, as David feared, I too fear that GIS can be used as a tool for political victimization where people who didnt vote for the successful candidate suffer for the upcoming tenure by being neglected.

Also it will hilarious to see GIS specializing graduates ending up being employed at a candidate's office and helping him out with the political campaigns. Something which education should not be about at all. Just a thought. I am certain that GIS has other more productive usages as well. 
bnazarian   GIS Gains Popularity in 2012 Elections   2/10/2012 12:23:56 PM
Re: GIS Democracy
@David, I actually do feel optimistic. If a candidate gets down into the nitty gritty of how his/her campaign is run and  sees how powerful and useful GIS is I think he or she might have a positive impression of the technology and want to use it to accomplish bigger, better things.

Not everyone is going to have the determination to insist on changing the way things are done but it seems to me using technology that results in savings and better use of resources would be a good way to impress your constituents and get re-elected. I'd want to be the smart guy who at little cost to me, found a way to efficiently spread the resources and make an impact. But I realize it's not always that simple. Still it's out here and there are platforms that are open source or free to use. The data is actually the most expensive part and government has already been collecting a lot of data.  
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bnazarian   GIS Gains Popularity in 2012 Elections   2/10/2012 12:11:52 PM
Re: innovative
@Sara, your father and brother are right. GIS has gained in popularity for a lot of different uses so new platforms are being offered that are easier to use, more specific to tasks. Where less in depth analysis is needed, there are "lighter" versions.

I downloaded ArcGIS Explorer from the ESRI website to check it out. Without specialized data to download I played around with different menu options which I found easy to use on a very superficial level. Mostly plotting distances and areas on the maps. Online I searched GIS certification and education and found there are some very prestigious universities offering courses with GIS specialties. For example, USC has a 9 month program that costs $25,000. So depending on the complexity of the research and studying using GIS, the greater the skill must be. 
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Rowan   GIS Gains Popularity in 2012 Elections   2/10/2012 1:18:28 AM
Re: GIS Democracy
Well, this is part of the joy of politics. The fights over gerrymandering are going to happen regardless of how efficiently good or evil the gerrymandering might be. So, hooray for that?
Henrisha   GIS Gains Popularity in 2012 Elections   2/10/2012 12:26:05 AM
Re: GIS Gains Popularity in 2012 Elections
@Birgit: I was aware of most other uses for GIS that you mentioned in your post, but didn't think that the technology would eventually be used for election campaigns. I'm a bit torn on this one: like Sarah, I'm generally off-put by creative activities but I have to hand it to the campaign managers for being quite resourceful with the available technology.
LuFu   GIS Gains Popularity in 2012 Elections   2/9/2012 7:52:02 PM
Re: GIS Democracy
@David - A cynic is just an undecided pessimist with a half glass of water.
David Wagner   GIS Gains Popularity in 2012 Elections   2/9/2012 6:50:12 PM
Re: GIS Democracy
Birgit, I admire the optimisitic ending of this article about more efficiently using government resources. I'm afraid all I see is the opportunity to pick and choose more detailed ways to hand out stuff to political allies and deny it to enemies. I hope I'm wrong, but parsing this stuff too much just ends up making it too easy to choose who gets stuff.
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