Geography professor explores public policy in cities using GIS

Mention the possibility of school closures and you’ll elicit strong, emotional responses from children, parents, educators and school board members. That’s one reason why York geography Professor Ranu Basu brings a critical bent to a scientific method looking at educational restructuring, diversity and social justice — by using geographic information systems (GIS).

Right: York geography Professor Ranu Basu

Technically, GIS comprises computer software and hardware, as well as geographic data, and is used to gather, analyze and display spatially referenced information. As a critical exercise, GIS can also be used to uncover underlying power relations and the inequalities that are increasingly evident in diverse, socially polarized and cash-strapped regions.

“By the layering of disparate sets of data, questions related to spatial equity and justice and the general welfare of citizens can be analyzed and compared using GIS techniques,” said Basu.

“Critical GIS — which is further grounded in social theory and complemented with alternative insights such as policy analysis — highlights the contested nature of space.

“Space is political and territorial, and communities will engage in acts to defend their local goods and services,” explained Basu. “In this case, GIS is used to capture data on school closures and examine the social and political impacts on surrounding neighbourhoods.”

Left: Ranu is investigating educational restructuring, diversity and social justice through geographic information systems

Basu, specializes in urban social and political geography, urban social policy and the use of critical GIS in the social sciences. More specifically, her research focuses on issues related to collective action and community organizations, neighbourhood geographies, urban social justice and inequalities, and the politics of planning for public service facilities, particularly in public education. Her empirical work has been grounded in the realities of Toronto, and more broadly, urban Ontario.

At present, Basu is in the midst of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) funded project that began in 2005. Titled “Mapping the Politics of Education Reform in Ontario: Examining Public Elementary Schools in Transition (1993 – 2005)”, the project utilitzes GIS as a research tool.

The purpose of this project is to analyze geographically the neoliberalization of education in Ontario. “It is proving to be an enormous exercise involving amassing information from all 72 boards and every single school in the province,” said Basu. “I’m collecting data from 1993 to 2005 during three political regimes — NDP, Conservative and Liberal — to contrast social, political and institutional changes over time and space.”

Basu says that tracking the evolution of educational services during this tumultuous period in Ontario politics, through the mapping of geospatial information, helps her understand the way policy has evolved.

“GIS translates into both a powerful visual and spatial analytic tool that allows me to excavate socially uneven and ‘hidden’ landscapes with a particular emphasis on the consequence of rapid transformation of welfare retrenchment on various marginal communities.

“For example,” said Basu, “in the case of school closures it allows me to look at the schools in question, the social demographic dynamics around the schools, and the patterns and processes that are not evidently discernible.

“The neoliberal prescription, which became the dominant discourse in social and educational policies, was put in place through the privatization, rigid accountability and marketization of public goods. I’m arguing that this has produced different outcomes for different groups, and that the traditional role of schools — that of social institutions promoting justice, equality and access — has been challenged over the past decade.”

Basu is keen to discover how neoliberal policies have filtered down to each school and how each school board has coped with added restrictions over this period. “These changes have led to particular geographies of inequalities and spaces of contrasts and contradictions. The [GIS] maps then become a site of critical inquiry enmeshed in rationality and power knowledge systems.”

Basu cautions that the philosophical implications of using GIS should be central to the process of conducting research dealing with human subjects from the very outset. There are questions of privacy and ethics around the production and dissemination of spatial data. “We have to be careful when using this technology. If we look at test results in one school and link them to the identity of that school and its neighbourhood, it could perpetuate power differentials,” explained Basu. “Contextualization is therefore important to further explore underlying inequalities in resources that might exist and that may not be evident at the outset. This allows for a more just and ethical interpretation of such results.”

For more about Basu and her projects, click here.