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AAG session: Information Geographies: Online Power, Representation and Voice - schedule announced

The Association of American Geographers has just released the preliminary program for the 2012 Annual Meeting in New York.


Below are the details of the session that I am co-organising with Matt Zook. The good news is that it is on a Saturday (Feb 25, 2012) and we have some great talks lined up for the session. The bad news is that it is at 8am. We hope that the interesting abstracts below are still appealing enough for you to brave the early morning start. 

Saturday, 2/25/2012, from 8:00 AM - 9:40 AM in Regent Parlor, Second Floor, Hilton New York City



8:00am Creating an image: Cape Town’s tour operators’ self-representation on the Web
Bjorn Surborg (Trinity College Dublin)

This paper investigates which electronic media are utilised by tour operators and other actors in the South African tourism sector to gain access to potential clients and how the content is chosen, generated and placed. The web sites of tour operators, hotels or official tourism promotion agencies are often a visitor’s first experience with a new a place, but there are increasingly many diverse choices for gaining access to place based information through social media (e.g. Facebook), map sites (e.g. Google maps, including street view), travellers’ blogs and others. These are relatively new ways of communicating an image of a place, but in which ways have these new information and communication technologies (ICTs) changed the perception of a place and the way in which it is reproduced? Based on a survey amongst tour operators in Cape Town, South Africa, the paper will explore, if those providing content cater towards the stereotypes and pre-conceived images of Africa or if there is a conscious attempt to provide a more nuanced picture, especially given the diverse independent sources of information that potential tourists can access parallel to a tour operator’s web-site. While the paper will focus on content providers, it will also touch upon the question of what on-line tools are being used by tourists to access information about a place before, during and after a visit.

Mark Graham (Oxford) and Matt Zook (Kentucky)

Digital geospatial information is layered throughout our urban landscapes; it is invisible to the naked eye, but is a central component of the augmentations and mediations of place enabled by hundreds of millions of mobile devices, computers, and other digital technologies. We not just produce, access, and use all of this geospatial information about place, but also access it whilst we are in those very places. Moreover, due to advances in mobile technology, many people now quite literally have access to this information in the palms of our hands.  But far from uniform and ubiquitous, these digital dimensions of places are fractured along a number of axes such as location, language and social networks.

This paper analyzes how these fractures differ across space and language to both highlight the differences and begin the process of explaining the factors behind them.  While some of the disparities conform to longstanding offline patterns, others highlight the changing fortunes and positions of places in a globalizing economy and highlight the increasingly finer scale of differentiation in which understandings of places are constructed.


Jens Riegelsberger (Google), Brent Hecht (Northwestern), Matt Simpson (Google) and Michelle Lee (Google)

Current developments in digital cartography closely mirror the evolution of ‘citizen journalism’. The rise of social networking, micro-blogging, and mobile phones that double as video cameras enabled everyone to act as a journalist - either accidentally by being at the right place at the right moment - or by building up an audience and bypassing traditional media organisations.

In cartography, lay people are now actively participating in the creation of maps - a domain that has a long history of being tightly regulated and controlled. Today 'citizen cartographers’ add points of interest to public maps using the contribution features available on many online mapping sites.

There are numerous motivations for these contributions: some may want to show their neighbourhood in the best possible light; others may realize that their private annotations can be of use to a wider audience; and others yet may want to give visibility to areas they feel are not sufficiently represented.

These developments raise questions similar to those that were brought up with the rise of citizen journalism. Where does this leave the trained professionals, the cartographers? How can, in this new world, quality be assured - and more fundamentally how can it be defined?

A second question is how, as creators of systems that enable 'citizen cartography’, we communicate the unique qualities of this data, e.g. uncertainty or potential bias. Are there ways to help contributors avoid bad cartographic choices or automatically choose good ones for them?



Muki Haklay (University College London)


The understanding of the world through digital representation (digiplace) and VGI is frequently carried out with the assumption that these are valid, comprehensive and useful representations of the world. A common practice throughout the literature on these issues is to notice the digital divide, and while accepting it as a social and not natural phenomenon, either ignoring it for the rest of the analysis or expecting that it will solve itself over time through technological diffusion. The almost deterministic belief in technological diffusion absolves the analyst from fully confronting the political implication of the divide.

However, what VGI and social media analysis is revealing is that the digital divide is part of deep and growing social inequalities in Western societies. Worse still, digiplace amplifies and strengthen them.

In digiplace the wealthy, powerful, educated and mostly male elite is amplified through multiple digital representations. Moreover, the frequent decision of algorithm designers to privilege those who submit more media, and the level of 'digital cacophony’ that more active contributors are creating mean that a very small minority - arguably outliers in every analysis of normal distribution of human activities – are super empowered. Therefore, digiplace power relationships are arguably more polarised than outside cyberspace due to the lack of social check and balances. This makes the acceptance of the disproportional amount of information that these outliers produce as reality highly questionable.

The paper highlights the mass silencing and call for a more critical engagement with digiplace and VGI.



Jeremy Crampton (Kentucky)

In 2010 for the first time ever the USA disclosed its total intelligence budget: $80.1 billion. By contrast the Department of Homeland Security budget is $42.6 billion and the State Department $48.9 billion. Intelligence expenditures have more than doubled since 2001, with $3.5 billion being spent on Iraq intelligence alone. In response the intelligence community (IC) has increasingly exploited open source or unclassified intelligence (OSINT). It has done this in two ways. First, by extending its tradition of using scholarly scientific sources and experts, and second, by exploiting the internet and social media.

This paper examines these developments. On the one hand, we need to improve our understanding of the relationship between intelligence and science. Can scholarly work, traditionally open, co-exist with intelligence, traditionally closed? Will the IC become more transparent or science less so? Can scholars exploit “counter-intelligence” such as WikiLeaks?

On the other hand, what are the geographies of the intelligence landscape–the “alternative geography of the United States” (Priest 2010)? How is the IC exploiting social media and especially the geoweb for intelligence? Does this constitute an extension of surveillance into the everyday, an “infra-power” (Foucault 1977), and if so, to what extent is (geographic) information truly “volunteered”? To ask these questions is to recognize the extent of the information asymmetries of the modern security state: we still know very little about it even as it collects ever more information about us.