Shaw said that its the mark of an educated mind to be deeply moved by statistics, but most of us still need visual aids. For just that reason, GIS (for Geographic Information System) programs are changing the way we see space and place. Wired is running a story on how New York City has been mapping the information its bureaucracy is processing in order to provide better services:
"Specialized mapping software helped New York plot the addresses of people who had called to complain about having lost their heat during a recent cold snap. That helped determine precisely where the city should set up "heating centers" for New Yorkers to huddle in.
"In fact, officials can make a few mouse clicks to see any number of trends swirling in the city of 8 million people: which neighborhoods are low on fire trucks, where the West Nile virus has appeared or which streets were recently paved and should be off limits to digging."
But this level of use - seeing better what you already knew was there - is really only the tip of the iceberg. The more interesting uses are ones which reveal hidden flows and movements, the kind of work our friends at CommEnSpace do: check out, for example, this series of maps they did showing patterns of growth (and relative degrees of sprawl) in various Northwest cities.
What emerges from maps like these is a different way of seeing the problem, not just better information. When combined with increasingly cheap sensors and monitoring systems, our ability to know our environment changes in not only magnitude, but kind.