Government Use of GIS: Damage, Justice, and Economics (Scale and GIS, Part 3)

At this point in the series, I want to draw attention to how government agencies utilize GIS platforms similar in manner to others I have already discussed. Such government agencies and their infrastructures, after all, were crucial to the formation of a public GPS system to begin with. I start with FEMA here given that, as I have found in my research, disaster relief – be it in locating manholes in local snowstorms or in establishing relief measures during less conventional catastrophes – was one of primary reasons such a system was formed.

To this end, FEMA’s current Hazus tool approximates potential disaster effects – again, producing a future. The agency describes Hazus as a methodology of models in meeting this function. It is at least in part intended for public use; on its website, FEMA encourages citizen use of Hazus to analyze the specifics effects of given hazards on different populations and regions. FEMA, however, also underscores a variety of other actors under the intended audience of Hazus, seen as it further describes the tool’s strengths:

Government planners, GIS specialists and emergency managers use Hazus to determine losses and the most beneficial mitigation approaches to take to minimize them. Hazus can be used in the assessment step in the mitigation planning process, which is the foundation for a community’s long-term strategy to reduce disaster losses and break the cycle of disaster damage, reconstruction and repeated damage. Being ready will aid in recovery after a natural disaster.

The platform, then, is also about configuring a variety of actors in the name of hazard preparation. That process is one which involves scaling relevant actors and the imagined possibilities of disaster in relation to available resources. Thus, as described in part within my previous posts, both actors and imaginaries are matters of scale when it comes to the neoliberal aims of government agency-run GIS platforms.  

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Additionally, I want to bring up the NOAA’s Digital Coasts tools. Like FEMA’s, NOAA’s infrastructure proved critical to the expansion of GPS possibilities. Additionally, these possibilities were often imagined in terms of economy and industry. While these two strains were for the most part separate, Digital Coasts shows a bridge between these two foundations for contemporary uses of GPS. It is a platform which seeks to not only provide datasets with information relevant to coastal communities but also to enable users to manage and present the data in productive ways.

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Management is particularly key to NOAA’s description of Digital Coasts. NOAA frames Digital Coasts as helping a variety of involved actors “manage the nation’s coastal and ocean resources to sustain vibrant coastal communities and economies.” Here, economy is being invoked and scaled. The ties between Foucault, management and neoliberalism I have addressed previously surface within the isolation of coastal economies for the purposes of monitoring against potentially unforeseen risk. Thus, practices of scaling are imbricated within such broader formations.


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