GIS and Social Activism

Mark Altaweel

Social activism for issues such as clean water, better housing, industry regulation, and other areas have been important for democracies since the 19th century. Groups promoting various causes, however, have only recently begun to realize the potential of geospatial approaches and technologies that can help promote causes.

More than a decade ago, activists, academics, and others shared geospatial data on areas of interest, such as the location of missile sites, areas of environmental concern, and locations where injustice is reported.[1] These were loaded onto mostly desktop GIS applications where data would known to those involved in activist endeavors. Since the mid to late 2000s, the emergence of neogeography, or the use of geospatial technologies for personal or community activities, has allowed social activists to greatly increase their utilization of GIS and GIS-related tools. One example is a participatory art project in China, where people expressed themselves through artistic contributions that were geospatially referenced through social media. The project was a subtle protest against perceived state and economic injustices.[2] In fact, user communities in China have become very active in using Web 2.0 and geospatial technologies on their phones to report events or observations to community sites.[3]

A Screenshot of the Yiyun Interactive Map for Ya’an Earthquake Disaster Relief (10 August 2014). Source: Elwood, Goodchild, & Sui, 2012.
A Screenshot of the Yiyun Interactive Map for Ya’an Earthquake Disaster Relief (10 August 2014). Source: Elwood, Goodchild, & Sui, 2012.

Citizen participation initiatives have been called volunteer geographic information (VGI), where handheld devices and crowdsourced data sharing have fueled greater use of geotagged information within social media applications. Among other technologies that have enabled and facilitated the ease of sharing data include Google Earth and Microsoft’s Virtual Earth.[4] These technologies, the ease of their use, and widespread presence of mobile devices have now made it more prevalent for social activists to share data and post to community sites that take advantage of freely available software APIs such as Google Earth that allow people to create their own applications to post community shared geospatial data or what has been called VGI. This has now led to much more rapid reactions to events by organized activist communities, as information for events and where they are become quickly shared, where previously organizing actions would have taken far longer and greater effort to establish. Corporations such as Esri are even facilitating geographic-based activism using their platform.[5]


[1] For more on a relatively early article on GIS and its use for social activism, see:  Warren, Stacy. 2004. “The Utopian Potential of GIS.” Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 39 (1): 5–16.

[2] For more on this art community project in China, see:  Lin, Wen. 2013. “Situating Performative Neogeography: Tracing, Mapping, and Performing: Everyone’s East LakeEnvironment and Planning A 45 (1): 37–54.

[3] For more on using Web 2.0 in China’s social activist community, see:  Wu, Fengshi, and Shen Yang. 2016. “Web 2.0 and Political Engagement in China.” VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 27 (5): 2055–76.

[4] For more on VGI and shared geographic information, see:  Elwood, Sarah, Michael F. Goodchild, and Daniel Z. Sui. 2012. “Researching Volunteered Geographic Information: Spatial Data, Geographic Research, and New Social Practice.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102 (3): 571–90.

[5] For an example of Esri’s geographic sites used for activism, see:

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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