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Research Forum: René Westerholt (CIM) ‘Place’ in Geography and GIScience Towards Formalising Everyday Geographies



For at least 45 years, human geography has developed a systematic approach to the concept of Place. The term place refers to "lived space", while the term Space is used instead for something more abstract and "void". Given the primary goal of human geography—the analysis of the relationships between people and the world around them—it is not surprising that more (or at least similar) importance is given to Place than to Space. In geographical information science (GIScience), however, the situation is different.

GIScience is the field that deals with representations of geographical entities and how to formalise / process / analyse / visualise / store them. Many therefore see GIScience as the methodological companion to geography. Contemporary GIScience is largely a descendant of the quantitative revolution that took place in geography in the 1960s, more precisely, the modern version of what was once called "spatial science" (this name survived in some places that were at the forefront of spatial science, such as Bristol).

In relation to the debate on Space and Place, GIScience has largely focused on abstract, geometric space. Nigel Thrift argues that “Space is the fundamental stuff of geography”, but one could argue that Space has instead become the fundamental element of GIScience. The reason why this field is strongly focused on abstract space and not more consistent with developments in human geography is the extremely complicated nature of the concept of Place. Formalisation and processing require abstraction and thus simplification to the essence of things. It is precisely this step (or gap) that is at the centre of my research agenda. The main and guiding question for me is therefore: "How can we bridge the conceptual complexity of Place and the abstraction required for formalisation in GIScience"?

In the Research Forum I would like to present my first steps towards a systematic literature review. The main problem that I want to address with this review is the linking of Place concepts in human geography with Place concepts used in GIScience. I want to find out which implications—either explicit or implicit—are made in the way GIScientists deal with Place. This is a necessary step to further develop the still very immature consideration of Place in GIScience towards a more systematic approach. The objective of using Place in GIScience is to make the concept available for tasks such as calculation and visualization. However, the importance of the topic of Place goes beyond this technical point of view, as we have more and more data available with place-related information. Examples are social media data, blogs or data from the digital humanities containing toponyms and vernacular geographical accounts. Progress in GIScience on this front will thus also lead to a better understanding of digital geographies and the ways people integrate digital technologies into their everyday lives. Based on an ethnographic study of the Israeli data analytics scene, this presentation explores the socio-algorithmic construction of identity categories. While algorithmic categorization has been described as a post-textual, or post hegemonic phenomenon that leaves language, theory, and expertise behind, this article focuses on the return of the social – the process through which the symbolic means resurface to turn algorithmically-produced clusters into identity categories. I argue that such categories not only stem from the intrinsic structure of the algorithms and their data, but from the social contexts in which they arise, and particularly, from the values assigned to them by the people who buy and use them. I accordingly show that the return of the social is more than a process of translation, but of a complex amalgamation, which arbitrarily conjoins algorithmic clusters with qualitative labels, in an attempt to answer to people’s wants and needs. Finally, I argue that the qualitative stages behind this naming process are just as opaque, and just as black boxed, as the calculative ones.

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