Exploring the ‘F-word’ in GIS

To mark International Women In Engineering Day, Atkins graduate GIS analyst Anwen Davis details the importance of gender in geographic information system (GIS) mapping and data.

Feminist GIS first emerged in the 1990s to demonstrate alternative ways in which GIS can be deployed. A major insight has been in highlighting spatial inequalities and the nuanced geospatial relationship of phenomena.

Due to the dominance of men in geography (and most other disciplines), throughout much of history, women have typically been under-researched and overlooked in the collection and analysis of geographical data. As a result, issues that are often associated with women have been neglected or not even realised. To challenge this, Feminist GIS has three areas of emphasis: increase the number of women who use GIS as an analytical and cartographic tool; collect more spatial data about women and distinguish the data we currently have by gender; challenge the predominant use of quantitative data and emphasise the usefulness of qualitative methods such as incorporating photos, interviews, participatory research and ethnographic studies into GIS.

Women have typically been under-researched and overlooked in the collection and analysis of geographical data.– Anwen Davis

Methods from Feminist GIS have been used across disciplines to investigate a plethora of spatial relationships, from engaging in participatory GIS to explore environmental links with high breast cancer rates on Long Island, to disaggregating data to examine the gendered impacts of snow-clearing practices in Karlskoga, Sweden.

For International Women In Engineering Day, I’ve chosen my three favourite examples of Feminist GIS.

Challenging commuter patterns

One of the most prominent Feminist GIS academics to this day is Mei-Po Kwan. She led a series of studies in the late 90s and early 00s, exploring residents’ movements in Portland, Oregon. The unconventional data was collected using travel diaries and represented as continuous linear paths using 3D GIS. Analysis of the data showed significant differences in how participants moved around the city and the areas that they visited according to gender and ethnicity.

Fast-forward 20 years and municipalities across Europe have realised the value of capturing gendered travel data. Engineers and urban planners have begun to use this data to reconsider key infrastructure definitions such as “capacity” and “peak hours”. Traditionally, these are thought about in terms of economic commuter movements, despite such journeys making up only 20% of distance travelled in the UK (with a notable gender imbalance – commuting taking up a greater share of men’s average travel).

But, recently other patterns of travel have started being incorporated into projects that raise a different set of questions. For example, urban planners in Vienna have been addressing gendered differences, resulting in a focus on adding streetlights, widening pavements and changing from cobblestones to large paving slaps for easier pedestrian travel. So, should a new bus route be designed for commuters travelling directly between the city centre and the business park, or should it consider trip-chain journeys and stop at schools on the way to allow working parents to efficiently do the morning school run?

How many women does it take to change a light bulb?

As we work towards achieving nationally and globally set climate change and sustainability targets, countries across the world have been re-designing their energy grids to increase energy supply while also increasing renewable energy proportion. Decisions surrounding national energy are typically top-down initiatives that trickle down to communities with varying degrees of success. However, bottom-up approaches have been gaining traction, with community-led data feeding up to contribute towards the decision-making process.

Unconventional GIS data such as attitudes and feelings are increasingly incorporated in the spatial analysis of where to focus re-building efforts.– Anwen Davis

A great example of this comes from my own team. In 2016, Atkins was commissioned by the Kenyan government to coordinate door-to-door surveys gathering data on current uptake of renewable energy technologies. A significant part of the project involved going into hard to reach communities that might otherwise have been excluded from the data collection process. Feminist GIS emphasises the importance of collecting data from women even with seemingly objective questions. For example, the gendered division of labour in the home means that men may not know the answer to certain questions e.g. “What fuel do you use to cook with?” or “How do you heat water?”, which could result in a lack of data or misinformation if women are not consulted.

Although this project didn’t intentionally target women, the style of data collection with surveyors knocking on people’s doors supported fairer gender representation than if a method had been adopted that did not approach households directly. The data collected allowed national, regional and county level analysis, identifying trends about the attitudes, behaviours and practices towards renewable energy and the effectiveness of current policies. These are likely to influence the priorities and design of future projects surrounding Kenya’s energy, hopefully resulting in future development plans which successfully address the needs of Kenya’s diverse communities.

Inclusive re-building post-disaster

In recent decades, GIS has paved its way to being an imperative tool in each of the four stages of disaster management: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. GIS is used to map hazards, identify areas at risk of natural disasters and assist evacuation planning. In the event of a disaster, GIS can co-ordinate immediate response and inform recovery plans to build future resilience.   

Feminist GIS methodologies are progressively adopted as part of GIS disaster management. Since the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia where three times more women died than men, the collation of gender-disaggregated data is increasingly used to highlight the inequality of hazard preparedness. As well as illustrating spatial differences, the data showed that a variety of socio-cultural factors contributed to risk, such as not being able to swim, wearing more restrictive clothing and having lower literacy.

Therefore, subsequent local and national hazard preparedness initiatives have included posters with simple images instead of text, and women-only swimming lessons. Responses and recovery plans in more recent natural disasters in Indonesia have incorporated additional Feminist GIS approaches to build better community resilience.

For example, women community groups and meetings are often established to provide a space for women to voice their opinions about re-building. Unconventional GIS data such as attitudes and feelings are increasingly incorporated in the spatial analysis of where to focus re-building efforts.

Following a tsunami, some groups may wish to be re-housed further inland due to feelings of anxiety, while others (typically men) may earn a living fishing and therefore want to stay near the coast and their source of income. Thus, actively including women in disaster management planning not only saves lives but can also help to build back communities that are designed for the needs of all.

Integrating the F-word

Spatial relationships are complex and Feminist GIS approaches help to unpick these by raising new questions and identifying previously unrealised phenomena. Working at Atkins where more than 50% of the geospatial team identify as women, I hope we’re able to reap the advantages of having a gender diverse team. Over recent years, the team has seen an increase in the variety of projects that we are getting involved in and use-cases where we are able to deploy GIS. I’m not saying this is because of the increasing proportion of women in the team but… there’s a correlation.

Main image: 159135792 © Dmytro Varavin |

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