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Safiya Umoja Noble
This paper is a political economic critique and
exploration of the ways that private-sector companies
in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
industry have emerged and consolidated themselves.
This includes a discussion about buying, analyzing and
selling spatial data mined from the Internet and other
public resources, and how this is packaged and sold
to other corporations for profit. I detail GIS research
and development projects and the activities that are
fueling growth. One of the fastest growing sectors
of the GIS business is data mining and information
processing, where companies are able to capitalize
on the flow of information through proprietary
systems or public networks like the Internet, and as
such, are accumulating great wealth. GIS software
projects are often the outgrowth of direct political and
economic policy and funding, and industry giants are
afforded greater access to purchasing huge data sets
and labor to analyze and re-sell it. Public adoption
and usage of GIS tools via the Internet is creating
competitive tensions within the GIS industry and
producing complex new partnerships. What is most
critical to explore at this moment are the details of
the industry, who it serves, and in whose interest. An
understanding of the GIS terrain will better equip the
public in making informed decisions about how state
Graduate School of Library
& Information Science
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
policies and consumer practices are contributing to,
or disrupting, these activities.
communications, data mining, Internet, critical
information studies, public good
Despite the claims that digital technologies are a
source of liberation for everyone (Negroponte, 1995),
scholars have challenged the utopian notions of digital
technologies and the Internet as a resources fueling
increased democracy, the proliferation of the expansion
of social freedoms and increased social participation,
in part due to the consequences of corporate control
over information (Schiller, 2007; Schiller, 1996, Boyle,
2003; Benkler, 2004, Chun, 2006; Vaidhyanathan,
2010). Daniel Bell (1973) theorized that the rise of
postindustrialism would be characterized by science
and technology, and service and information based
economies, and information would be the dominant
commodity rather than manufactured goods. In this
context, Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
can be discussed as tools for information extraction,
processing and analysis -- packaged and sold as data
layers and business intelligence. GIS is used to further
Safiya Umoja Noble
develop information as both a commodity and a
resource (Schiller, 2007). Yet, data derived through the
top GIS software companies is owned and controlled
by private companies – even if its consumer facing
tools are free for use by the public.
Contextualizing the political economy of GIS
seems relevant to the debates over the value of GIS
as a means of improving access to the creation and
distribution of knowledge. Crampton (2008) notes
how mapmaking efforts are now “distinctly public
and citizen orientated” as photos, satellite images and
geospatial data are being crowdsourced and deposited
into commercial products like Google Earth.
Information technologies like GIS mapping have
also shifted social expectations and made previously
professionalized mapmaking something accessible
to many (Crampton, 2008), while noting the
important tension in the field over professionalizing
vs. reprofessionalizing (Crampton, 2008, DiBiase et
al., 2006; 2007). These tensions are a continuation
of the hotly contested debates over the future of GIS
(Schuurman, 2000), in which knowing the landscape
of how information is being increasingly privatized
can be included. It is for this reason that I believe
GIS can be traced and understood, particularly as
information control and ownership shifts from the
public sphere to the private sector. Schiller (2007)
describes innovations in information communication
technologies as a strategy for the expansion of capitalism,
predicated upon the control and commodification of
information. He characterizes this development as
“informationalized capitalism” (Schiller, 2007). His
historical research on the broader political economy
of information communication technologies, fueled
by state subsidization, information policy and
deregulation of ICT markets like telecommunications
and communications networks (Schiller, 2007) is
important to understanding how GIS needs to be
historically traced too.
Despite the rhetoric of freedoms, including the
freedom associated with the use of free or low-cost GIS,
the reorganization of economic and social relations in
the shift from the industrial to information society
has led to even more uneven distributions of capital
around the globe (Schiller, 2007; Mosco, 1988). Kling
(2007) enumerates the many ways that information
communication networks and technologies are being
used in corporations and organizations to centralize
and manage operations, including investments of up
to 50% of their capital in information communication
technologies (Kling, 2007). Kling’s work in social
informatics, and case studies on the uses of software
and technology in the workplace, demonstrate the
ways in which work and labor has been reorganized.
It is within this context that a closer inspection of the
political economy of the Geographic Information
Systems (GIS) industry is worthy of our attention.
GIS: A Critical Re-definition
“The American economy is now
hostage to a relatively small number of
giant private companies, with interlocking connections, that set the national
agenda. This power is particularly
characteristic of the communication and
information sector where the national
cultural-media agenda is provided by
a very small (and declining) number
of integrated private combines. The
development has deeply eroded free
individual expression, a vital element of
a democratic society” (Schiller, 1996).
Considerable work has been done to critique
GIS as a tool for the expansion of the commercial,
for-profit sector (Goss, 1995). This paper describes a
history of GIS research and development activities,
and the industries that are fueling these developments,
as well as the lines of business that are of interest to
GIS industry leaders. This research does not look at
the impact of the consolidations of resources, money
and data systems in the GIS industry: it instead
outlines the business and technology trends in the
GIS industry that are leading to a variety of mergers,
acquisitions and strategic business partnerships in
the corporate, for- profit sector. My hope is that a
description of the activities that are driving the GIS
industry will lead to more research questions about
the impact of these activities, and in whose interest it
Volume 4, Number 3, 2011
GIS: Commercialization of Public Information
Information is more important than ever. Schiller
(2007) suggests that it is “the essential site of forprofit, commercial growth within the world economy”
(Schiller, 2007) meaning information is playing the
most significant role in the growth of corporations and
private enterprise. In the software industry, one of the
fastest growing sectors is data mining and information
processing where companies that are able to capitalize
on the flow of information through proprietary
systems or public networks like the Internet are
accumulating great wealth. What is needed is an
exploration of the ways that the GIS industry has
emerged within this larger context, and consolidated
itself in order to exploit the wealth of information and
profits to be gained from buying, analyzing and selling
spatial data. One perspective on the GIS industry is
that it has been subsidized by public contracts and
university research, which have been facilitated by
state, federal and local municipal governments and
thus, these tools belong to the public as part of the
assets that are afforded us through public goods like
libraries or public universities. It could also be argued
that software companies like Microsoft, Yahoo! and
Google, are made more profitable by public use of
“free” commercial tools like search engines and maps,
and that this is in fact a contribution to the public
good because we have greater access to information
that is easy to use and readily accessible with computer
and Internet access. However, a third position must
be argued: the consolidation and privatization of user
data is leading to an erosion of public interests and
fostering the most significant expansions of capital
that we have seen in modern times – expansions in
the privatization of previously public information
that undermines the collective interests of the public
(Schiller, 1996).
Schiller (1996) argues that Information can serve
as both a resource and commodity. In one sense, GIS is
a resource with “free” mapping software programs that
help us find restaurants, directions and community
resources. However, one often overlooked aspect of
consumer-facing technologies is the hidden labor
involved in developing free GIS software data layers.
For example, “free” digital technologies like Google’s
services use the labor of consumers to help refine its
ability to present quality information (Vaidhyanathan,
2010). In this respect, “participatory GIS” efforts are
a relatively unexamined aspect of the GIS software
business, and free labor comes about through
constant consumer interaction with these tools that
allows technology companies to refine algorithms
and information search patterns. And because GIS
software projects are often the outgrowth of direct
political policy and government funding, GIS industry
giants are afforded greater access to purchasing both
huge data sets and labor to analyze and re-sell data
that once functioned as a public resource managed by
governments and municipalities. Formerly, these data
sets were accessible by the public, albeit cumbersome
to manipulate or analyze. Aggressive new technologies
and software applications developed by the industry
are now ensuring that the mining of public data,
coupled with the steady availability of commodified
consumer interactions, and the ability to perform
custom research, will generate a wholesale shift of
information assets from public to commercial interest.
GIS can represent complex and intricate
information through data sets. These layers of data
include everything from the roads and buildings
to consumer behavior or purchasing behavior in a
particular zip code or geographically defined space. GIS
scholars have looked at the problems of representation
of social groups in this process (Harris & Weiner,
1998; Craig, Harris & Weiner, 2002). Each layer of
data is organized into databases and objects that are
represented in photos, maps, lines, points and surfaces
visually mapped to tell a story or provide intelligence.
This kind of information includes resources that
Schiller (1988) notes as public – information like
the mapping of the air, earth, oceans, rivers and sky
that might belong to everyone. GIS software provides
access to new ways of visualizing our world, along
with the political boundaries and borders within
societies (Crampton, 2004), and can also include
information about individuals that can be aggregated
into detailed consumer profiles, exemplifying
Schiller’s “commodified” information. Some of this
information is available to the public via the Internet,
and some of this information is proprietary. These
informational layers become even more profitable
when public information is data mined and coupled
with proprietary data, turning it into information that
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Safiya Umoja Noble
is only available to companies and government entities
that can afford it.
GIS information also allows intelligence analysts
to develop information models that take particular
regions or hot spots and combine their topography
and population with census data to design business
practices. This facilitates a state or corporation to take
action, as in the case of military strategic planning
(Pickles, 1995), which often includes religious and
racial distinctions in regions. The social relations and
patterns of offline behavior in terms of racial, religious
and gendered profiling continue to be consolidated in
information communication technologies:
The Internet is both reproducing
social relations and creating new forms
of relations based on our engagement
with it. Technologies and their design
do not dictate [racial] ideologies,
rather, they reflect the current climate
(Fuchs, 2009).
In the past, public information like income,
education, sex, age and race were valuable data points,
but these pale in comparison to the matrix of data
and public profiling through use of Internet-based
tools that allow for even greater corporate power
and influence in the market (Vaidhyanathan, 2011).
Because these GIS tools are an increasingly significant
part of the data mining practices that are reshaping
corporate and government behavior in the digital age,
it is important that we look at the developments in
the industry and continue to research the impact of
these tools.
Patrick MacHaffie (1995) suggests that “even
though it [information] is a ‘general purpose’
product, then it will be produced to serve a particular
constituency, in particular those who serve to gain from
the ‘digging,’ ‘gathering,’ or ‘harvesting’ the wealth of
America and the world” (MacHaffie, 1995). According
to MacHaffie, these large, “general purpose” databases
and systems for mapping are part of the system of our
public infrastructure. What I am suggesting here is
that GIS companies are data provided from public and
private sources as a mechanism for the accumulation
and expansion of for-profit models. This is happening
as a result of industry consolidations and a changing
global environment of data mining and information
sharing. By data mining, I mean the ability to use
high performance computing technologies to process
large amounts of data that could only be analyzed
for new patters and relationships, typically using
artificial intelligence and computers (Fayyad, 1996).
By industry consolidations, I mean the shrinking
sphere of GIS service providers due to the processes
of mergers, takeovers, acquisitions and other strategic
business partnerships. This shrinking pool of GIS
service providers and software development companies
have resulted in complex arrangements that make up
a web of corporate friends, enemies, competitors and
collaborators. This web of arrangements also includes
active personal and political participation with
legislators who control the flow of billions of federal
dollars for emerging GIS projects over the next several
years in the United States.
Public Participation in GIS Consolidations
Over the past forty years, information found
in GIS software systems that spatially represent
information has become increasingly mass-produced
and marketed to Fortune 500 companies, public and
private institutions and individuals amid low-profile
controversies. Privately held companies like ESRI
and Bentley are beginning to see encroachments
upon market share as technology and media giants
with mass consumer appeal like Google, Yahoo! and
Microsoft threaten the business models of proprietary
software companies by offering many free and low
cost enterprise GIS packages. The market leaders in
GIS use techniques that include using both public
and private proprietary databases from which they can
mine government records, police reports, census data,
birth and death certificates, banking and insurance
information, public health records allowable by
law, marketing and consumer behavior data, credit
reports, mailing lists, surveys, media reports and
psychographic profiles (Goss, 2000). GIS technology
is complicated and requires intensive data collection
and statistical software to process and make sense of
spaces and places. The business of GIS is also reliant
upon the adoption of software that is interoperable
across companies, governments and institutions. For
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GIS: Commercialization of Public Information
Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft, encouraging the public
to contribute content is at play in their business models.
These companies use public data just as the large
GIS industry leaders do, with layers of information
contributed by everyday people. Much of this
mapping data is the result of long-term accumulation
of information through Google and Microsoft
search engine technologies. Their clients are not the
public who use their free tools. Their clients are the
corporations who pay for intelligence, which includes
information about how we search, where we surf the
web, what we like, and who we are – both online and off
(Vaidhayanthan, 2011) “Free” and low-cost enterprise
mapping services have become and will continue to
be a significant profit center as GIS technologies are
more deeply embedded in the information available
on the Internet. This “information as a resource”
versus “information as a commodity” (Schiller, 1996)
tension is important to understand, because GIS data
is both the visual mapping of the world as we know
it and is “intelligence” for sale about the world we
know. Detailing the ways that free labor is cultivated
in these GIS databases from the public is worth
exploration in a future research effort. In the case of
Google, free maps made, web searches conducted, and
websites developed and indexed become a source of
information that can be packaged and sold about the
world we live in, and those who live in it, to those
who need it to expand into new markets or manage
resource distribution.
This participation in the creation of data, and
the repackaging of previously free information like
government research and records, is subsidized to the
benefit of a small number of corporations. The process
is two-fold and is manifest by 1) an individual’s labor
and 2) the use of the information commons at an
institutional level. By free individual labor, I mean that
the use of free mapping tools by the public in Google
Maps or Google Earth provides information about
the individual user that is aggregated across millions
of users to be sold to advertisers. Free tools, from
email to calendars to maps are part of the information
resource that is data mined to develop business
intelligence for corporate partners. This laboring is
the combination of both play and labor, known as
“playbor,” (Grinnell, 2009) where consumers engage
in online activities as leisure but which are their
creative process or contribution from which profit
is derived (Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter, 2009). An
example of this is Google’s Image Labeler where the
public tags images and provides metadata for Google’s
images. The second aspect of mining free labor is the
way in which public records and information are datamined. This information originates from the taxes
paid from our labor, and which lives in the public
domain or commons through government records
and research for our collective use and benefit. This
is further complicated by the fact that many of the
GIS companies that dominate the landscape today
were projects funded by government contracts using
taxpayer dollars, but without taxpayers sharing in the
As an example of how these tools come to be, a
closer inspection of Google is necessary. Google Earth
is a free resource online and is the result of corporate
acquisitions, something that could not have happened
without Google’s tremendous assets. The original map
product, EarthViewer 3D was a product of Keyhole,
Inc. and has aggressively morphed into Google Earth
(a free web-based technology) and Google Earth Pro, a
commercial subscription product priced at $495/year.
Keyhole’s satellite mapping technology was originally
funded by the venture capital arm of the Central
Intelligence Agency in the U.S., In-Q-Tel, which
engages companies to provide intelligence across several
agencies including the CIA, Department Intelligence
Agency (DIA) and National Geospatial Intelligence
Agency (NGA). In it’s current inception as Google
Earth, it is also credited as having created the public
interest and demand for mapping and directions by
the public, and continues to fuel consumer use with
its iphone application made available in May of 2008
and its ipad application released in 2010.
Google Earth is not ranked or benchmarked
by the GIS leaders in their annual reports and
communications. However, it would be incorrect to
leave out the work of Google Earth when looking at
the overall GIS industry (commercial and consumer),
given that Google is a $12.7 billion dollar company
and, according to its Investor Relations reports, is
estimated to be worth $144 billion dollars, according
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Safiya Umoja Noble
to Business Week in 2009. Currently, Google is in
an aggressive battle with Microsoft to create the
most robust mapping technology that will capture
the attention and interest of “everyday” consumers.
Google’s business model is based on advertising
sales, mapping everything from restaurants to hotels
and museum galleries, which is an essential strategy
for selling more ads. Google and Microsoft are both
hoping their mapping technologies, Google Earth
and MapPoint, will provoke consumers to participate
in making the maps more interactive and interesting
by uploading ratings, photos and feedback about
locations to their GIS databases.
But, while the public is searching for information
using free tools from Google, these tools and data
collection methods that provide information for tools
like “street views” are increasingly being contested.
For example, in 2009, the blogosphere reported
an impromptu protest of neighbors in an upscale
neighborhood of Buckinghamshire, England who
forced a Google “street view” car to turn around
(Moore, 2010). Privacy and surveillance concerns
and protests in Germany caused Google to extend
its opt-out policy under pressure from the German
government (The Local, 2010). Most alarming are the
ways that GIS layers can include information about
people that can be both aggregated and disaggregated
into detailed consumer profiles and sold to advertisers
without the knowledge of the public. These will be
important practices to follow over the next decade of
GIS software development and usage.
A final note on public participation in GIS should
address participatory GIS. Participatory GIS, the
practice of making mapping tools available to underserved communities for the purposes of community
empowerment, is worthy of its own exploration in
another paper. This article will not attempt to dissect
the details of the topic, however, participatory GIS is an
important aspect of the business models of Google and
Microsoft. Both companies are providing entry-level
and easy-to-use maps for the public, unlike the GIS
industry leaders like ESRI or Bentley that are focused
on commercial and governmental use. There are many
open-source GIS products that are specifically being
designed for non-profits, educational organizations
and community groups. However, this paper is only
focused on industry leaders and their projects; hence a
closer look at Google because its tools are increasingly
positioned as “participatory,” “free” and available to
the public for the purposes of empowerment. In this
context, GIS for public use is often stemming from
open source GIS software tools. Crampton (2008)
describes the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS)
movement as the origin of the free tools that are offered
by companies like Google. Crampton documents the
rise of the history of FOSS and its contributions to
free mapping tool availability on the web. The tradeoff
in control by Google or Yahoo! maps is that only APIs
are provided, not source code, leaving the companies
in control, particularly over copyrighted maps and
images that they own or that their subsidiaries or
vendors own. Certainly, open source software (OSS)
addresses some of the challenges that expensive licenses
or proprietary software code present. The landscape of
for-profit and non-profit organizations providing OSS
(Kuan, 2001) and tools are often not subsidized by
taxpayers or the public (Gaudeul, 2007). Open source
tools are often developed and sustained by volunteers
(Bergstrom, Blume & Varian, 1986) and it is often
difficult for organizations to direct the trajectory of
their development because they are not subsidized by
the government or other interest groups for funding
and resources (Gaudeul, 2007). In the case of GIS
open source tools, which will be discussed later in this
paper, the amount of resource necessary to address
the interoperability standards and to foster wide-scale
adoption in order to be sustainable and compete with
highly-captialized competitors is staggering (Gaudeul,
2007; Mustonen, 2005, 2003).
Critically Looking at GIS Industry Leaders
Technologies are never neutral (Winner, 1986;
Pacey, 1983). The literature on “GIS and Society” has
begun to explore the political economy of GIS and
the role of power in the use of GIS (Harris & Weiner,
1998). On one hand, GIS is seen as an objectivescientific tool for understanding the world around
us. But GIS tools do not just measure distance and
space, they are also a means of gathering intelligence
and information. They construct a landscape and
representation of places, people and processes
Volume 4, Number 3, 2011
GIS: Commercialization of Public Information
according to various commercial or political agendas.
For example, the iphone application “Around Me”
is an example of understanding how commercial
interests are foregrounded in a seemingly “neutral”
GIS tool. In this application, the iPhone maps the
commercial retailers available to a user in a specific
location, but simultaneously does not map public
institutions, social services, friends’ houses, parks or
scenes that are of a non-commercial interest. These
representations re-create a physical world into a
commercial world through GIS technologies, and
this is a symbiotic relationship. While a user lives in
the physical world and their movement is tracked,
it is commodified and sold back to the user in an
application that is designed to promote commercial
services. GIS representations through this economy of
information is both one of data mining user behavior
(e.g., walking down the street) and repurposing
or selling back a representation of the world that is
intrinsically tied to commericialization (e.g., stop by
The Gap around the corner and get 20% off a pair of
Critical GIS scholars are looking at the social,
political and economic ways that GIS tools are being
used in society. Kwan’s (2002) critique serves as an
important approach to looking more deeply at the
politics of contemporary GIS debates:
While many maintain that
the development and use of GIS
constitute a scientific pursuit capable
of producing objective knowledge
of the world, others criticize GIS
for its inadequate representation of
space and subjectivity, its positivist
rationality, its technique-driven and
data-led methods, and its role as
surveillance or military technology
deployed by the state. (Kwan, 2002).
Kwan’s feminist GIS (2002) offers an important
point of view on how people can begin to
conceptualize reframing GIS practices in ways that
increase knowledge and participation or engagement
with GIS tools from a critical perspective. The tools
available or that need to be created could stem from
our ability to envision different forms of creation and
usages for interests other than corporations, such as
non-profits or social action researchers. Kwan also
crystalizes the literature about how GIS is embedded
with power (2002). Geography researchers have spent
considerable time and energy debating the effects of
GIS on people and communities from many points
of view (Schuurman, 2000) and Kwan’s feminist
critique creates more room to think about GIS from
a critical perspective, especially in re-conceptualizing
ownership of data, as well as increased access and
broader engagement and participation with GIS.
Goss (1995) has a specific theory that Geodemographic Information Systems (GDIS) are
growing because, “the corporate community is
eager to purchase [GDIS] because of its capacity to
monitor, model and control consumer behavior,
and ultimately because they promise the capability
to manipulate the market and consumer identity to
enhance profitability There is considerable logic and
efficiency in consolidating the GIS industry to the
benefit of corporations engaged in providing resources
to a public willing to use GIS tools for free or nearlyfree. It is not necessarily the use of technological
tools like GIS software that are problematic; tools are
also the product of creativity and are often used for
the improvement of communities. I am arguing the
accumulation predicated upon the willingness of an
unsuspecting public to participate is problematic.
Thus, the GIS software and hardware companies
have moved from many to a few over the past forty
years since the development of the personal computer.
Interoperability, standards, regulation and adopted
technologies are being bitterly contested and the
industry will see increased benefit from state spending
on infrastructure. GIS Information Communication
Technologies (ICTs) should be the subject of further
study because they it is another near-ubiquitous
digital technology that demonstrates how software
platforms become near-universal through market
dominance,, and why a variety of open-source or
proprietary software packages like GRASS GIS or
GIS/Magik though having widespread adoption, have
not become the industry standard, even though they
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Safiya Umoja Noble
too are publicly funded projects.
It is essential to understand this mining of
information from government and corporate
databases as taking place within a web (and cloud)
of complex and proprietary algorithms, software
requirements, computer hardware and highlyskilled training the United States One problematic
aspect of the proprietary GIS technology is that it
is unavailable for examination which obscures the
inner-workings of the programming code, and it
is proprietary. Furthermore, GIS management and
implementation through the consolidation of the
industry into a handful of companies spun out of
Department of Defense projects is deployed primarily
through U.S.-based companies. The degree to which
hierarchies are being reproduced digitally in geospatial
programming is an emergent theme about how
power is embedded in these processes (Crampton &
Krygier, 2006; Schurman, 2000; Harvey, Kwan &
Pavlovskaya, 2005). What needs to be understood,
particularly by the public, is how GIS technologies are
fostering digital enclosures (Andrejovic, 2007) that
portend to create greater socio-technical affordances.
What we believe is happening in terms of accessing
GIS data to help us find things more easily is also
enclosing our movements through high levels of
monitoring and surveillance, especially as we locate
data in cloud-computing resources. Critical and
feminist GIS scholars have written extensively about
GIS and surveillance and monitoring (Kwan, 2002;
Goss, 1995; Pickles, 1995). Andrejevic argues that
the “digital enclosure” is a more appropriate way to
name the Internet cloud, as a way of theorizing about
the “forms of productivity and monitoring facilitated
by ubiquitous interactivity” (2007). He cites Schiller
(2007), Boyle (2003) and Lessig (2004) who map and
critique the current expropriation of data by private
corporations -- counter to the liberatory, freeing ideas
of the Internet popularized by the MIT Media Lab
and Mosco (2004). Schiller (2007) argues against such
“digital enclosures of non-proprietary information.”
However, the limits of freedom can be tested by the
use and control of data because constant contact with
a network allows control over our own private devices
like laptops and other networked devices and software
systems, like GIS. Control over proper usage is being
built into the technology itself and enforced through
the network. Boyle (2003) suggests that expansions
of control are removing innovation from the public
domain, and “Behind the abstract words ‘innovation’
or ‘technological development’ there are lives saved or
lost, communicative freedoms expanded or contracted,
communities enabled or stunted, wealth generated or
not” (Boyle, 2003).
Acculturating strategies and tools like Google
Maps, Google Earth, GMail, Google Docs and others
serve as a means of securing personal information,
email, documents, etc. in exchange for the ability
to mine such information and sell it for a profit/
commercial purposes. By acculturating, I mean that
the public is increasingly socialized to using “free”
tools and these tools are being integrated across
personal and professional activities. In the current
scheme, Google retains the right to search our
data in exchange for “free” tools and services. The
precision and refinement of the ability to identify
and commodify “patterns of interaction, movement,
transaction and communication” (Andrejevic, 2007)
serves as a vital resource and profit center for cloud
computing companies like Google. These processes
make the correlation of user data and behavior with
communication and advertising exposure a likely and
inevitable end.
Examples of this include the attempt by Google &
Earthlink to bring a city-wide Wi-Fi
network to San Francisco, and the use of interactive
technologies to reinforce intellectual property
schemes and unprecedented data centralization and
control. Previously non-proprietary data becomes
commercialized and controlled at each point of
transmission, from infrastructure to interface. These
arguments underscore how networks populated
by data aggregated geospatially is not essentially
empowering, per se, in that it can be constituted in
different ways and is increasingly controlled by media
conglomerates. Digital enclosures are also physical
enclosures that interact with other networks and
systems (e.g., cellular, RFID, GPS, etc.). What is
problematic is the way in which most people do not
understand how they are being tracked and monitored
Volume 4, Number 3, 2011
GIS: Commercialization of Public Information
through these processes, which is Vaidhayanthan’s
thesis (2011). Andrejevic’s (2007) detailing of the
digital information enclosure, akin to the European
land enclosure movement and its move from “violent
expropriation into a freely agreed-upon contractual
arrangement,” is of critical importance. We have
become accustomed to trading public information
resources and personal information for a place to be
online. He critiques the notion of “freedom,” which
we can say is replicated in the server-client model
of digital spatial enclosures. We are free to store our
collective and individual information on corporate
severs and through the use of software and we access
it in individual and convenient ways. However, the
underlying model is predicated upon our loss of
ownership and control, and serves as the creation
of a new site of profit for digital landlords. What is
problematic is the way in which these processes are
obscured from the public and under-examined at a
socio-structural level.
Kwan’s feminist critique of GIS is that the current
corporate uses of GIS are not the only models that
need exist. She urges researchers and communities to
work within the constraints of GIS-dominance and
find new ways to use data within a feminist or radical
framework. For these many reasons, look deeply at the
industry leader, ESRI, which has a significant academic
following and subscriber base supported by public and
private universities financed by tax-payers and donors,
as well as the other leaders important. ESRI is not
only in the business of manufacturing information
through its business intelligence consulting practice, it
is also making money from those who are using ESRI
software to map local neighborhoods and communities
for “social good.” What is problematic for those of us
re-envisioning GIS is that the very usage and storage
of data in global software systems further entrenches
The Consolidated GIS Industry
“Access to high quality information,
from journalism to research, is essential
to a healthy and viable democracy”
(McChesney, 2009).
“As information moves from the
public sphere to private control by
corporations, a critical juncture in the
quality of information of available, and
the public’s ability to shift and use it is
at stake” (McChesney and Nichols,
The GIS industry has been consolidated into
five major companies over the course of the past
forty years. Though there are many proprietary and
open-source solutions, a series of spin-offs, mergers
and acquisitions began in the 1960s that have led to
the configuration of today. The first GIS system was
created by the federal Department of Forestry and
Rural Development in Ottawa, Ontario. Since then,
governments and universities have played a significant
role in funding research and development of GIS
systems that include the Laboratory for Computer
Graphics and Spatial Analysis at Harvard, which
spawned technologies that were used commercially
by corporations, educational institutions and research
centers around the world (Lovison-Golob & Fisher,
This infusion of public funds subsidized the risks
of developing expensive mapping software and was
not possible without military contracts. GIS/GPS
development was originally designed as a surveillance
tool for the military. By the end of the 1960s, a
handful of GIS companies were emerging, many of
which continue to dominate the industry in 2009.
M&S Computing (which later became Intergraph)
was founded in Huntsville, Alabama in 1969.
Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI)
in Redlands, CA (1969) started as (and remains) a
privately-held consulting firm with its start in land use
mapping. ESRI is now the industry leader with over
one-third of the global GIS market, and claims it is
the leading GIS research and development company
in the world (ESRI, 2009).
A decade later, Computer Aided Resource
Information Systems (CARIS) began selling
commercial GIS products as a start-up from the
Department of Survey Engineering at the University
of New Brunswick; although it never became a
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Safiya Umoja Noble
commercial leader with its December 2008 earnings
at just over $23 million (compared to ESRI’s $500+
million). CARIS developed the first and largest GIS
system for mapping through digitizing and scanning
technology and its founder Dr. Roger Tomlinson is
regarded as the “father of GIS,” (Geiner, 2007), even
though the technology was never fully commercialized.
Latecomers to the GIS software industry are
Autodesk (1982) and GE Energy/Smallworld (1989).
Smallworld was acquired by GE Energy in September
2000 after establishing itself as a global leader in GIS.
Up and coming in the GIS industry is PB MapInfo,
more commonly known as MapInfo since its founding
in 1986. MapInfo was recently acquired by Pitney
Bowes in March of 2007 for $408 million in cash, and
is now known as Pitney Bowes MapInfo Corporation
(, 2009; Pitney Bowes, 2007). Though
there is a significant revenue difference among the top
GIS industry leaders, a closer look at ESRI will help
illustrate the ways that public resources, longevity, and
strategic partnerships have led to a series of alliances
among corporate “frenemies.”
ESRI was incorporated by Jack and Laura
Dangermond. Their first commercial product was
Arc/Info, developed and released in 1981. Shortly
thereafter, they landed their first significant project –
a $10 million contract from the United States Defense
Mapping Agency (DMA) to build the Digital Chart
of the World (ESRI Retail, 2009). Within seven years,
ESRI was billing $170 million dollars on projects
for Mobil Oil, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
and various federal, state and local government
agencies. ESRI now provides more than GIS maps
and products, which are best known to corporate and
academic researchers rather than everyday consumers,
One of its many lines of business is providing
intelligence and market analysis for products and
services, for customers that include the Central
Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland
Security and a host of federal agencies and transnational
corporations. What is significant about ESRIs growth
is its ability to mine public (government) databases
and load them into proprietary technology systems
to which corporations and large institutions like
universities subscribe. Business and government
data are mined and then repackaged as “business
intelligence,” interpreted and sold to the very
companies and government agencies from which
the data is mined. In an ESRI white paper, “2009
Methodology Statement: ESRI Data—Retail
Marketplace” (ESRI Retail, 2009), ESRI discusses a
database that provides information about supply and
demand in the Food Services & Drinking Places retail
market. This database has been developed with North
American Industry Classification Systems (NAICS)
data, and is the largest database of establishments
drawn upon from many companies beyond the GIS
industry. ESRI clients are able to merge this data with
information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the
Census Retail Trade and the Census Bureau’s Nonemployer Statistics. ESRI calculates consumer demand
based on spending data and consumption estimates
from over 700 various products and services, which
can be analyzed spatially in worldwide manufacturing
and distribution patterns.
Expensive software development requires a level of
ubiquitous adoption across large enterprises like federal,
state and local governments and agencies in order to
be profitable and sustainable. An ESRI Unlimited
Program enterprise-wide license for a university in the
United States is priced by quote, and often difficult to
openly identify, but individual licenses vary and begin
around $160 per user depending on the enterprise
(Indiana pricing, 2010). Transnational corporations
need common knowledge management infrastructure
to do business transactions across borders and within
their complex organizations, as global positioning
systems are fueling Wall Street, ATM machines and
complex global commerce systems of shipping and
receiving. In March of 2010, the federal government
of the United States committed $8 billion dollars to
GPS satellite upgrades to make these spatial analysis
tools even more precise and effective for business and
consumer use (Hennigan, 2010).
With all this data, ESRI has developed a proprietary
methodology to interpret the data for middle managers
and policymakers using a “Leakage/Surplus model”
that calculates “the balance of supply and demand”
(ESRI Business, 2009) They claim that this level of
data mining and interpretation allows their clients to
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GIS: Commercialization of Public Information
see how consumers are spending their money, and on
what items or services, so that companies can control
the flow of product into the marketplace. Consistent
with Goss’ (1995) assertion, companies are increasingly
spending money on information that they believe
predicts consumer behavior “objectively,” despite
the highly subjective behavior of human beings who
make choices for a variety of reasons. The use of this
information furthers the interests of global companies
with access to business intelligence. GIS industry
leaders like ESRI have become powerful information
commodity brokers and incredibly wealthy in the
process. ESRI provides forecasting across several
industries, including harvesting information from
more than 12 million U.S. businesses, in databases
and reports compiled by infoUSA (ESRI, 2009). The
primary industries reliant upon this kind of business
intelligence and data analysis include banking &
finance, education, government, insurance, law
enforcement, media, natural resource managers
(mining, forestry), petroleum (oil), real estate, retail
service sectors, telecommunications, transportation
and utilities companies and municipalities. It delivers
its content through its leading product, ArcGIS,
which is part of the way in which ESRI controls more
than one-third of the global GIS market.
Rank Company Name Annual Earnings
(GIS business only)
GE Energy/
Key Industries
Banking & Financial
Emergency Services
Homeland Security
Law Enforcement
Natural Resources
Real Estate
(Architectural, Engineering &
General Building
Hazardous Waste
Natural Resources
Real Estate
Service Bureaus
Marine & Offshore
Metals & Mining
Nuclear & Power Generation
Public Safety
Table 1: Top Five Geospatial
Worldwide Companies
Revenue and Specializations (2008)
Datasource: Daratch, Inc.: Bentley May 2009
Annual Report, Autodesk Annual Report
Goss’ (1995) idea that “the corporate community
is eager to purchase [GDIS] because of the capacity
to monitor, model and control consumer behavior,
and ultimately because it promises the capability to
manipulate the market and consumer identity to
enhance profitability” (Goss: pg. 131) is a useful lens
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Safiya Umoja Noble
for looking at ESRI. Its client base of Fortune 500
corporations and governments is astounding, and its
communications are illustrative of the ways that ESRI
is helping its client base “enhance profitability.” In the
ArcGIS Content Product Manager’s presentation at the
ESRI Business GIS Summit, Christophe Charpentier
gave a forecast for ESRI’s largest global GIS clients:
Wal-Mart (the world’s largest retailer), Carrefour (the
world’s second largest retailer), Starbucks (world’s #1
specialty coffee retailer), Citigroup (one of the largest
global financial services companies), HSBC (one of
the world’s largest banks by assets) and Allianz (one
of the world’s biggest insurers). ESRI presentations
quote senior company executives talking about
their desires to expand and consolidate their market
presence internationally. And, ESRI is there to provide
the information to facilitate these global financial
transactions, mergers and acquisitions—particularly
in “emerging and developing markets” like Brazil,
India, Africa, Central America, Indonesia, Poland,
Russia, Egypt and China (ESRI, 2009).
According to their company communications,
ESRI’s client roster includes, “more than 300,000
organizations worldwide including each of the 200
largest cities in the United States, most national
governments, more than two-thirds of Fortune
500 companies, and more than 7,000 colleges and
universities” (ESRI, 2011). ESRI applications, running
on more than one million desktops and thousands of
Web and enterprise servers, provide the backbone
mapping and spatial analysis” (, 2007).
Part of ESRI’s business strategy is to be “cost effective”
by 1) acquiring existing content through previously
described methods of data mining public and private
databases of information and 2) leveraging public
content, such as information that can be derived from
large datasets of consumer behavior.
In this way, ESRI further consolidates its
industry leadership by using data that is generated or
subsidized in the public domain. ESRI has a series of
focus areas including: A/E/C (Architect, Engineering,
Construction), Business, Defense and Intelligence,
Education, Government, Health and Human Services,
Natural Resources, Public Safety, Transportation and
Utilities and Communication (ESRI Industries, 2011).
Because ESRI is the largest company within the GIS
industry, it’s important to see that their dominance is
reinforced by their development of a comprehensive
knowledge base consisting of personnel, web tools,
research, training services and software service for
a host of projects, from human genome projects to
Smart Grid technology. Much of this is heavily funded
by the federal government with a recent infusion of
cash from the American Recovery and Reinvestment
Act of 2009 (also known as the Stimulus Bill). ESRI
reports in its corporate communications:
“ESRI has aligned its GIS
products with other core information
system technologies, thereby bringing
asset management to a whole new
level,” says Bill Meehan, ESRI’s utility
industry manager. “The system of the
twenty-first century has the capability
to produce modeling for risk
management, customer analytics and
behavior analysis, and work processes.
Integration scenarios go far beyond
traditional asset management. They
also include real estate, environmental
health and safety, project networks,
[customer relationship management]
and call center advancements, and
more. By working with GridWise
partners, we hope to revolutionize the
way power companies do business,
a way that best optimizes the use of
power resource and delivery systems”
(, 2007).
According to SmartGrid News (Gridwise,
2009), the Department of Energy will distribute
$3.375 billion dollars in grants toward Smart
grid technologies and another $615 million for
“demonstration” projects as part of the Stimulus Bill.
At the forefront of the lobbying effort for access to the
$4 billion is the Gridwise Alliance, a consortium of
over 75 companies and municipal governments that
are seeking grants from the government. GridWise
Alliance leadership includes executives from IBM,
Google, BAE Systems, and GE Energy T&D, to name
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GIS: Commercialization of Public Information
a few. Many companies participating in the Alliance
provide services to companies that include Goodyear
and Wachovia, not including the aforementioned
ESRI client base. Its leaders have been key advisors
to the Federal Government in such capacities as
a member of the Energy and Transportation Task
Force of the President’s Council on Sustainability in
1996, as an expert witness on renewable energy for
the House Committee on Science, as an advisor to
Vice President Dick Cheney’s Task Force on energy,
and as a Campaign Director and Chief of Staff for
a U.S. Congressman. These leaders have intersecting
personal and professional relationships with legislators
by nature of their past job appointments. Almost
every member of the GridWise Alliance’s executive
leadership team has worked directly in lobbying the
federal government for energy resources, and each
of their current companies are heavily vested in the
GridWise Alliance. Notably, in December 2007, ESRI
joined the GridWise Alliance and as was reported on
the web, it was “to support developing technologies
for the nation’s energy system” (, 2007).
ESRI is not only poised to be the key GIS service
provider to winning grantees in the SmartGrid
funding from the Stimulus Bill, but it also stands to
gain as the vendor of choice in GIS mapping projects
that will be funded by the $7.2 billion broadband
portion of the Stimulus Bill. In August, 2007, ESRI
debuted a Telecom Mapping and Analysis Package
(TMAP) that is positioned to be the market leader
for municipalities and state governments looking
for mapping solutions that can help analyze gaps
in broadband access (GPSWorld, 2009). As ESRI
continues to become the ubiquitous GIS software
provider, it has also entered into a series of new
global partnerships with a cast of dominant industry
players, including Microsoft (ESRI Partners, 2009),
IBM (DirectionsMag, 2009), AT&T, BAE Systems,
National Geographic, NAVTEQ, Novell, Oracle,
SAP and SAS, to name a few. According to the ESRI
Corporate Alliance information (ESRI Partners,
2009), ESRI’s partnerships with other technology
leaders are to provide business intelligence in a variety
of forms. The business of information in today’s GIS
software industry is the business of intelligence. This
intelligence is designed to bring together discrete and
often disparate bits of information into reporting and
measurement tools that companies use for a variety
of purposes. The buying and selling of information
is a business unto itself, which is being fueled by the
GIS software industry. According to an October 2003
story in Directions Magazine, “The demand for these
systems is expected to increase as the marketplace
grows to more than $60 billion by 2005, quadrupling
the current opportunity. IBM and ESRI will take
advantage of this growth as both companies jointly
market the industry’s first enterprise-wide GIS
solution. Initial target industries include government
and telecommunications” (DirectionsMag, 2009). In
ESRI’s partnership with IBM, a focus on enterprisesolutions with the IBM’s hardware and consulting
services further entrenches ESRI as the provider-ofchoice among the Federal government and Fortune
500 companies that use IBM products.
There is the GIS technology business, and there is
also the business of the technology. The GIS industry
leaders have been able to create interoperability and
consistent standards in the technology, which is part
of their “co-opetition.” Many industries reach a point
of maturity where standards are implemented and
regulated as a way of ensuring that technologies can
both stabilize and proliferate. Larger companies have
been accused of undermining open source projects by
promoting these software applications as unstable or
unsustainable (Gaudeul, 2007) or reward open source
producers that utilize their platforms and standards
(Mustonen, 2005, 2003). By contrast, smaller opensource mapping companies like uDig, Quantum
GIS, and GRASS GIS have been surfacing as projects
created by research labs and government projects.
The open source software developers producing
GIS software find their commercial viability in
consulting (in the form of technical support) and
licensing and are attempting to contribute to GIS
software systems that are free or nearly free. Like
other computer programming areas, standardization
of languages and technologies is determined by the
larger industry players. Open-source GIS software
developers are contributing open source GIS code so
that anyone can use GIS technology without having
to buy proprietary software like ESRI or Autodesk.
But these companies do not have the kind of financial
Human Geography
Safiya Umoja Noble
resources to proliferate their technologies among
large corporations, governments and educational
institutions and still have to make their software
compatible with the industry software languages. The
lack of capital makes it near impossible for them to
compete with or displace the GIS industry leaders in
the commercial or consumer arena.
GIS Friends and Enemies
Any one of the industry leaders could be examined
more closely to illustrate the political economic
dynamics of GIS software industry. Consolidated
partnerships allow one team of companies to beat
another – yet all of them edge out any competition or
possibilities for participation by newcomers and small,
open-source players. There are no polar opposites,
but rather a network of “frenemies” (a partnership of
friends and enemies and who can be both a partner
and a competitor at the same time). This dynamic
can also be described as “co-opetition,” a new term
that describes how companies that are typically
competitors divide opportunities among themselves
and cooperate to consolidate or share resources where
it will be advantageous to both, while still competing
with each other in other aspects of business. Businesses
like IBM promote this “cooperative competition” idea
as a necessary element of the networked economy.
Julie Bowser, IBM executive, writes:
In the past, people saw business as a
“winner takes all” or “zero-sum” game.
The networked economy moves away
from these purely competitive plays to
recognise co-operative relationships
that leverage value created by those
in the network. Competition -- the
other aspect of co-opetition -- occurs
after businesses have created value in
the market and seek to allocate market
share, price, cost and other finite
benefits (Bowser, 2009).
Previously mentioned is the powerful ESRIIBM partnership that positions ESRI to maintain
its dominance as the commercial enterprise-wide
GIS software technology. The number two and
three players in the GIS industry are Bentley and
Autodesk. In the May 2009 Annual Report from
Bentley, the company announced its “groundbreaking
agreement” to create interoperability between the two
companies’ (Bently and Autodesk) software libraries.
By doing this, it is their hope that in the Architectural,
Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry users
of either Bentley or Autodesk software will be able
to use software in a variety of configurations that
will be compatible with each other. This is another
move toward consolidation of technology solutions
in the GIS industry. Bentley’s Annual Report says
that over $16 billion dollars are wasted “due to
inadequate AEC software interoperability.” Further
consolidation of geospatial software solutions among
the industry giants is an expression of how resources
are being accumulated and used to dominate system
requirements and solutions.
GE Energy’s Geospatial group entered a
partnership with Oracle in 2007 in an effort to
expand business intelligence solutions. Oracle is a
leading systems integration company. Oracle’s current
spatial technology will move to the forefront in this
partnership, and GE will begin to migrate away
from its current Smallworld software. This vertical
integration of services is a critical point to note in the
development of market position for the infrastructure,
hardware and software that support its GIS business.
One industry reporter captured it this way:
“GE Energy is in a unique position
with utility customers. The company
not only supplies the geospatial
software, but other hardware and
systems as well, including electrical
transformers, billing and metering.
GE Energy controls a hardware and
consulting relationship with customers
that might be characterized as
monopolistic as well as opportunistic.
Supply customers with transformers
and throw in the network management
piece as well. GE Energy’s area of
expertise is electrical distribution
and the company can develop end-
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GIS: Commercialization of Public Information
to-end solutions that would make it
impossible for others to compete in
that space” (Francica, 2007)1.”
What is most important in this new alliance is that
GE Energy and Oracle stand to displace “middlemen”
like ESRI and Intergraph, who are software solution
providers. With Oracle as a leading IT infrastructure
solution, GE Energy can dominate in a number of
utility, energy, transportation and AEC industries that
already use Oracle. GE also has significant reach and
partnerships with global corporations, which Oracle
intends to use to further compete with Microsoft as the
IT platform of choice. Continued attention on these
industry shifts, particularly the market leader, ESRI,
will be important in future research about how these
GIS multinationals are using of public information
resources as sites of increasing profit.
The GIS industry was spawned by government
and military projects and the political and economic
interests that are being cultivated through contracts
and lobbying organizations. The industry has also
consolidated itself around 5-10 key players with annual
revenues in GIS software at $100 million dollars or
more. This consolidation is generating unprecedented
commercial growth. In this article, I have argued
three main points. First, GIS technologies are being
positioned as both a resource and a commodity.
These resources are increasingly enclosing the public
domain of information resource and moving into the
hands of a few companies who buy and sell GIS data
for significant private profit. Second, the public is
contributing resources and labor to the accumulation
strategies of the largest GIS companies by allowing the
move of public assets to private companies. This is also
happening through the utilization of free and nearlyfree mapping tools that allow large companies to data
mine and sell intelligence about web-based activities,
often without the knowledge of users. Future research
can include a closer examination of how GIS software
companies are using consumer labor to populate their
databases and provide more market intelligence that
can be packaged and sold to advertisers, governments
and a host of clients. This distinction between
labor and leisure in online behavior, and for whose
commercial benefit, is an interesting question.
Research questions can also include a look at the types
of hardware and devices that are being used in the
GIS industry and how GIS software companies are
entering strategic vertical alliances with hardware and
telecommunications companies. More importantly,
the tensions between GIS information as a resource
for the public and GIS information commodification
needs further exploration.
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Volume 4, Number 3, 2011