For ten years, a course led by PUL and OIT explores the connection between geographic data and public policy

For ten years, Tsering Wangyal Shawa, Geographic Information Systems and Map Librarian, and Bill Guthe, Senior GIS Visualization Analyst, have co-taught a course on geographic data to students in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Above, Guthe, far left, and Shawa, far right, with their students during fall 2018. Photo by Ma. Florevel Fusin-Wischusen, Princeton Institute for Computational Science and Engineering (PICSciE)


For Tsering Wangyal Shawa, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Map Librarian at Princeton University Library, and Bill Guthe, Senior GIS Visualization Analyst at Research Computing (within the Office of Information Technology), geographic data lies at the heart of public policy. From gerrymandering to health issues or crime, “almost all policy questions involve some sort of geographic data,” said Shawa. That is why, for the last ten years, he and Guthe have co-taught “GIS for Public Policy” to graduate students in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs

A six-week course designed as a practical introduction to computer mapping, “GIS for Public Policy” introduces students to all aspects of geographic data through a policy lens with Shawa and Guthe closely guiding students through a project related to a policy issue of their choice. Beginning with data collection (and cleaning, if needed) and ending with data analysis and visualization, the students see the project through completion, utilizing the data to recommend a policy outcome. In the past, projects have included recommendations on how Michigan could redraw its district lines, the availability of voting booths in Kenya, and the number of health care facilities in Punjabi, India.

“Our goal with this particular class,” Shawa said, “is [for students] to understand the nature of geographic data itself and how you can analyze [it], how you collect [it], how you integrate [it], and then also [to try] to formulate the policy outcome of your analysis.”  

Noah Koerper and Matej Jungwirth

Noah Koerper and Matej Jungwirth, Wilson School graduate students, were enrolled in 'GIS for Public Policy' this past fall. Photo by Ma. Florevel Fusin-Wischusen, Princeton Institute for Computational Science and Engineering (PICSciE)

Ultimately, according to Shawa, the course helps students become “spatially literate,” which in the end makes them better decision makers as future policymakers and/or analysts. “They have to be critical in thinking,” he said. “The policymaker has to deal with a lot of data. . . but they may not be familiar in geographic data.”  

The course aims to show students the different possibilities of using geographic data in public policy, including its limitations. For instance, Guthe noted, students should never accept maps at face value as maps can and historically have been used as political propaganda. To understand the right questions and analyze their decisions, they must understand the background and creation of the map. 

In terms of limitations, Shawa also added, “The importance of making data publicly available, we’re trying to inject [that idea] slowly, so that they understand these important things can have a big policy implication. So, we’re hoping that students who graduate from our class who will become policy makers and managers, when they have to make a decision, they will think about these issues, the impact [in not sharing data publicly].” 

“The Library and OIT. . .are becoming much more integrated together in terms of how we support students and faculty. That’s really exciting to me,” Guthe said. Outside of the classroom, Shawa and Guthe host recurring workshops for students, faculty, and staff to learn more about collecting, organizing, and analyzing geographic data, including how to use geographic information systems. 

For more information, visit the Maps and Geospational Information Center page.

Written by Stephanie Ramírez, Library Communications Specialist and Staff Writer

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Library Communications Manager