Wilson Center Experts

Ellen M Brennan-Galvin

Fellow

Affiliation:
Chief, Population Policy Section, United Nations Population Division
Wilson Center Project(s):
"Beyond Pretty Maps: Geographic Information Technology in Urban Governance"
Term:
Sep 01, 2001
-
May 01, 2002

A history major as an undergraduate at Smith, I went on to Columbia to do graduate work in Latin American history, planning to become an academic. Receiving a dissertation fellowship from The Population Council, I went to Guadalajara, Mexico to do my fieldwork and then spent a year at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University, honing my skills in demography. As fate would have it, before finishing my dissertation, I received a job offer from the United Nations Population Division, where I have worked for the past 25 years. Over the past decade, as Chief of the Population Policy Section, I have led numerous research projects in such areas as reproductive health and rights, abortion trends and policies, HIV/AIDS, urbanization, and international migration policies. A member of the Committee on Population of the National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences, I also have been a member for the past three years of the Panel on Urban Population Dynamics at the National Research Council. In recent years, I have presented dozens of papers at conferences and professional meetings throughout the world, including a keynote address at the Australian Population Association. I also served as a member of the substantive secretariat at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, assisting in the drafting of the Programme of Action. Regarding the origins of this project, for more than two decades in my own research at the United Nations, I have studied the largest cities in the developing world, producing a well-known series of monographs entitled Population Growth and Policies in Mega-Cities. From extensive field experience in some 20 cities throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, I have seen firsthand the enormous data gaps and lack of coordination among municipal agencies and government departments, as well as the dearth of information in most large Third World cities regarding on-the-ground realities. Many local governments have no idea of the population size or rate of growth of vast areas within their jurisdiction, let alone of the needs and aspirations of millions of urban dwellers in their charge. My research over the past two decades has been somewhat unusual in that I have bridged the gap between demographers (who typically have concentrated on the global aspects of urbanization, measuring the intensity and pace of urban development, and studying migration from rural to urban areas) and urban planners, who mainly deal with the analysis of populations at the intra-urban level. In recent years, I have become extremely interested in integrating new technologies with both urban demography and planning. Over the past several years, in conjunction with work undertaken for the National Academy of Sciences' Panel on Urban Population Dynamics and the United Nations' Geographic Information Working Group, I began assembling information on urban applications of GIS technology in developing countries, largely through research on the Internet, correspondence, and personal communications with planners and researchers throughout the world. While I was initially told by many GIS experts in the United States that this was a nearly impossible task, since there was little documentation of what was occurring in large Third World cities, what I have found is an extraordinary world of innovation and highly diverse applications of GIS technology-often in the face of considerable odds-that is changing and expanding at breathtaking speed. Beyond the immense value that GIS technology can bring to urban planning and management in increasingly diverse, rapidly changing metropolises throughout the world, I also see it as an interesting way of beginning to integrate what has been an extremely fragmented discipline. From years of working in the field of "urban," it is clear that demographers, architects/planners, geographers, regional scientists, political scientists, economists, and sociologists each have tackled this complex field from a very narrow disciplinary perspective. As one Chinese scholar put it, it is as if researchers have been "looking at the sky from the bottom of the well"-and the wells have been decreasing in diameter and increasing in number. GIS offers at least the opportunity to approach the "urban" issue in a much more holistic way.


Expertise

Population trends and policies; urbanization; urban environmental issues; international migration; reproductive health

Project Summary

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology is becoming a powerful and flexible tool in meeting long-term strategic planning and management challenges and in performing the diverse functions of local government throughout the world. Many recent Geographic Information Systems can process data from a wide range of sources, including data obtained from maps, images of the earth obtained from space satellites, videos of the earth taken from low-flying aircraft, statistical data from published tables, and data obtained from archives by electronic transmission over the Internet and other networks-enabling vast urban areas to be described and monitored in a much more accurate and timely fashion than ever has been possible. Despite the fact that GIS technology is already revolutionizing the way governments and other organizations (such as public utilities) manage operations, knowledge about GIS applications in large Third World cities is very fragmentary. Much of what has been known until recently about local applications has been held in a proprietary manner by consultants or vendors. This project aims to compile an in-depth study of the advantages and pitfalls of GIS applications in urban planning and management in some of the largest cities in the developing world.

Major Publications

  • Population, Urbanization, Environment and Security: A Summary of the Issues. Environmental Change and Security Project Report, Issue 5, Summer 1999, Washington, D.C.: The Woodrow Wilson Center.

  • The Poverty of Cities in Developing Regions. (with Martin Brockerhoff), Population and Development Review, Vol. 24, No. 1, March 1998.

  • Series on Population Growth and Policies in Mega-Cities. New York: United Nations: São Paulo (1993); Mexico City (1991); Cairo (1990); Jakarta (1989); Karachi (1988); Madras (1987); Bangkok (1987); Dhaka (1987); Delhi (1986); Bombay (1986); Manila (1986); Seoul (1986); Calcutta (1986).

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