University of Redlands faculty and students are using digital spatial technology to explore the past and present—and help shape the future. The fields of geography and map-making have been transformed by the computer-assisted approach to collecting, layering, analyzing, visualizing, and displaying data through geographic information systems (GIS). Now often referred to as “spatial studies,” the high-tech discipline creates precise, three-dimensional representations of the world for goals that range from saving the environment to reducing crime.
Data for GIS modeling is collected via satellites, drones (Redlands has four)—and even mobile phones.
“With their smartphones, people can actually contribute to understanding global warming by documenting when the birds show up in their backyards or when the buds appear on the plants in their yards,” says Steven Moore, director of the University’s Center for Spatial Studies.
GIS is also used to understand other environmental issues, such as watershed management, earthquake danger, sustainable power sources, and wetlands preservation. For example, under a congressionally funded restoration initiative, members of the U of R community have spearheaded many years of data collection and analysis of the shrinking Salton Sea in southeastern California.
In addition, this spring Moore and U of R colleagues Dan Klooster, Nader Afzalan, David Smith, and Nathan Strout took a group of 16 students to Panama’s Mamoní Valley Preserve to begin a multi-year project using drones to map the structure of the rainforest and collect data on how much carbon is sequestered by the group’s management efforts. The project’s ultimate goal is to develop market-based conservation strategies (which harness market forces to create incentives to preserve natural habitats), so preservation doesn’t have to depend on the government or nonprofit sponsors, says Moore.
However, GIS’s power has enabled applications well beyond environmental studies to a broad swath of disciplines, including business, law enforcement, urban planning, and disaster response, to name a few.
Researchers at the U of R School of Business have harnessed GIS for research on renewable energy development (see “Renewable energy comes of age”) and emerging economies, as well as on economic predictions such as the impact of automation on employment (“Redlands in the News”).
Some municipalities, including the city of Los Angeles, have committed to leveraging the new data available from GIS. Through its Open Data initiative, the city posts extensive information online—from the locations of its museums to data pertaining to traffic patterns and crime clusters.
“One of the benefits of GIS is that it produces visualizations—maps and colorful displays that people can use to see interrelationships of data sets,” Moore says.
While Redlands offers a minor in spatial studies and two master’s programs in GIS, Moore and his colleagues work to infuse spatial teaching and learning throughout the curriculum.
“In an age where everything has a spatial context and big spatial data is being accumulated constantly, people in government and policy fields who wish to make a difference in this world must be able to develop, interpret, and use visualizations of spatial data,” he says.
Classes in English, history, religion, and other humanities are incorporating GIS projects and story mapping, using technology from leading GIS software provider Esri, which is located in Redlands, enabling students to build multi-media presentations and set topics into geographic context. Humanities students, for example, have used GIS to illustrate religious, cultural, social, economic, and environmental forces over time.
The U of R and Esri work together to advance the field in other ways as well. Esri co-founder and CEO Jack Dangermond and his wife, Laura Dangermond, have endowed scholarships in GIS and have established the Roger Tomlinson Prize for Excellence in GIS at the University.
By uncovering information, revealing patterns, and correcting mistaken assumptions, GIS can empower people and organizations to make smarter decisions, says Moore.
“It’s the right tool at the right time to address the problems our planet is facing,” he says. “We have the ability to make good choices. That’s what I find exciting about it—it’s all wrapped in there. We have the technology to do it. We just have to have the will.”