This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

UB awarded $3.8 million to train geographic information scientists for the 21st century

Published: December 11, 2003

Contributing Editor

The National Science Foundation has selected UB's National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) to receive a highly competitive, five-year, $3.8 million grant to fund a multidisciplinary, graduate-level training program in geographic information science.


Footage of a snow squall filmed during a one-hour period in Buffalo on Dec. 1 is part of a UB IGERT fellow's multidisciplinary research into how people experience severe weather. Click on the image to see the squall come in.

The award makes UB one of the top few universities in the nation for multidisciplinary graduate training in this rapidly growing field.

It brings to $6.3 million the total funding that NCGIA has received for graduate training programs.

Another IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education Research and Traineeship) program for $2.7 million was awarded in 2001 to UB's Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics.

The goal of NSF's IGERT programs is to immerse doctoral students in multidisciplinary environments so that when they graduate they will be able to bring strong collaborative skills to their positions in research and industry.

In 1998, NCGIA was awarded approximately $2.5 million for the first IGERT program in geographic information science.

The new funding will support about 30 new IGERT fellows, all of whom will receive a stipend of $27,500-$30,000 for two years and additional funding for two more years, as well as attendance at an international summer school in Italy and an international internship.

"The goal of this IGERT award is to educate the first generation of researchers with core expertise in geographic and spatial phenomena, as well as expertise in a traditional discipline, such as anthropology, philosophy or geology," said David Mark, professor in the Department of Geography in the College of Arts and Sciences, principal investigator on the two IGERT grants and NCGIA director.

"The result will be that five or 10 years down the road, these graduates will be able to bring the power of geographic information science techniques to the broadest array of geographic, environmental and social problems."

Geographic information science is the science behind the study of geographic phenomena in the digital age. It exploits computer technologies to address geographic and spatial phenomena, such as mapping social and environmental problems, while also seeking to understand how humans perceive geographic phenomena and are influenced by them.

Geographic information science also is the foundation for geographic information systems (GIS), the sector of the economy responsible for popular technologies ranging from global positioning systems to the basic mapping functions found on Web sites like Mapquest and others.

Because of its powerful capabilities in homeland security and counter-terrorism applications, the GIS sector, which even before Sept. 11, 2001, was experiencing double-digit growth, is now a $4.2 billion-per-year industry in the U.S., expanding at an estimated annual rate of 20 percent.

Currently, almost every student with GIS skills, even those with only a bachelor's degree, gets a job in the field; more people with advanced training are needed for positions in both education and industry.

IGERT fellows will be required to take core courses in geography and philosophy while they earn degrees from one of the participating UB departments: anthropology; computer science and engineering; civil, structural and environmental engineering; geography; geology; industrial engineering, or philosophy.

"Geographic information science is driving dramatic changes throughout society, ranging from retail companies tracking consumer habits to environmental agencies watching for contaminants to doctors tracking outbreaks of infectious diseases," said Jaylan Turkkan, vice president for research.

"This award confirms that UB is a national leader in state-of-the-art geographic information science. The students who graduate from this program are the pioneers who will be on the front lines, developing new geographic tools that will touch virtually every major sector in society."

The NSF grant also demonstrates the strong record UB researchers have had in reaching out to faculty in other disciplines and in developing with them powerful research collaborations, Mark added.

More than 60 faculty members in 20 academic departments are involved in cross-disciplinary research in geographic information science.

The new IGERT grant at NCGIA expands graduate opportunities at UB into geographic environmental science, or how environmental problems can be studied and solved using geographic information science; geographic social science, such as the geography of transportation or crime, and theories of geographic space and ways of representing them to people. Projects being pursued by geographic information science students in the first IGERT program awarded to UB clearly demonstrate the breadth and involvement of several disciplines.

For example, John Rock uses geography and philosophy to study the geographic nature of terrorism, analyzing why geographical icons, such as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, are the object of terrorist acts, rather than the acquisition of territory by force, which is the goal of traditional warfare.

"The eventual hope, beyond the scope of the current research, is to develop some form of predictive software that could help prevent or mitigate terrorist attacks," said Rock. "It could be something like a weather map that could show the likelihood of attacks on specific targets or regions. Such predictions would be based on key elements, such as ease of physical accessibility and/or escape, cultural significance of a structure, security measures and the potential victim count."

Jeff Brunskill, another IGERT fellow, is studying cognitive aspects of atmospheric phenomena, or how people experience the weather versus how it is commonly represented on weather maps and in other technical formats.

"People generally think of the geographic environment in terms of permanent features of the landscape: mountains, states, rivers," explained Brunskill, who has an undergraduate degree in meteorology. "By contrast, I look at geographic phenomena, like storms, that are large-scale dynamic phenomena, and I study how people perceive them. I'm exploring concepts to account for the fact that these things exist only for limited amounts of time, or at certain locations."

His dissertation research is among the first to explore conceptual models for how people perceive and experience geographic phenomena, like snowstorms, that have a significant temporal component. His research could have an impact ultimately on how weather forecasts are communicated to the public.

James Craig is developing computer simulations of groundwater flow and contaminant transport for large-scale systems, combining expertise in both GIS and environmental engineering. His software programs can track what happens when contaminants spill into groundwater, either as the result of industrial pollution or even a deliberate act of bioterrorism.

Craig's simulations allow scientists to pose critical questions about any large-scale groundwater system, such as identify the rivers that contribute most to the groundwater flow in a particular region. They also can predict not just where the groundwater flows, but how specific contaminants may behave in the subsurface, aspects that can affect whether they will end up in residential wells.

Wendy Miller, an IGERT fellow, is doing her dissertation on human perception of the natural environment, work that could help planners develop recreational trails and improve environmental education. To conduct her research, she asked hikers to complete a survey and draw basic maps after hiking a trail in northeastern Pennsylvania.

While her research showed that most participants created fairly accurate maps of the natural features on the hike, such as where ponds or stone walls were located, she found that many of the features identified with signs along the trail were not noted by the participants, indicating a gap between the features the park managers assumed would be of interest and those that the hikers actually noticed.

Other IGERT fellows in geographic information science have worked on geographic aspects of social, economic and environmental issues that include:

  • Demographic changes in neighborhoods and their effect on long-time residents

  • The impact of community gardens and street vendors on neighborhoods

  • How the publication of accurate maps of neighborhoods in the media can jeopardize personal privacy

  • The use of computer simulations in modeling changes in vegetation throughout and between forests.