Transforming our Economy with Science and Technology

Just released, a new summary of the current draft of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill, popularly known as the “Stimulus Package.” I’m pasting below the entire section titled “Transforming our Economy with Science and Technology.” 

We need to put scientists to work looking for the next great discovery, creating jobs in cutting-edge technologies and making smart investments that will help businesses in every community succeed in a global economy.

Broadband to Give Every Community Access to the Global Economy
Wireless and Broadband Grants: $6 billion for broadband and wireless services in underserved areas to strengthen the economy and provide business and job opportunities in every section of America with benefits to e-commerce, education, and healthcare. For every dollar invested in broadband the economy sees a ten-fold return on that investment.

Scientific Research
National Science Foundation: $3 billion, including $2 billion for expanding employment opportunities in fundamental science and engineering to meet environmental challenges and to improve global economic competitiveness, $400 million to build major research facilities that perform cutting edge science, $300 million for major research equipment shared by institutions of higher education and other scientists, $200 million to repair and modernize science and engineering research facilities at the nation’s institutions of higher education and other science labs, and $100 million is also included to improve instruction in science, math and engineering.
National Institutes of Health Biomedical Research: $2 billion, including $1.5 billion for expanding good jobs in biomedical research to study diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, and heart disease – NIH is currently able to fund less than 20% of approved applications – and $500 million to implement the repair and improvement strategic plan developed by the NIH for its campuses.
University Research Facilities: $1.5 billion for NIH to renovate university research facilities and help them compete for biomedical research grants. The National Science Foundation estimates a maintenance backlog of $3.9 billion in biological science research space. Funds are awarded competitively.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: $462 million to enable CDC to complete its Buildings and Facilities Master Plan, as well as renovations and construction needs of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Department of Energy: $1.9 billion for basic research into the physical sciences including high-energy physics, nuclear physics, and fusion energy sciences and improvements to DOE laboratories and scientific facilities. $400 million is for the Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy to support high-risk, high-payoff research into energy sources and energy efficiency.
NASA: $600 million, including $400 million to put more scientists to work doing climate change research, including Earth science research recommended by the National Academies, satellite sensors that measure solar radiation critical to understanding climate change, and a thermal infrared sensor to the Landsat Continuing Mapper necessary for water management, particularly in the western states; $150 million for research, development, and demonstration to improve aviation safety and Next Generation air traffic control (NextGen); and $50 million to repair NASA centers damaged by hurricanes and floods last year.
Biomedical Advanced Research and Development, Pandemic Flu, and Cyber Security: $900 million to prepare for a pandemic influenza, support advanced development of medical countermeasures for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats, and for cyber security protections at HHS.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Satellites and Sensors: $600 million for satellite development and acquisitions, including climate sensors and climate modeling.
National Institute of Standards and Technology: $300 million for competitive construction grants for research science buildings at colleges, universities, and other research organizations and $100 million to coordinate research efforts of laboratories and national research facilities by setting interoperability standards for manufacturing.
Agricultural Research Service: $209 million for agricultural research facilities across the country. ARS has a list of deferred maintenance work at facilities of roughly $315 million.
U.S. Geological Survey: $200 million to repair and modernize U.S.G.S. science facilities and equipment, including improvements to laboratories, earthquake monitoring systems, and computing capacity.

Volunteered Geographic Information

Over the last year, my colleague Jim Baumann and I have had numerous early morning hallway conversations about the utility of volunteered geographic information. Jim recently interviewed Prof. Michael Goodchild about volunteered geographic information, and the interview is definitely worth reading.

So what exactly is volunteered geographic information? Goodchild gives a good example in the interview: “Names that are not officially recognized, such as ‘downtown Santa Barbara,’ and names that are meaningful to local communities, such as ‘the Riviera’ [the hilly area of Santa Barbara north of downtown], do not appear in any gazetteer. …[P]lace-names are one of the most successful forms of volunteered geographic information, and people are clearly willing to spend time providing them to Web sites. Volunteered gazetteers can provide much richer descriptive information than before; allow features to have multiple names; and include names for the smallest, least significant features.”

Goodchild points out that accuracy of volunteered geographic information, as with all types of user-generated content, is an issue. But he is more concerned about the challenges of preservation. “National mapping agencies can devote significant resources to preserving place-names, ensuring that future generations have access to today’s data, but no such mechanisms exist for volunteered geographic information.”

Those interesting in finding out how they might participate by volunteering some geographic information should check out the resources on the web site.

Is There a Place for Georeferenced User-Generated Content in Science?

Being surprised by an earthquake in Southern California is like being surprised that the sun rose. But surprised I was by the earthquake we experienced last night. Although it was “just” a 4.5 (downgraded from the originally reported 5.0) magnitude quake, and the duration was fairly short (at least where I was), the epicenter was just a few miles away. So it was a good shaker.

After the shaking stopped, I did what I usually do: surfed over to the USGS-Caltech Recent Earthquakes web mapping site.  Within a couple minutes, the earthquake had shown up on the map, which is always useful for getting an instant visual answer to the question “was that shaking a 3.0 underneath my house, or a 7.0 in downtown Los Angeles…?”


“Did you feel it?” Yes I did.

The other interesting feature of this web site is “Did you feel it?”, which collects information from people about the intensity of the quake across the region. This got me thinking again about the benefits and pitfalls of user-generated content. Of course one of the game-changing aspects of the web is that it gives people a mechanism to share information more easily, and there has certainly been an explosion of georeferenced user-generated content in recent years. But can this type of information serve any type of useful scientific purpose?

One of my personal experiences with georeferenced user-generated content has been using Panoramio to post photographs. I like to think I’m a pretty spatially-savvy person, as are the majority people who read this blog. When we go out and do something in the real world, we are the types of people who can usually go back to our desks, bring up a satellite image, and track where we went with near-GPS accuracy. So when I started posting georeferenced photos on Panoramio, I took it seriously. Accuracy was important. One of the first things I noticed was that there was a lot of garbage there—and I’m not talking about the crummy photos, I’m talking about photos placed in the wrong geographic location. Part of this can be attributed to scale: where I would zoom in to a section a Death Valley National Park and try to pinpoint the exact location where a specific photo was taken, it seemed like others were looking at the map at a very different scale, possibly just clicking somewhere within the little polygon that said “Death Valley National Park” to place their photo.

Over time, I started to get emails about the photos I posted on the site. No offers to pay me $5,000 to photograph a wedding, although I did get a couple “nice photo!” comments. But the majority of the comments were questioning my geographic literacy, and frankly were just plain wrong. For a while I took each question seriously enough to re-look at the placement of the photo on the map (I’m a geographer! This is my job!), but didn’t find any errors and after a while just gave up on the whole thing.

I read something recently that stated that all forms of participatory interactivity on the web were doomed, that over time all the idiots and haters raise their profile and become so active that the people using these outlets for positive purposes abandon ship because it’s too much effort to sift through all the crap. That’s a pretty pessimistic view, but I’ve seen this happen on some discussion forums and blogs, MySpace, etc. (what’s next, Twitter, FaceBook, … ?). And I stopped using Panoramio because I was sick of geographically-illiterate people telling me I didn’t know how to identify a location on a map. Sorry.

So what does my experience with Panoramio have to do with last night’s shaker and the USGS-Caltech Recent Earthquakes web mapping app?  I think the creators of the USGS-Caltech app have figured out a way to collect user-generated content in a manner that is potentially useful for scientific purposes.

First, the georeferencing: the application doesn’t ask you to identify your location on the map, like Panoramio does. It asks you for your ZIP Code. You could question the utility of collecting geographic location in this way—for example, the shape of and area covered by individual ZIP Code polygons varies quite a bit; a single ZIP Code polygon can overlay a number of different geological features which could affect the intensity of earthquake propagation in different ways—but at least it’s a consistent and accurate way of collecting location data.

Now perhaps the most interesting part: collecting information on the intensity of the earthquake. The way the user-generated data about earthquake intensity is presented back to web surfers is an average intensity (in numeric form, and also color-coded) for each ZIP Code polygon. But when I fill out the form about my personal experience, it doesn’t ask me to “rate the intensity of the earthquake on a scale of one to five” (which would be very subjective, depending on how sensitive I am, or for example whether I was driving on the freeway or sitting in my house when it happened). It instead walks me through a more objective, structured series of questions spanning six screens. I’ve included some examples below.



On the back end, the app determines how “intense” my experience was as an aggregate of my responses to individual questions. The web-based map is an interesting and useful service, but even more interesting to me is that the answers to the individual questions also form a very useful data set for further scientific analysis.

So back to the original question: Is there a place for georeferenced user-generated content in scientific applications? The potential certainly is there. The key to getting useful data is collecting that data in a structured way, and the USGS-Caltech Recent Earthquakes application serves as an interesting example of one way to do this.

Geospatial Technology and the Citizen Scientist

“The purpose of the GIS and Science blog is to provide news, resources, commentary, and interviews on the use of GIS technology by the scientific community and for scientific applications.” When I originally wrote that, it was very carefully worded for a reason: scientists are not the only people doing science.

There are a lot of different ways to slice and dice the demographic makeup of the GIS and Science blog audience. Here’s one:

• Scientists: People doing science as a full-time job.
• Professionals Doing Science: Science is not their job, but it’s a component of their job.
• Citizen Scientists: People who have an interest in strong interest in science, but it’s not part of their job.

Looking at the citizen scientist in particular, words that come to mind are hobby; entertainment; volunteer; and amateur. The word “amateur” should really be taken with a grain of salt: citizen scientists can and do make important contributions to various fields of study.

Some citizen scientists work just fine all alone. These self-directed types might very well be in their garages developing “the next big thing.” But more often they are networked, working together with fellow citizen scientists. And this is where they become a powerful force to be taken seriously within the scientific community. Scientists, and “professionals doing science,” often are the ones organizing these networks; they realize the great value a group of eager volunteers can bring to a project.

A good, although somewhat controversial (depending on your belief in intelligent extraterrestrial life) example of a mass of volunteers carefully organized to work on an overwhelmingly humongous project is SETI@home.  As a volunteer, you download some software that utilizes the “idle time” on your home computer to scan through reams of radio telescope data and search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. If nothing else, it has served as a model for bringing large numbers of volunteers (more than five million participants worldwide) together to work collectively on a massive task.

Closer to home, CPDN and APS@home are two distributed computing projects with an earth science spin. CPDN is investigating how small changes affect climate models. APS@home is looking at atmospheric components of climate change. Although public participation in both CPDN and APS@home is not nearly at the same scale as SET@home, the potential is certainly there.

Is there an opportunity for the citizen scientist to leverage geospatial technologies in their quest for knowledge, entertainment, and contributing to society? Absolutely. With the relatively recent arrival of powerful (and free!) geospatial visualization tools such as Google Earth, ArcGIS Explorer, and NASA World Wind, it’s easier than ever for the citizen scientist to have some fun with maps while making a potentially important scientific contribution.

Amassing large numbers of volunteers to work on geospatial problems such as climate change is already taking place as shown by the CPDN and APS@home examples. What is needed next is something at a much larger scale, where not just physical, but also biological, social, cultural, economic, and political data and models are integrated to give a more accurate depiction of the complexities inherent in the anthropogenic Earth.

First we need to create an environment that successfully brings together a plethora of data sources and modeling systems—a noble vision for GIS, but not something to be tackled by citizen scientists. Once the data and technology is in place, and a clear framework is established, then comes the opportunity to organize a large group of volunteers who would do the “grunt work” of tackling one of the biggest challenges facing us.

Imagine a framework where tens or even hundreds of thousands of citizen scientists log in to a web site and download geospatial data sets and work task lists, then using a focused desktop geospatial application they also downloaded, they run different analysis and modeling scenarios as defined in the task list…then upload the results of their analysis back to the main data repository.

If properly structured and managed, such a project could significantly advance our understanding of the planet. At this scale, it would be difficult if not impossible to pull off without the participation of citizen scientists. They are out there, anxious to help… just waiting for us to create the framework.

Opportunity for Educators Who Use GIS

Teachers of grades 5–12, university instructors, and youth and community group leaders who have already integrated GIS in to their teaching can learn even more at the 2009 ESRI T3G Institute (Teachers Teaching Teachers GIS), June 14–19, 2009, in Redlands, California. Participants will work with ArcGIS software and data to improve their GIS knowledge and technical skills. Ultimately, attendees will apply what they learn back in their own classrooms or programs and show others in their field how to teach using GIS concepts.

The analytic problem solving done with GIS is very similar to the scientific method taught across science labs. “Students using GIS study real-world phenomena in the same way as a practicing scientist, in a problem-solving environment, from a local to global scale,” says to Dr. Joseph Kerski, Curriculum Manager at ESRI. “This multi-scale approach includes the local–such as studying tree species on a school campus, to the global–like the relationship of climate and ocean currents, and everything in between.”

The Science Classroom and GIS
A national study found that science teachers use GIS in their classrooms more than teachers from any other subject. This may be because science teachers have had more exposure to inquiry-based and problem-solving methods in their own educational training, because they have greater access to computers, probes, and other technological tools, and because they are more familiar with using data to drive instruction.

GIS has a natural intersection with science content standards, which are the benchmarks that help educators to know what a student understands and is able to do at each grade level. These standards include science as inquiry, involving asking scientific questions, gathering scientific data, analyzing that data, solving a problem, and asking new or revised questions.

Other standards where GIS has a natural fit is physical science (motions and forces), life science (studying biomes, tracking animal movements), Earth and space (energy, the shape of the Earth), science and technology, and science in personal and social perspectives (population, resources, environmental quality, and natural hazards). Science teachers using GIS most commonly include those teaching chemistry, earth science, and environmental studies, but also includes physics and biology teachers. In addition, professors in university Colleges of Education use GIS to teach future K-12 teachers in their methods courses.

More About the Institute
The 2009 institute will include hands-on exercises; best practices discussions; and presentations about the latest geospatial trends in GIS, Web mapping, and GPS. The institute activities will be led by nationally known geospatial technology educators, and a limit of 30 participants will allow for individual assistance.

Participants will leave the institute with a more proficient understanding of how to incorporate GIS into their teaching, find and use GIS-based lessons and public domain datasets, and train other educators on how to teach GIS. Following the institute, participants are expected to apply what they have learned by creating a GIS lesson to share on the Web; leading a hands-on GIS training event; and presenting at a conference the outcomes of their work such as GIS lessons, results of a class or group project, or a pedagogical approach to teaching youth or adults.

Additional information and an application for the institute are available at Applications are due by January 15, 2009, and acceptance will be announced in February 2009.