Prof. Dawn Wright Discusses the National Research Council Report “Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences”

I recently interviewed Dawn Wright, professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University, who served on the National Research Council’s Committee on Strategic Direction for the Geographic Sciences in the Next Decade.   The Committee produced the report “Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences“, which identifies the need to leverage technological change for the benefit of society and environment.

Matt Artz: How did you first get involved with the Committee on Strategic Direction for the Geographic Sciences in the Next Decade?

Dawn Wright: There is a great article in the fall issue of ArcNews by Keith Clarke of University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) that explains the whole National Academy of Sciences (NAS) process very nicely.  As with other committee members, I was contacted by the NAS to see if I would be willing to serve on the committee. Committee members are nominated by the scientific community based on their expertise, experience, and expected ability to contribute to the completion of the statement of task. And then willing nominees are reviewed and approved at several levels within the NAS, including at several times for conflict of interest. The NAS seeks committee members with a broad range of expertise and perspectives so that points of view are reasonably balanced and the committee can thus carry out its charge in an objective and credible way. I was very honored to have been asked to bring my physical geography and GIScience expertise to bear along with the other committee members, whose expertise ranged from cultural and political geography, to satellite remote sensing education, urban geography,  global economic restructuring, feminist geography, biogeography, fluvial geomorphology, political ecology, climate change adaptation, land use change, geography of Africa, China, and more. It was a wonderful experience working with and learning from these top-notch geographers.

Artz: What the process of developing the report like?  With so many bright people on the committee, and even more consulted for input, was it a difficult process to reach a consensus and finalize the report?

Wright: It was difficult from the standpoint of having so much input to consider and sift through, but I did not find the process of reaching consensus and finalizing the report to be difficult, due to the professionalism and collegiality of the committee and the NAS staff. It was a long process to be sure and included several meetings where a large number of prominent speakers gave us a plethora of information and perspectives, the community submitted public comments over the web, and we poured into the scientific literature, including past NAS report and other materials. The committee also invited seven prominent geographers representing many parts of the geographical sciences to present their ideas on the committee’s charge at a panel session at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the AAG. We held several closed meetings where we brainstormed, deliberated, reached consensus, and continued discussions over the Internet.

Prof. Dawn Wright.

Artz: Who was the intended audience for the report, and how did you expect them to use the report?

Wright: As with other NAS reports, this one was sponsored by several agencies who thought this an opportune time to map out a direction for the geographical sciences. It’s important to keep in mind though that although agencies and organizations request and sponsor a report, they have absolutely no control over how the study is conducted once our committee charge (statement of task) and our budget are finalized. As with the prior question, we gather information from many sources and many public meetings, but also deliberate in many private meetings so as to avoid the influence of sponsors or special interest groups.

Our report was sponsored by:

  • The National Geographic Society (NGS)* is hoping to use the report to help them communicate to policymakers, business, and civic leaders what geography is and why it is important. Geographic education and public understanding of geography are particularly important to them.
  • The National Science Foundation (NSF)* sees this report as an opportunity for the geographical sciences to do some strategic planning.  They want to use the report as useful guidance and direction on how geographers, working with people in other fields, can help to answer societally relevant questions where the geographical sciences can make the most significant contributions, with appeal to both the broader geographical sciences community and the broader academic research community.  They also want to use the report to determine the best funding investments, influence contributions in other fields, and to communicate the geographical perspective, tools, and methods to other parts of NSF.
  • The US Geological Survey* would like to use the report clearly identify the role of geographical sciences in the midst of pressing interdisciplinary issues, particularly given the seven science areas of the USGS’ new Science Strategy (ecosystems, water census, hazards and risk assessment, energy and minerals, climate, environment and human health, and new methods of investigation and discovery). They would like to use the report to help the Geography Discipline at USGS modify its own strategic directions and to help address the seven science areas in their science plan. They would also like to use the report to help interface between USGS scientists and their stakeholders.
  • The Association of American Geographers (AAG) would like to use the report to document the advances of geographical sciences in the last ten years in order to provide ammunition when they are asked to help identify what geography does. At the same time they want to use the report as a roadmap (pardon the pun) to the future, using the important issues identified in the report to increase the recently-renewed interest in geography nationwide, and worldwide. For example, Professor Carol Harden of the University of Tennessee, while president of the AAG at the time the report came out wrote to the AAG membership: “This report is intended for geographers, and also for policymakers, journalists, scholars and citizens beyond geography. I would add deans, provosts, parents, students, and employers to the list.”

We are indeed trying to get these into the hands of department chairs and graduate students in geography and allied disciplines who will be proposing and doing the next big research projects in the geographical sciences. This report is strategic for them in that it provides some tractable research questions where using the geographical perspective in answering the questions will bring the most effective and powerful solutions. In other words, many of the questions in the report will make great dissertation topics! For industry, I think this is important as well because their research groups or “think tanks” can use the report in the same way.

Artz: The need to better understand and respond to environmental change is a big theme in the report.  Are there some simple, practical things the geospatial community can do in the short term to move this agenda forward?

Wright: I think in the short term just knowing about the report and getting it in the hands of people is one big way. Obtain the entire report. You can read it online or order your own copy. Many people also find the executive summary and “report in brief” to be more helpful. Both of these list the main research questions and are available for free. And below I mention some teaching resources in the works.

Artz: Sustainability is another big theme in the report.  Are we doing a good job getting the word out about the importance of sustainability?  Do you think the average person now understands what the word “sustainability” means?

Wright: Yes on both counts. I think we are doing a fairly good job right now about communicating what sustainability means. For example, many of our college campuses are winning awards for “sustainability” which is great to see. Students are getting involved with all manner of recycling projects and voting to use their student fees to purchase renewable energy for their campuses (and at our university, students actually generate and return electricity to the campus grid by riding specially-equipped exercise bicycles in our recreation center!). We hear more and more about green building practices, administrative policies, transportation policies, campus operations, and investment priorities that are helping us to conserve, restore, and be efficient.

But the continuing challenge will be to show the way toward achieving sustainability and to analyze and manage our lives in the face of population pressures, growing socio-economic disparities, and human-induced environmental degradation. As such many are concerned with solidifying the concept of sustainability into a sustainability science that will indeed help to show the way. So this is why so many of our strategic questions in the report are “hows:”

  • How (and where) will 10 billion people live?
  • How will we sustainably feed everyone in the coming decade and beyond?
  • How does where we live affect our health?

Artz: The report identifies the need to leverage technological change for the benefit of society and environment.  It seems to me that the geospatial community, although certainly not perfect, has already made some significant progress here.  What can advocates of other technologies learn from the geospatial community?

Wright: I think our geographical community’s willingness to work outside of our own disciplinary boxes, which seems to comes naturally to us, is a major teaching point. For instance, we are willing to work with computer scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, and policy makers. I think we have a very collegial, inclusive community with a passion for making a societal contributions, and ultimately for helping people. This includes academics who are not just concerned with publishing ultra-specialized articles that a small group of like-minded scholars will read, but publishing articles, and also decision-support tools and datasets that have a broader societal impact that can be leveraged beyond what the original research project called for. For example, a research project may identify rates of surface water discharge in a basic research project that is just trying to understand how the Earth works in that location. But a local watershed council can take those results to understand how their watershed is impacted by a municipal landfill or by various other land use practices.

Artz: What has been the impact of the report, both in general, and in the geographical sciences community?

Wright: Thus far the report appears to have garnered the biggest response from the AAG, which is excellent news. There will be a special forum issue published in the journal the Professional Geographer, where various geographers have been chosen to write reactions pieces to it. In addition, the AAG put out a call this summer for authors and developers to create a multimedia educational Web site as a companion to the report to help broaden the report’s impact. The Web site will include educational resources and teaching strategies for each of the 11 strategic directions in the report. Learn more.

The chairman of our committee, Alec Murphy of the University of Oregon, has also given a presentation about the report in China, which we’ve heard was extremely well-received. I think there are other means of outreach being planned by the NAS and the National Geographic, and we certainly appreciate Esri’s interest by way of this interview and prior to that Michael Gould’s Fall 2010 ArcUser article (http://www.esri.com/news/arcuser/1010/geochallenges.html) and your GISandScience.com blog post earlier in the year (http://bit.ly/d4uaVJ).

Sometimes it takes a while for these NRC reports to gain momentum for maximum impact, especially if the full release occurs in the summer while people are away. But given that this report is forward looking, 20 years into the future, there is plenty of time, and it looks as though there are some terrific efforts underway.

Artz: Are any plans by the Committee to periodically review the status of the strategic directions identified in the report the report?

Wright: There I would have to defer to the NRC staff who helped commission the committee and it’s work. Our committee for this report is not a long-term standing committee such as the Mapping Sciences Committee described by Keith last month.  We were convened expressly for the purpose of completing our statement of task over a short 2-year span and producing this report, and our work is finished now.  So as just a member of the committee I do not know of any plans to periodically review the strategic directions that we outlined. It has been said that the NRC committee that produced the book “Rediscovering Geography,” which came out in 1997, was a forerunner of sorts to our committee in many ways.

Dawn Wright is a professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University. She holds an M.S. in Oceanography from Texas A&M University and a Ph.D. in physical geography and marine geology from UCSB. She joined the faculty of Oregon State in 1995. Wright’s most recent research geographic information science, marine geography, benthic terrain and habitat characterization, and the processing and interpretation of high-resolution bathymetry, and ocean informatics. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is beginning her second term as a member of the Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council within the National Academy of Sciences.

Geospatial Technology Meets the Grand Challenges in Marine Science


What are the grand challenges in marine science, and how can geospatial technologies help meet those challenges?  You can read my interview with Prof. Dawn Wright in GEO:connexion International magazine here [PDF].  Because of space limitations, GEO:connexion had to do a little editing.  The (original) extended version of the interview appears below.

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Dawn Wright is professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Her research interests include geographic information science, marine geography, benthic terrain and habitat characterization, and the processing and interpretation of high-resolution bathymetry, video, and underwater photographic images.  Wright received her Ph.D. in Physical Geography and Marine Geology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

GEO:connexion International:  You are one of the world’s experts in the application of geospatial technologies in marine science.  From your perspective, have these technologies helped to make important advances in marine science?

Dawn Wright: First of all, thanks for the opportunity to comment on this important topic!  “Geospatial technologies” is a very broad term that could now include not just geographic information systems (GIS), but interactive maps both on the web and the desktop, mashups of web mapping services and associated data, location based services that exist on your phone or PDA, other types of mobile mapping apps where you are connected to the Internet but not necessarily to the web, geobrowsers for the masses, high-end scientific geovisualization systems for the scientists, and more. For brevity I’ll focus mainly on GIS and remote sensing (but where “remote sensing” may be spaceborne or airborne as is familiar to most, but also waterborne).

First, some context on the unique environment of the ocean.  Sensors on satellites and aircraft are great at seeing the surface of the ocean but generally cannot look deeply into the water column where the electromagnetic energy that they rely on is dissipated. What can be perceived of the water column and ocean floor must be done mostly with the aid of sound (acoustic remote sensing), as sound waves are transmitted both farther and faster through seawater than electromagnetic energy. In order to “see” the ocean floor for instance, sound is essential not only for determining depth to the bottom, but for detecting varying properties of the bottom.  As the speed of sound in seawater varies linearly with temperature, pressure, and salinity, the conversion of travel time to depth must take this into account. In addition, the intensity of this reflection, or backscatter, can be used to resolve the shapes of objects or the character of the bottom (e.g., heavily sedimented and thus non-reflective or glassy with fresh lava flows and thus extremely reflective).

In short, remote sensing has made it possible to collect data on features and processes in the ocean over very broad scales, and GIS has made it possible to organize and integrate these data, make maps from the data, and of course to do analysis with the data. The initial impetus for developing a marine speciality in GIS was the need to automate the production of nautical charts and to more efficiently manage the prodigious amounts of data that are now capable of being collected at sea. GIS to synergize different types of data (biological, chemical, physical, geological) collected in multiple ways from multiple instruments and platforms (ships, moorings, floats, gliders, remotely-operated vehicles, aircraft and satellites) has provided the oceanographic community and policy decision-makers with more information and insight than could obtained by considering each type of data separately. GIS in this realm has moved from solely data display to multidimensional visualization, simulation and modeling, and decision support.

GEO:connexion:   What do you see as the big challenges in marine science today?

Wright: There are many, many challenges that will be facing marine science in the coming 10 to 20 years, and we’ve recently been hearing about some of them in light of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And stay tuned for a U.S. National Academy of Sciences report coming out soon that will discuss many challenges, as well as the infrastructure that will be needed to meet them, including geospatial technologies. This is also an exciting time for us in the U.S. because, for the first time in American history, we now have a comprehensive National Ocean Policy and a National Ocean Council. It received very little media attention amidst the horror of the Gulf oil spill and other issues, but on July 19, 2010, President Obama issued an Executive Order establishing this policy (http://bit.ly/dimXi4), which is meant of course to meet many of these challenges. Implementation is a long way off, but we have the policy! At any rate, my answers here will in no way do justice to the depth and complexity of these issues, but for the sake of our brief discussion, I’d name four challenges: climate change, energy, ecosystems, and exploration.

GEO:connexion:   What does the ocean have to do with climate change?

Wright: The ocean has everything to do with climate change given that 71% of the planet is covered by the ocean, the ocean is in constant interaction with the atmosphere providing the “heat engine” that drives changes in climate. However, marine scientists are still trying to understand exactly how the ocean modulates Earth’s climate, and conversely how climate change affects ocean circulation, the distribution of heat, marine ecosystems, sea level rise, how changes in ocean temperature and CO2 concentration will affect the rate ocean acidification, etc. A huge question is how do we predict the outcomes and impact of climate change, and then adapt and mitigate accordingly?

GEO:connexion:   How can geospatial technologies make a contribution in meeting this challenge?

Wright: Perhaps the clearest way is how GIS can be used to show sea level rise scenarios and potential impacts (e.g., sites of potential flooding, coastal erosion, bluff failure, adequate presence of dikes or levees, impacts on wetlands, etc.), and to calculate how sea level rise may increase the frequency of tidal floods. Three great examples are the tools featured in NOAA’s Digital Coast initiative: the Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (or SLAMM, http://www.csc.noaa.gov/digitalcoast/tools/slamm/), the Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flood Frequency Viewer (http://www.csc.noaa.gov/digitalcoast/tools/slrviewer/), and the myriad tools, documents, and remote sensing/GIS datasets in the NOAA Coastal Services Center’s Coastal Climate Adaptation site (http://collaborate.csc.noaa.gov/climateadaptation/).

There are many GIS tools but also portals that help meet this and the other challenges that will be mentioned. One example is a coastal web atlas, which organizes and coordinates interactive web mapping, pre-made digital maps, GIS datasets, and remotely-sensed imagery, often with supplementary GIS decision-support tools, tables, photography, and other kinds of information, all through a single web portal. As such, many of these atlases play an important role in informing regional decision- and policy-making across several themes, including climate change impacts, but also marine spatial planning, coastal conservation and protected areas management, resource availability and extraction, and more.

GEO:connexion:   You mentioned energy as another big challenge…

Wright: The nightmare of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the scare of the recent fire on Mariner Energy’s Vermillion rig, also in the Gulf, have many thinking again about the urgent need to find alternative forms of energy. Is it possible to develop viable sources of alternative energy from the ocean that could meet, say, 10% of U.S. energy needs? So an exciting marine science, as well as marine engineering challenge is the development of ways to produce electricity from ocean wave energy, offshore wind-on-water energy, and tidal energy. A related challenge is the development of ways to power the many devices in the ocean that are used for scientific and military purposes (such as wave or solar energy for underwater gliders, autonomous underwater vehicles, and other kinds of “robots”). So with the potential proliferation of these devices in the nearshore and continental shelf (e.g., wave energy buoys, wind-on-water turbines), what are the ocean space use conflicts that will arise? One needs to consider commercial and recreational fishing, shipping lanes, conservation areas or protected habitat, military training and uses, shipwrecks and other obstructions, recreational boating and sailing, liquid natural gas sites, scientific and telecommunication cables, and more. Ocean space is definitely a human dimensions research problem as well, where one is examining people’s perceptions, biases, and prejudices, economics comes into play, and politics are non-trivial.

GEO:connexion:   And you see the potential for geospatial technologies playing an important role in the future of energy in the ocean space?

Wright: Well, this might be considered essentially under the umbrella of marine spatial planning (MSP) that we hear so much about now (and that is a big part of the U.S. National Ocean Policy). GIS in general (and coastal web atlases in particular) provide the “engine” to implement MSP: in this case, the necessary data and interactive, collaborative environment in which to map out the potential use conflicts. MSP needs to be guided by specific policies and regulations governing usage of the ocean, the conditions that apply, and with an eye toward those possible conflicts that may arise. Therefore MSP experts may not always be GIS experts. So for many of us in the mapping community we see ourselves as providing the enabling technologies that the MSP experts and policy makers need, along with cautionary advice about how to use the data and technology properly.

When there is a crisis involving offshore energy extraction such as the recent Gulf oil spill, satellite/aircraft remote sensing and GIS have been key for tracking the spill on the surface and mapping out areas of risk and where response efforts are taking place. Two web GIS sites of note are the federal government’s web GIS at http://www.geoplatform.gov/gulfresponse/ (mainly proprietary data) and ESRI’s interactive social media site, http://www.esri.com/services/disaster-response/gulf-oil-spill-2010/ (non-proprietary, citizen mapping). As we know, the Gulf oil spill has been quite diabolical because it emanated not from the surface as with a tanker spill, but from the well on the ocean floor. So it’s not just a matter of dealing with the slick but with the underwater plume which has been extremely difficult to track (see Exploration below).

GEO:connexion:   What are the current and future questions we must answer relative to ocean ecosystems?

Wright: A continuing challenge will be understanding how various ecosystems function and inter-relate—from microscopic primary producers at the base of the food chain to coral reefs to large marine ecosystems (e.g., the California Current)—as well their biodiversity. And further, how will these ecosystems respond to factors such as human uses and waste input, coastal development, coastal storms and flooding fueled by climate change, as well as invasive species? What is the resilience of coastal ecosystems (plant and animal species), as well as coastal communities of humans? The marine science community appears to have coalesced now on the efficacy of an ecosystem-based approach where biological elements are not studied in isolation, but with physical factors and human presence/human impacts as well. This has led to the establishment of ecosystem-based management (EBM) as a core principle guiding marine resource management decisions (again, a big part of the U.S. National Ocean Policy).

GEO:connexion:   Geospatial technologies are well known for their tremendous contributions to the study and management of terrestrial ecosystems.  Do they offer similar benefits to ocean ecosystems?

Wright: Here is where GIS has made a real impact as scholars and developers worldwide have developed scores of GIS tools for the implementation of EBM. A terrific example is the EBM Tools Network (http://www.ebmtools.org/), where tools are organized under several categories such as data collection/processing/management, stakeholder engagement, conceptual modeling, visualization, project management, monitoring and assessment, modeling and spatial analysis (with several subcategories therein), and the all-important decision-support.

Also, remote sensing of ocean color radiance from space (e.g., SeaWiFS/MODIS) will continue to make a huge contribution in this area as this is how marine scientists can assess the amount and type of phytoplankton in the ocean, which also gives indicators of ocean nutrient levels (ocean health) and ocean currents. And phytoplanktonare at the base of the marine food chain, so as they go so go the various ecosystems depending on them. With budget uncertainties and the like, future international collaborative efforts will be needed to sustain and bring online new satellite sensors, to calibrate and validate data, develop new sensor algorithms, and to integrate with geospatial observations from ships, buoys, and aircraft.

GEO:connexion:   You also mentioned exploration as a challenge.  Is there still that much we don’t know about the ocean?

Wright: Yes indeed, and I think a recent quote from Luis Valdes and colleagues of the United Nations Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) sums up the issue brilliantly: “Put into a larger context, more than 1,500 people have climbed Mount Everest, more than 300 have journeyed into space, and 12 have walked on the moon, but only 5% of the ocean floor has been investigated and only two people have descended and returned in a single dive to the deepest part of the ocean. On the other hand, no part of the ocean remains unaffected by human activities, such as climate change, eutrophication, fishing, habitat destruction, hypoxia, pollution, and species introductions. Therefore, the scientific study of ocean should be an international priority.”  [from Valdes, L., Fonseca, L., and Tedesco, K., 2010. Looking into the future of ocean sciences: An IOC perspective. Oceanography, 23(3): 160-175.]

How then can we understand and mitigate the impacts of climate change, clean up oil spills, protect species, sustain fisheries, etc. if we still have not explored and fully understood the deep water column and the deep ocean floor? What about governance of these areas (Law of the Sea, deepwater marine protected areas, fishing and mining outside of Exclusive Economic Zones, etc.)? Again, the recent Gulf oil spill has shown how much ocean exploration is needed, especially in acknowledging that there was indeed an underwater plume of oil and how to track and understand its impacts.

GEO:connexion:   How can geospatial technologies aid in this exploration?

Wright: This question brings us back to the start of our discussion where remote sensing in and on the ocean will make further exploration possible. Examples of remote sensing in the ocean include towed acoustic sensors, vertical line arrays, omni-directional acoustic sensors that can sense in all directions with one acoustic ping, multibeam sonars on ships, upward-looking sonars (towed under ice). In the water column as well as on the ocean bottom there will continue to be small autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), larger remotely-operated vehicles (ROVS), and still larger human-occupied vehicles (HOVs, aka submersibles), all with the ability to georeference observations and samples for many things geospatial.

For ALL of the aforementioned challenges we’ll need interdisciplinary data collection coastal upwelling regions, seafloor spreading centers, where tropical storms and hurricanes form, where oil spills occur, etc. And the data will be collected from various platforms, instruments, at different study sites, at different scales and resolutions within these study sites. So we’re going to continue to need ways to organize, mine, and translate between data (translation: data models, vocabularies and ontologies coming from our metadata). This will allow us to maintain and exchange data and information over large distances and long time scales.

GEO:connexion:   Is there anything else you would like to share about the relationship between marine science and geospatial technologies?

Wright: This discussion has been about what geospatial technologies can contribute to marine science, but I’d like to bring forward a point that I think is still true, even after its first appearance in a 1997 paper (http://dusk.geo.orst.edu/ijgis.html). GIS and remote sensing are indeed an “enabling technologies” for marine science, but marine science also can help to improve GIS and remote sensing. For instance, the ability to better handle and visualize time has been a long-standing research issue for GIS. We know the adage “location, location, location.” But in the oceans “time is of the essence,” as it is often only by time that we can get location, especially on the deep seafloor or in the deeper parts of the water column that are out of reach of satellites, global positioning or otherwise. Accurate clocks and accurate timing of the travel of acoustic pulses are critical.  History buffs may be interested in the story of the development of the world’s most accurate clock that made possible the first  determination of longitude in the 1700s (book and PBS movie,  http://amzn.to/cZoR58, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/longitude/).

So we have many research issues endemic to marine science applications of GIS, such as the handling of spatial data structures that must vary their relative positions and values over time (e.g., a question of spatiotemporal dynamics such as: “How does one represent combinations of geometric objects and scalar fields, especially when the data are, “in flux”?), geostatistical interpolation of data sparse in one dimension as compared to the others, the analysis of volumes (the elusive Gulf oil spill plume?), and the input and management of very large spatial databases (can you say “LIDAR”?). I think these and many more will continue to advance the body of knowledge in GIS design and architecture, as well as the body of knowledge in the broader field of geographic information science.

GEO:connexion:  Thank you for sharing your insights with our readers.

Wright: Thanks again for the opportunity to comment on this important topic!

An Interview with Joseph Kerski, Co-author of “The Essentials of the Environment”

Joseph Kerski serves as Education Industry Curriculum Development Manager on the Education Team in Denver, Colorado. Coming to Esri in 2006 and joining colleagues that he has worked with and respected for more than 10 years was a “dream come true.” Prior to joining Esri, he served for 17 years as Geographer in the Education Program at the US Geological Survey, and for 4 years as Geographer at the US Census Bureau. He has taught as adjunct instructor of Geographic Information Systems at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, at the University of Denver, in K-12 schools, and in on-line courses. Joseph holds three degrees in Geography, so you might say he is rather enthusiastic about studying maps, biomes, population, landforms, neighborhood change, and such. Passionate about all aspects of spatial learning, Joseph seeks and fosters educational partnerships, and conducts training in geotechnologies (Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and Remote Sensing for government, industry, nonprofit organizations, higher education, K-12 teachers and students, news media, and the general public. He creates curriculum focused on spatial thinking and geotechnologies in education, and conducts research in the effectiveness and implementation of these technologies in formal and informal educational settings. When not doing these things, he can usually be found at a latitude-longitude confluence, in a cave, or playing the guitar.  In this brief interview, I ask Joseph about the book he co-authored, The Essentials of the Environment.

Q: How did you get involved in this book project?

Joseph Kerski: Because so many of what I would call the “pillars” of geography and environmental studies are in the UK, I had been trying to build bridges between like-minded educational organizations between the UK and the USA. I attended the Geographical Association conferences for 4 years in a row in the UK and began collaborating with authors and professors in the promotion of GIS in education and on environmental and geographic literacy. One of the fruits of this effort was the opportunity to collaborate on the Essentials of the Environment book.

Q: Was the goal to create a kind of “encyclopedia of the environment,” or was it more focused on finding solutions to the big environmental problems we’re facing today?

Kerski: One of my central career goals is to reach beyond “preaching to the choir” to those outside our circle of colleagues and perhaps even outside of our comfort zone. In the case of the Essentials of the Environment, I had the opportunity to do just that—to explain and illustrate some of the key concepts about the environment to those who would be unlikely to attend a geography or environmental education conference or read a journal in the subject. I wanted each concept to be readily understood but I also wanted to dig deeper than a typical newspaper article, so that when people did hear about climate change or sustainable agriculture in the news, they would be able to investigate those topics in the book.

Q: How has the book been received?

Kerski: One of the themes running through the book is to think critically about issues and investigate all sides of each issue. We have made choices as a society about the environment and need a wide variety of skills and people to steer us into the future. These people will need to use GIS, GPS, and remote sensing, and other tools, they will need to be able to work with data, they will need to deal with uncertainty, and they will need to think creatively and spatially. The book has been received well because one thing we tried hard to do is to be positive. Yes, we have wreaked much havoc in our world, but people and organizations have also done much good for the environment, and I have hope that we can continue to work toward a sustainable future.

Q: What’s next for you?

Kerski: I am working on research in the effectiveness and implementation of GIS in education, developing GIS-based curricula, partnering with organizations to promote spatial analysis and GIS throughout the educational system, and conducting professional development in GIS for educators at all levels. I am involved in several book projects, including a book about solving problems with public domain data and GIS, a book on progress in GIS in secondary education internationally, and a book on applications of GIS in tribal colleges and tribal governments.

GIS for Conservation: An Interview with Esri’s Charles Convis, Part 1

Q: How did you first become interested in conservation?

Charles Convis: It was just there all along.

I grew up in rural coastal California in the 1960’s and life just made more sense to me when I was out in the woods instead of in town. When I was 8 years old or so my dad taught me how to hunt and I started backpacking, and I went on to become an eagle scout. I started a Sierra Club chapter in high school and majored in Ecology at university. The real turning point was when I went on a research mission to Brazil to help set up several coevolution study sites and found that most of our candidate forests had been cleared for sugar cane. I decided I had to set aside my research career and devote my efforts to conserving natural areas or else ecologists of the future would have nothing left to study and kids of the future would have no more forests to hang out in and figure out life’s problems.

Q: How did you start using GIS, and what lead you to connect with Esri?

Convis: I was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, thanks to help from my dad who himself was a former marine and a veteran of Iwo Jima.  That tells you something about our family. I had a draft lottery number certain to be called but the draft was in its last year and I was never called up for my alternative service, so I sort of made up my own.  I liked the Peace Corps idea but they didn’t really do conservation, so I laid out a 4-year program of volunteering for conservation groups around the world under the guidance of World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

I had taught myself computers using old IBM machines and punch cards at university, and computer skills turned out to be something every little conservation group wanted help with. I backpacked and hitchhiked with my spouse all over Africa and Southeast Asia, spending a few weeks with each group to help them do whatever computer project they wanted.  By the late 1980’s, what folks increasingly wanted was help mapping so I started writing  mapping programs and hearing about this GIS company called Esri who had helped UNEP Nairobi on an elephant project.

At the same time I was finding out that an itinerant volunteer backpacker could only be of limited use in helping conservation groups no matter how devoted you might be. At some point you needed to have an institution around you so you could help more people and take on bigger challenges. I wrote a funding proposal to set up a new kind of international computer support foundation, new because it would specialize in “appropriate” technology like what E. F. Schumacher wrote about in “Small is Beautiful”.  Rather than cutting edge tech it would deliver the kinds of tech tools that small groups in small countries could actually learn, use, maintain and repair from their own local resources.

Because it wasn’t about the cutting edge it wasn’t interesting to the foundations I sent it to. I also sent it to Jack Dangermond because I knew I’d need hardware and software folks willing to donate products to me.  Jack liked the idea and ended up being the only one to offer me a way to create that foundation, within the walls of Esri.   Esri had itself started as a non-profit organization so it seemed like a good place to try to make a go of it.  When I started at Esri in 1989 there wasn’t any GIS in conservation except at UNEP and in a few universities.  We’ve done tens of thousands of grants since then and handed out hundreds of millions worth of support so I think it’s been a useful program.

Coming soon: Part 2 of my interview with Charles…

A Fundamental Change in Science: A Brief Interview with Prof. David Maidment

Q: At the Friday morning closing session of the 2010 ESRI International User Conference, Scott Morehouse invited you on stage for a few minutes to share your experience that week.  Can you share that experience again?

A: Well I already knew a lot about what was going to happen before the User Conference had even started, because I’d worked closely with Jack Dangermond on a paper a couple of months prior to the Conference, and I’d also worked closely with Clint Brown and Scott Morehouse before that.  But when I saw it all come together on Monday at the plenary session, somehow the neurons got connected in my mind and I sent a message to my staff back in Austin—get me an iPad!—while the plenary session was going on.  I now have an iPad.

By Tuesday, the impact of what was happening at the conference was overwhelming, and I went into kind of a vision-lock.  All these ideas were competing in my mind, and I was sitting in a Conference session and suddenly I realized, I’m still carrying a plastic bag.  What is this?  It’s my laundry!  I came out of my hotel room with my laundry bag and suddenly I went into vision-lock and I forgot all about my laundry!

It took me awhile to process it through, but by Thursday, in the Water Resources User Group, I gave a talk on implementing Jack’s vision in Hydro.  I’ve attended the ESRI User Conference 21 years in a row, and I’ve been teaching the Hydro seminar since 1994.  And the 2010 User Conference was by far the most important to me ever.  And why this is so important is because water changes with time.  Because of this, it’s been so inconvenient to deal with it in a GIS framework.  At least up until now.

I woke up Friday morning of the User Conference, and I realized, this is a fundamental change in science.  The implications are just immeasurable.  I don’t think we know where the limit of them is.  And it took me all week to process what happened to reach that conclusion.

Prof. David Maidment speaking at the Friday morning closing session of the 2010 ESRI International User Conference.

Q: You call this a fundamental change in science.  Can you explain in more detail exactly what you mean by that?

A: What’s happened is that time and space have come together—space-time.  Now, that’s been true in science for some time, because you could have spatially continuous arrays like time-varying sea surface temperatures and so on.  But it’s not been true in GIS.  So the fundamental breakthrough here in geographic information science is representing space-time processes on discrete spatial objects.  And that’s a fundamentally new thing that’s not been possible or accessible before.

Q: From a personal perspective, how is this going to change the way you do research?

A: What it means is that we can really bring water into GIS.   We can study the properties of water itself as they vary in space and time, and not just the watersheds, rivers, and aquifers through which water flows.  That is so important for better understanding how water impacts human life and sustains living communities.   Access to water information through the iPad and iPhone are also breakthroughs – water information everywhere, all the time!   Water is so vital to people and we are bringing knowledge of water closer to them.

Dr. David R. Maidment is the Hussein M. Alharthy Centennial Chair in Civil Engineering and the Director of the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas at Austin.  He can be reached at maidment@mail.utexas.edu.

New Web Site Features Resources for Cave Mapping and Analysis

Bern Szukalski is ArcGIS product manager and technology evangelist at ESRI.  Earlier this year, I spoke to Bern at length about visualization and ArcGIS Explorer, which resulted in a two-part blog post (see “A Conversation with Bern Szukalski about Geospatial Visualization,” Part I and Part II).   What didn’t come out in that interview is Bern’s deep-seated interest in exploring—and mapping—the world’s caves.  I recently spent a few minutes with Bern to talk about the launch of his new web site, which features mapping and GIS resources for cavers.

cave1

Matt:  What was the impetus for putting this web site together?

Bern:  The site in general combines more than a “hobby” with the other thing I love to do—make maps and use mapping software.  Digital mapping of caves is somewhat unique, involving specialized software, procedures, and techniques.  One of the driving reasons for the site is that many people have asked me for help, examples, or about how to implement things, so this is a place that I can point out examples.

Matt:  Is cave mapping difficult?

Bern:  Cave mapping, for the most part, is still done the old fashioned way – with a compass, clinometers, and tape. Nowadays the old reel tapes have been replaced by laser rangefinders, which provide not only greater accuracy and ease of use, but are also friendlier on the caves, as you don’t have to worry about the tape snagging formations as you wind it up. And it also eliminates the need to physically go to places to pull the tape; you just use the laser to beam distant walls. So you can keep on a single trail if you’re surveying a delicate cave.

The Hidden River Cave survey data has been georeferenced and exported to DXF format using Compass cave survey software. Using ArcGIS the cave passage is symbolized and is shown here in ArcScene, a component of the ArcGIS 3D Analyst.

The Hidden River Cave survey data has been georeferenced and exported to DXF format using Compass cave survey software. Using ArcGIS the cave passage is symbolized and is shown here in ArcScene, a component of the ArcGIS 3D Analyst.

Matt: So how is the data collected?

Bern: Well, you set stations as you go through the cave and measure the distance, azimuth, and inclination between each station. You also measure to the left, right, above, and below each station. That goes in your survey book, along with a detailed sketch. Some folks use handhelds to record the data.

Matt: So how does that get into a GIS?

Bern: Several cavers have developed cave survey programs that are used to manage the survey data, and create lineplots and even passage wall models and more. These are actually quite sophisticated, and can even import DRGs and so forth. The one I use is called Compass, and is authored by Larry Fish, a Denver area caver who has an excellent Web site where you can download the software. Years ago, there wasn’t a way to get the Compass data into a GIS format, at least not easily. I was doing some volunteer work in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and the cave resources specialist there–Bobby Camara–was using ArcView 3. He also used Compass, and asked me if there was a way to get the Compass cave survey data into ArcView. At the time I was on the ArcView team and knew it could be done, and spent most of my volunteer time there working on writing an extension for ArcView that would import the Compass cave survey data and create shapefiles. So, while my caving buddies and wife went cave surveying, I’d be in front of the laptop writing Avenue code. That extension was called CaveTools, and was the way many cavers and cave resource specialists originally got their cave survey data into ArcView. Since then Larry has added direct support in Compass for shapefiles, as well as KML, and it’s an easy way to integrate the cave survey data into GIS.

Matt: So what can you say about people using cave survey data and GIS now?

Bern: Many of the federal cave resource managers do a lot of their own GIS work with cave data, or use their park or regional GIS staff for their GIS work. Most of the applications focus on integrating not only the locations of caves and other karst features, but integrating the cave survey data and even final maps, and managing the inventory data and other information that is collected about them. There’s not quite as much GIS analysis being used specifically for caves, but certainly a lot of analysis has been used to manage groundwater in karst areas and things like that. I think the State of Kentucky is a great example of using GIS for managing karst data, and even publishes their sinkhole database online. And there’s many more. There is some excellent work going on and great examples using GIS in this specialized application area. The ESRI cave and karst site links to a bunch of examples.

This map series was created for an article on Bermuda caves and the Bermuda Cave and Karst Information System (BeCKIS) project.

This map series was created for an article on Bermuda caves and the Bermuda Cave and Karst Information System (BeCKIS) project.

Matt: Any general trends you see, or comments about how this is working?

Bern: One interesting thing I have noticed about my experience with this over the years is that people either don’t know how easy some of this can be or they tend to over-engineer things. I’ve seen a few projects struggle over the years because they’ve gotten too complex, and when staff or interests shift it’s hard to keep things going.  My philosophy in general is: less is more, simpler and sustainable trumps an elegant technical implementation, and don’t use a jackhammer when a small tack hammer will do. And so most of my examples represent “easy” rather than “examples of technical elegance,” but they should always also fit well into an existing context, if there is one. But nowadays it’s pretty simple to get cave survey data into a GIS where you can do some really interesting things.

Matt:  Are caves in danger?  Can GIS help?

Bern:  One of the hot issues right now in the US caving community is something called White Nose Syndrome, or just WNS. It’s a fungus that’s affecting bats, stirring them out of hibernation and causing millions to die and threatening several species. It’s called “white nose” because of the distinctive fungal ring around the bats’ noses. It was first identified in the northeast United States, and has since spread and been identified in other states. Many caves are now closed by the state agencies that manage them, and some are closed voluntarily by cavers, to avoid spreading the fungus to other areas. It’s not quite fully understood, so there are lots of precautions being taken. Many of the agencies in the affected areas are using GIS in their work. One of the first maps published about White Nose was a GIS map by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Bat Conservation International, who also got a significant grant from ESRI to support their work, has used ArcGIS in their work to support the various states, and a recent ArcWatch article was written about that.