Love Google Earth? So do WU faculty

GIS conference showcases WU use of mapping technology in research

| Contributing Reporter

While students may use Google Earth to look at their hometowns or vacation spots, the Washington University faculty employs the program in research for anthropology, ecology, public health and geology—just to name a few disciplines.

The fifth annual Geographic Information Systems Conference, which was held in Olin Library and the Women’s Building on Wednesday, provided an opportunity for University students and faculty across several disciplines to demonstrate their use of the spatial analysis technology. Most attendees were University graduate and post-doctorate students.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) includes any tool that manages, analyzes and displays geographic information.

“GIS is the philosophy that location is important,” Aaron Addison, University GIS Coordinator, said. “The tools that are used for that are GIS software, which you can think of as maps and databases.”

As more researchers adopt new GIS software, such technology has become increasingly important to studies on campus.

“We’re seeing an increase in use and interest in GIS around campus,” Bill Winston, GIS Analyst, said. “We’re spending more energy helping to get people involved.”

At the GIS conference, themed “Applications of GIS,” posters and presentations demonstrated the wide variety of uses for the software. Assistant Professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences Jen Smith conducted one project, which used Google Maps and other software to reconstruct a lake in prehistoric Egypt based on archaeological data.

Smith demonstrated that in contrast to Egypt’s present desert environment, parts of the country once saw savanna that could sustain large mammals like elephants.

Another project demonstrated increased rates of hospital admission for asthma attacks among children living in downtown St. Louis as compared to rates for children living in the suburbs. The healthy disparity, Smith said, may be the product of poor information availability.

“There needs to be some way for them to know how to handle their asthma,” she said.

Others analyzed the chemical makeup and landscapes of Mars, Venus and Europa, including the ongoing Mars mission led by Ray Arvidson, professor of earth and planetary sciences.

Data availability and quality form one of the key limitations in GIS.

“If you’ve got a biologist working in the rainforest, the amount of data available will be less than in downtown St. Louis,” Winston said. “Typically, data generation is an expensive process.”

“GIS is only as good as the resolution of the images you’re working with,” graduate student David Mayer said. Meyer’s project used satellite images to visualize the geological features of an archeological site in China.

Given the difficulty of using the software, many researchers need training to begin using GIS. Addison’s post was created five years ago to address this problem.

“It’s been around quite a while, but it’s taken a while to gain critical mass on campus,” he said.

GIS is a part of student life. Even students who do not use GIS academically say they frequent Google Earth for other reasons.

Junior David Brunell-Brutman, for example, said that though he was not familiar with GIS, he uses Google Earth “all the time.”

“I’ll either use it if I need to find driving directions, or if I’m reading something and it mentions a place and I want to know where that is,” he said.

Some, by contrast, use the program for fun.

“I looked at my town. On my freshman floor, we were showing each other our houses,” junior Brittany Bernacchi said.

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