This geography is high tech

Call it high-tech geography. The discipline of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is quietly finding its way into many corners of modern life, and on Wednesday, a national day featuring GIS, the public gets a glimpse of how it works.

Call it high-tech geography. The discipline of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is quietly finding its way into many corners of modern life, and on Wednesday, a national day featuring GIS, the public gets a glimpse of how it works.

Duluth's celebration of GIS Day, hosted by the University of Minnesota-Duluth as part of its Geography Week, features more than a dozen agencies illustrating GIS projects. One of them is sure to get attention -- a presentation by a Minnesota DNR worker who used GIS to help search and rescue teams at Ground Zero in New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"Anything that includes some geographical element to it can be analyzed using GIS," says Stacey Stark, who runs the GIS lab at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

GIS uses computer models to interpret and present information in visual layers on a map. Features like roads, buildings, lakes and rivers, as well as terrain features like elevation, can be stored in a computer database. The features can then be organized and analyzed by computer and presented in different ways on maps, providing more useful information to people in a variety of disciplines.

The technology is serious -- high-speed computers, plotters, high-resolution satellite imaging, aerial photography and advanced software that only in the past decade or two became user-friendly enough to be used outside computer science.


And the applications are sometimes surprising. Stark says it crops up in all kinds of fields. Marketers use it to determine things like "where McDonald's is going to set up their next store." Environmental researchers use it to analyze watersheds to determine what effects development will have. Governments use GIS to plan emergency medical services and road maintenance, plan development and keep track of property ownership. Geologists use GIS. So do utility companies.

Al Odean, a GIS specialist with the city of Duluth, says the city has been using GIS since 1990. "In the past, it was mostly mapping and providing maps," he wrote in an e-mail. "In more recent history, the city has been using it for analysis in several departments."

Among them are the public works department, the planning department and the city clerk's office, which recently used census data in its redistricting process.

"In the future, we expect that city personnel will have the opportunity to access and do analysis from their desktop PCs," Odean noted.

"GIS is a tool -- you could kind of think of it in a way like statistics," Stark said.

And that's exactly the way it works at UMD. GIS is a study emphasis in the geography department, but students from many other majors also take the classes. Even business majors are finding it a marketable skill in the workplace, Stark said.

GIS Day is a national event, sponsored by National Geographic magazine and by several software makers. Locally, the Minnesota GIS/LIS Consortium is sponsoring Paul Olson's presentation, "Mapping Ground Zero."

Stark said GIS Day is a good excuse to bring together different people using GIS. Among the agencies scheduled to participate are the Environmental Protection Agency's Mid-Continent Ecology Division, Minnesota Sea Grant, the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, the city of Duluth, St. Louis County's public works department, the county assessor's office, the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission, Minnesota Planning, the Minnesota DNR's Coastal Program, the Wisconsin DNR, Minnesota Power, NRRI and two other groups from UMD.


Stark said events like Wednesday's are an advantage to GIS pros. "We, as GIS users ... like to see what other people are doing, because sometimes you find a methodology that other people are using," she said.

For instance, although they seem different on the surface, a utility company tracking transmission lines might have some useful analogies to tracking waterways, where rivers and streams intersecting might parallel intersections in the transmission network.

Stark will also use the event to find project ideas applicable to students.

She said Olson's presentation, which she's seen before, will be interesting. The Minnesota DNR was part of the Ground Zero rescue operation because it uses GIS in fighting forest fires and is used to working under emergency conditions.

"(Rescue organizers) knew that they would be really fast and be good people to disseminate the information," she said.

The Minnesota DNR, Chippewa and Superior National Forests sent about a dozen people to assist FEMA in the operation. The presentation is Olson's photo journal of his two weeks in New York working on it. Stark said GIS was important there not only because the landscape was so radically changed but because many of the search and rescue teams on the scene were not from New York at all.

The event takes place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at UMD's Kirby Center. It's open to the public and free, although parking during those hours at UMD can be a challenge, and organizers advise alternative transportation or arriving early to allow time for walking. Tours will be given of the state-of-the-art GIS lab at UMD.

Olson's presentation will be at noon in Campus Center room 120.


UMD is planning several other events in conjunction with Geography Awareness Week. The theme this year is "Public Lands," and on Monday at noon, a senior research planner from the Metropolitan Council will give a presentation on geographers' roles in planning and managing public lands. Tuesday, Dr. Scott Freundschuh, chair of UMD's geography department, will give a presentation on 2D and 3D campus maps.

On Thursday, a UMD professor will give a presentation on a research project about Mayan occupation along a river in Belize, and on Friday, the department will host an open house.

For times or more details, call 726-6300.

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