UD hosts first-ever Geospatial Research Day
John Callahan
Tom McKenna
Jim Corbett

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11:11 a.m., Nov. 25, 2009----The University of Delaware's first Geospatial Research Day took place in the Trabant University Center on Thursday, Nov. 19. The free event highlighted the geospatial research being conducted at the University of Delaware and the ways in which UD community members are using geospatial technology.

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About 150 people attended the meeting throughout the day, representing Delaware organizations like UD, the Delaware Geological Survey, Christiana Care Health System, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the State of Delaware Office of Management and Budget, Delaware Technical and Community College, the Delaware Department of Transportation, WILMAPCO and several environmental consulting firms. Other attendees came from nearby institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania and West Virginia University.

Co-organizer Ben Mearns, of Information Technology Client Support and Services at UD, said that in addition to highlighting projects utilizing geospatial analysis, the conference aimed to inspire multidisciplinary collaboration at UD and establish relationships with new organizations.

“Geospatial research can transcend boundaries,” Mearns said. “Spatial thinking methods are new and continue to evolve.”

“This falls in line with UD's Path to ProminenceTM and initiatives such as the Delaware Environmental Institute,” said co-organizer John Callahan, a geospatial application developer at the Delaware Geological Survey (DGS). “The focus is on the people and community as much as on the content.”

The conference followed a unique model designed to encourage broad participation. Attendees created accounts on the Geospatial Research Day Web site to register, nominated presenters and voted on the content of the talks. Callahan said that such a transparent process and openness in planning allowed attendees to shape the event.

“Similar to the open source software and open data models, the idea was to reduce the barriers of participation,” said Callahan. “We wanted to to make it fun, interesting and useful for attendees.”

The program featured keynote talks by Callahan; Tom McKenna, a hydrologist at DGS and an associate professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment (CEOE); and Jim Corbett, a professor in CEOE.

Callahan shared the history and benefits of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which manage, analyze and display geographic information.

“You can put U.S. Census data into GIS and it becomes much more appealing,” said Callahan. “You can look at different data sources at the same time and figure things out with a quick glance.”

He described GIS data -- raw coordinates, vectors and rasters -- and geospatial information, which includes GIS data and websites, news sources, etc.

“Twitter uses it,” he said, using an example of a social media Web site incorporating geospatial information. “You can put in coordinates and see a map with Twitter feeds.”

Callahan said the current trend toward open data allows multiple people to map data, such as precipitation data or planning data, and contribute to a large, community-driven mapping effort.

Callahan was optimistic about the future of GIS as both a research tool and a driver of economic growth. “Job growth in GIS is going up,” he said.

He said early geospatial work at UD involved the analysis of satellite and aerial photography, topographic mapping and environmental science.

In the mid-1990s, the University purchased campus-wide site licenses of ESRI GIS software and established the first cross-disciplinary GIS collaboration.

UD helped form the Delaware Geographic Data Committee and hosted the first GIS conferences in the state in 1996 and 1998.

“Today, UD's geospatial community represents 50-60 departments and organizations,” Callahan said.

McKenna shared the ways in which he uses environmental thermography in his hydrological research.

“While thermography has been around for a long time, what's new is that thermography is now in the hands of people in the field at a reasonable cost,” McKenna said.

Developed by the military and declassified about 15 years ago, thermography is used by the military for search and rescue and surveillance.

“There's an existing commercial market for it in electrical and mechanical inspection and a growing market in home energy auditing,” said McKenna.

McKenna shared images taken using cameras mounted on towers, bucket trucks and the UD airship of several local areas: at a wetland impacted by industrial contaminants along Red Lion Creek, in New Castle County; in the Red Clay Creek Watershed, in Chester County, Pa.; and Indian River in Sussex County.

In one example, McKenna showed two images of the same site, a murky one taken with a visual camera and a much clearer image taken with a thermal camera.

“The thermal camera works really well for mapping how wetland flooding is happening,” said McKenna. “Environmental thermography is proving to be a powerful tool for investigating dynamic hydrologic processes.”

McKenna's work is funded by the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), Kent County, and Delaware EPSCoR.

Corbett discussed the benefits of geospatial framing to environmental decision-making and offered one example of how geospatial technology can contribute to ecosystem stewardship.

“Ship strikes are a leading cause of premature death to the endangered North Atlantic right whale,” said Corbett. “There's a speed at which it's almost always fatal.”

Corbett and his team of researchers created a map of whale migration and shipping routes and got the international maritime community and ship operators to take policy action to move shipping routes, resulting in a 40 percent decrease in risk for whale fatalities.

“Geospatial policy research helps address complex problems, diverse perspectives and the needs of visual learners,” said Corbett.

Geospatial Research Day also featured a series of informal “lightning talks,” quick, five-minute presentations on a range of geospatial research topics.

The first presentation was about a new opportunity at the University -- a one-year graduate certificate program in geographic information science, introduced by Tracy DeLiberty, associate professor in UD's Department of Geography.

Students will take Intro to GIS and then choose one of three tracks: “technical” (mapping), “analyst” and “developer.”

Mike O'Neal, an assistant professor of geography at UD and the director of the program, said, “This is an interdisciplinary program that incorporates every geospatial unit we could find on campus.”

Peleg Kremer, a graduate student from the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy, shared how she used geospatial technology to map the Brookside Park neighborhood in Newark and calculate how much produce families could grow in their yards. Kremer did the research as part of a group project for the Delaware legislature and will publish the results in the next few weeks.

Rosalind Kotz, a graduate student in the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy, discussed how she is using geospatial analysis for her dissertation research, which focuses on the geographic concentration of subsidized housing.

“I have been able to geospatially geocode U.S. Census data and am planning to map it,” said Kotz. “I am looking at making the recommendation that there be training for people who want to know what GIS is and how it might be used in a social science setting.”

David Racca, a policy scientist from UD's Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research, and Liam Morris of the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) Traffic Count Program presented digitized, colorized Sussex County traffic data.

“Dave translated it through GIS and made a movie looking at traffic into and out of Sussex County on July Fourth weekend, 2009,” said Morris. “DelDOT is looking at this to see the whole county as one contiguous network, rather than individual histograms. It's a really neat visualization of a whole lot of data.”

Sandy Schenck, a scientist at the Delaware Geological Survey, discussed the DataMIL topographic maps website. “The United States Geological Survey (USGS) no longer prints topographical maps,” said Schenck. “The official source for maps now is the DataMIL Web site.”

Afternoon breakout sessions featured talks by UD researchers on topics such as a prototype coastal flood monitoring system in Kent County and using GIS for polar research.

Posters and multimedia displays were available throughout the day.

Callahan said 25 posters were submitted, and many of the individuals who gave "lightning talks" also presented posters at the event.

The meeting concluded with a guest presentation by C. Dana Tomlin, professor of landscape architecture and co-director of the Cartographic Modeling Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania.

Article by Katie Ginder-Vogel

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