GIS Council

David Pacchioli
September 01, 2003
bivariate map with states surrounding West Viriginia
GeoVISTA Center

Researchers from Penn State's GeoVISTA Center and the College of Medicine are using GIS to explore spatial patterns of cancer incidence across Appalachia, and to analyze the relationships between those patterns and factors such as population demographics and access to adequate healthcare.

When Penn State sociologist Linda Burton wanted to show the lives of welfare mothers in a way that policy makers would understand, she turned to GIS.

Burton and an army of ethnographers had been tracking more than 250 poor families in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio for three years, gathering some 35,000 pages of field notes. But for government decision makers, as well as research colleagues who might follow up on her work, she wanted more than text as a database.

She turned to Stephen Matthews, who runs the Geographic Information Analysis lab at Penn State's Population Research Institute. Combining census and property data available in public records with spatial information gleaned from her field notes, Matthews mapped neighborhoods on a computer, with overlays of key resources, crime events, and transportation routes, recreating the context of a family's life.

"We can break down a mother's activity according to time and space parameters," Matthews says: "Trips to the doctor, to work, to child care." He even incorporated fieldnotes keyed to a particular street corner, and hot links to anchor institutions like libraries and social-service agencies.

"It helps the coders and researchers at remote sites to be able to visualize and to better understand these families," he says. "It helps in drawing connections that might not otherwise be made."

Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the melding of cartography and information science that revolutionized the field of geography in the late 1980s, is now used in many everyday applications. When you ask MapQuest to plot a route from Pittsburgh to Albany, denoting every HoJos along the way, you're using GIS. When the cashier at Shoe Bazaar asks for your zip code, the company is using GIS for market research. Emergency services—fire and police—rely heavily on this locating technology.

In the academic world, in addition to geographers, environmental and agricultural scientists quickly spotted its usefulness. Social science, Matthews says, has been slower to catch on.

The potential has always been there. "It's a very useful technology for collecting and integrating and displaying any sort of information that can be geographically referenced, and that takes in maybe 80 percent of all data collected in the social sciences—but it's also a technology that has been accompanied by a lot of hype. There were early reports that it was not delivering as well as promised.

"Also," he adds, "few social scientists have been trained to think in spatial terms."

In the last five years, however, demographers, anthropologists, and even political scientists have begun to embrace the technology. "It's gotten so that discipline-specific texts"—GIS in Telecommunications, GIS and Public Health—"are starting to pop up," Matthews says.

The Penn State department of geography's distance-learning certificate program in GIS, offered through the University's World Campus, is among the first of its kind. The Land Analysis Labin the department of crop and soil sciences incorporates geographic information systems into projects focused on improved land-use planning and environmental assessment across the state and region; its outreach program includes mobile GIS labs for training planners and local-government officials.

pestwatch map of New England in yellow
Stephen Crawford/EMS Environment Institute

PestWatch uses GIS to link a network of farmers and extension agents from Virginia to Maine who monitorlevels of sweetcorn pests throughout the growing season. Tracking the distribution of these pests over space and time helps growers make crucial pest-management decisions.

The University has also played a lead role in developing and maintaining Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access, or PASDA, the state's official clearinghouse for geospatial information. From an initial collection of 35 data sets in 1996, PASDA has grown to include over 32,000 data sets in subject categories ranging from political subdivisions to breeding-bird habitats. In addition to providing free access to that information, PASDA works with non-profit organizations such as environmental groups and schools to promote the knowledge and use of GIS.

Another Penn State group, the GeoVISTA Center in the department of geography, conducts research in the rapidly emerging sub-field of geovisualization, which uses virtual environments and other sophisticated tools to create interactive maps or "geospatial displays" geared to solving scientific, social, and environmental problems. One of GeoVISTA's current projects is Dialogue-Assisted Visual Environment for GeoInformation—DAVE_G, for short—which allows a human user to interact with GIS using speech, hand gestures, and eye movements.

In addition to these high-profile efforts, Matthews notes, smaller-scale activity in GIS has proliferated, as individual researchers in different areas discover its potential. To better coordinate this increasing activity, Eva Pell, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school (and publisher of this magazine), created the GIS Council, with representatives from interested colleges and units. Its co-chairs are Matthews and Michael Behney, director of the Institute of State and Regional Affairs at Penn State Harrisburg.

In its first official act last year, the Council surveyed GIS activity across the University. The subsequent report lists 20 colleges or units, offering 50 GIS-related courses, over 100 faculty members conducting GIS-related research, and 25 laboratories in which GIS software is available.

"It's a very uneven infrastructure," Matthews says. "So you can see how important coordination becomes, to build on our strengths and avoid duplication of resources."

As a point person, the Council recommended hiring a University GIS officer. Enter Tina Enderlein, who holds a master's degree in geo-environmental studies and has worked as a project scientist and GIS analyst for two large architectural engineering firms.

Enderlein functions as an information broker. "One part of my job," she says, "is to identify people who need assistance, find out what their concerns are, and let them know what resources are available." Researchers looking for demographics-orientedd GIS expertise, for example, she can direct to Matthews's, GIA group whose experience with the 2000 U.S. census data can be valuable for projects in the social sciences and public health.

In a field so dependent on information, knowing your way around big data sets is a big help. So is being able to identify the optimal software for a particular application. In the mid-'90s, Penn State negotiated a site-license agreement with the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), the leading producer of GIS software for academic use. "They're constantly coming out with updates and new releases," Enderlein says.

One of the Council's charges is to promote collaboration among interdisciplinary teams interested in using GIS to strengthen large research projects. One such project, the Consortium for Atlantic Regional Assessment, or CARA, involves researchers from four universities (Penn State, Carnegie Mellon, Rhode Island, and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science) who are developing web-based tools that will allow decision-makers across the mid-Atlantic region to predict the combined impacts of climate change, population growth, land-use patterns, and other factors on their local areas, and then tailor planning and policies accordingly. GIS can superimpose these layers of information in whatever combinations are necessary. Says Matthews, "The geographic framework allows scientists from different disciplines to come together."

Another interdisciplinary project, albeit on a smaller scale, joins researchers from Penn State's GeoVISTA Center and the College of Medicine in using GIS to explore spatial patterns of cancer incidence across Appalachia, and to analyze the relationships between those patterns and factors such as population demographics and access to adequate healthcare. Enderlein coordinates software information sessions, disseminates GIS-related materials, and promotes Penn State GIS activity externally. In June, the Council sponsored a booth at the annual Pennsylvania GIS Conference in Harrisburg.

Enderlein is also updating and redesigning a central GIS Web site (, and overseeing development of a resource database that will advertise faculty interests and expertise.

Since her arrival in November 2002, Enderlein says, "A lot of my time has been spent visiting different units, talking with people, seeing what they're working on and how I can help them.

"There's so much going on here, and the field is developing so fast, that it's almost a full-time job to stay on top of things."

Stephen A. Matthews, Ph.D., is senior research associate and director of the Geographic Information Analysis Core in the Population Research Institute, associate professor of demography and sociology, and co-chair of the GIS Council, 802 Oswald Tower, University Park, PA 16801; 814-863-9721; Tina M. Enderlein, M.S., is the University's GIS Officer, N-263 Burrowes Bldg.; 865-0586; For more information on the GIS Council, and on GIS at Penn State, see:

Last Updated September 01, 2003