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Getting the GIS(t) of Satellite Mapping

To some of us, our picture of the field of geography includes an old-fashioned image of maps or perhaps a spinning globe. Technology has transformed those maps into multi-dimensional pictures that can yield information about myriad variables, thanks to geographic imaging systems (GIS.)

The U.S. Geological Survey describes GIS as "a computer system capable of capturing, storing, analyzing and displaying geographically referenced information; that is, data identified according to location." This allows many types of information about the same geographic location to be layered upon each other. These layers can include virtually anything: underground maps, topographical and hydrologic information, power systems, weather models, population densities, disease statistics, and so on. When this information is compared, new patterns and relationships can emerge, providing key findings that were not clear earlier.

For decades, SIUE has been at the fore of the GIS movement. As the field has grown, so has SIUE's GIS program. What began as a single class and one instructor has expanded to 14 courses taught by four faculty members. Additionally, the Laboratory for Applied Spatial Analysis (LASA) has new facilities in University Park that include map storage and preparation areas, space for GIS technicians, and offices for its director and five full-time analysts.

"GIS has been a great mechanism of connecting our students and our faculty to a wide variety of opportunity," said Randall Pearson, professor of geography and director of LASA. "It is instrumental in all we do in geography."

Around 10 undergraduate students work with LASA each semester, many conducting site and field work. An additional three to five graduate students work at the center each semester, and roughly 30 graduate students have been supported through LASA since it began. These students gain real-world experience by working on projects for agencies such as the Abandoned Mines Division of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the USDA Soil Conservation Service, local and county governments and school districts, and companies such as Monsanto. The GIS center has generated nearly $5 million in external contractual revenue.

The interdisciplinary nature of LASA creates opportunities to work with other constituencies within the University. "GIS has provided a bridge from geography to other disciplines, other schools, the SIUE administration, and local area industry," said Pearson. Within the University community, the department has worked with the schools of Engineering and Nursing, the departments of Anthropology, Biological Sciences, English and the Environmental Sciences Program, and diverse areas such as University Housing, Admissions, and The Gardens at SIUE. The department also has installed and maintains GIS software on more than 100 computers throughout campus.

"We are here to promote the technology across campus and throughout the community, not build a fence around it in an attempt to keep it as our own," Pearson said.

Because GIS is a technology-driven industry, changes in that technology can be rapid. "It is absolutely imperative that we keep our GIS computing facilities, our software, and our faculty GIS knowledge base at the very highest level," said Pearson. "We have put ourselves in the middle of a rapidly growing and extremely broadly used technology. It is paramount that we not get behind in any way."

The site licenses alone for the various software (ESRI GIS, ERDAS Imagine Image Processing and Photogrammetry, and SPSS) cost about $16,000 a year. The GIS center also houses two servers and 12 computers, two dozen handheld GPS units, two Trimble High Resolution GPS units, two wide-format scanners and a large-format printer.

Staying abreast of current technology can be costly. Contributions always are welcome. For information about making a contribution, contact Craig Steiner, development director, at (618) 650-5048. For more information about GIS or LASA, contact Randall Pearson.

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