The University Record, June 4, 2001

Geographic information systems are gaining in popularity

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

View of Ann Arbor taken in summer 1999
from the Landsat 7 satellite. (Image courtesy
Daniel G. Brown)
Spatial analysis (SA) and geographic information systems (GIS), once the tools of isolated disciplines, are showing up in more common places—including the popular media. Devotees of the television show “The District” probably have seen police using GIS as a crime-solving resource.

Within the University, researchers are applying these spatial technologies in a widening range of fields, from archaeology and art history to land-use management and social work. Now they have a means of gaining even more expertise and coordinating their resources.

In February 2000, the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) announced the U-M Initiative to Establish a Program in Spatial Analysis and Geographic Information Systems (SA/GIS). The two-year initiative is a collaborative effort to “integrate knowledge and facilities among units and to aid in the dissemination and use of geographic information and analysis.”

The effort is jointly sponsored by the OVPR, the Office of the Provost and the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. The program’s overall goals are to: better prepare students for future careers that may involve SA/GIS capabilities, enhance interdisciplinary research and collaboration using SA/GIS, and enhance the SA/GIS infrastructure on campus in support of both educational and research activities.

Central to the effort are the services of the Center for Statistical Consultation and Research (CSCAR), a unit within the OVPR. The Center, temporarily located in the Buhr Building, has expanded its consulting services for U-M and outside researchers who need assistance with problems related to spatial analysis. CSCAR now offers workshops, free online software support and installation, and a full-time consultant for help in project planning and execution.

“A big part of the initiative is the building of interdisciplinary teams that can collaborate on the use of GIS to look at certain problems,” says Josef M. Kellndorfer. As project associate with the OVPR, he helps coordinate activities and various initiatives launched with the SA/GIS Initiative.

“For example, Prof. Bob Marans, who has appointments in both the College of Architecture and Urban Planning and the Institute for Social Research, uses satellite imaging in his analysis of the link between environment and quality of life in the Detroit Area Study,” Kellndorfer says. “In epidemiological studies, researchers use digital databases to map mosquito-breeding areas.”

Daniel G. Brown, associate professor of natural resources and environment (SNRE), characterizes GIS as “a way of bringing together data from different sources—satellites, social surveys, fieldwork, base maps, aerial photography and infrared imagery.

“Through statistical methods and modeling, we synthesize these data to map changes in land-use patterns, environmental outcomes or even spatial patterns of violence in a city. In conservation studies, we can use high-resolution satellite imaging to track the spread of invasive species of plants,” Brown adds.

Brown, who also is director of SNRE’s Environmental Spatial Analysis Laboratory, is the principal investigator on a project that has received a portion of its funding from the SA/GIS Initiative. His project seeks to quantify the environmental impact of human activities in urban and urbanizing areas of southeastern Michigan and to link these impacts back to their effects on human health and well-being.

The SA/GIS Initiative 2000–02 provides $800,000 to fund matching grants for such research proposals. The researcher’s unit must provide one-third of the project’s total funding. A sampling of funded projects illustrates the diversity of disciplines that incorporate GIS and SA.

For example, Qiang Ning, assistant professor of history of art, is helping students and the American public understand the cultural/artistic traditions of China by developing an Internet GIS-based cultural map of China’s Silk Road. The project aims to collect and digitize works of the Chinese Buddhist monuments and to publish them on the Web.

Larry Gant, associate professor of social work, received funding for his proposal to introduce and explore the use of GIS in the School of Social Work. Since “archaeological data are inherently spatial data,” Susan E. Alcock, associate professor of classical archaeology and classics, is creating a center in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology for the study of spatial and cultural dimensions of the rise and evolution of Old World civilizations.

Among the initiative’s educational components is a new Certificate of Graduate Studies in Spatial Analysis. Offered through the Rackham Graduate School, the interdisciplinary program leads to a graduate certificate with a focus on applied remote sensing, GIS or spatial statistics. Students must complete a total of 15 credit hours within the program to receive the certificate, which they add to a master’s degree or Ph.D. They may select from a variety of existing courses in areas such as urban planning; atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences; civil engineering; and natural resources and environment.

Why earn this certificate along with a graduate degree? One answer is that businesses need professionals who can handle and manage digital geographic information.

“The growing market for location-based services will require this knowledge,” Kellndorfer says. “Cellular phone technology and new automobile navigation systems require GIS. At a recent meeting of the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science, we learned that about 4,000 students nationwide are receiving expertise in GIS and SA, while industry needs another 3,000-4,000 each year.”

Many faculty, students and researchers, regardless of their fields, may benefit from an understanding of the fundamentals of GIS/SA technology. The initiative offered a lecture series during the past academic year and plans to repeat the series with different speakers this fall. Open to the University community, the series brings in internationally known experts in GIS and SA who explain how the technologies contribute to various disciplines.

Interested faculty, staff and students also may take CSCAR workshops. The workshops cover principles and software packages related to basic and advanced spatial data analysis. Last November, more than 70 faculty members and students from a wide array of disciplines attended the CSCAR workshop, “Principles of Geographical Information Systems.”

The SA/GIS Initiative has sponsored two site licenses for GIS software—PCI Geomatics and ESRI products (ArcView/ArcInfo). CSCAR offers these tools, along with installation and operational support, at no charge to all U-M researchers.

CSCAR has hired a full-time SA/GIS consultant, Scott Swan, to help integrate GIS into teaching and research and assist with software needs. He can be reached at or (734) 764-STAT (7828)

As the SA/GIS Initiative reaches its midpoint, Kellndorfer and Brown are optimistic about the future of geographic information technologies at U-M. “The University Library has received a separate grant to establish spatial and digital data services, and we’re coordinating activities,” said Brown. “With the new graduate certificate program under way, along with CSCAR’s expanded services, this should become an ongoing effort with long-term payoffs.”

For more information on GIS/SA at Michigan, visit the Web at To be added to a mailing list for general announcements related to GIS/SA activities and services, send e-mail to