CyberGIS Center launches
by Nicole Gaynor
GIS benefits pervade science, engineering, and the humanities. The new University of Illinois CyberGIS Center aims to strengthen and expand the community of GIS users and connect them to cutting edge computing resources to answer big, interdisciplinary questions.
Geospatial data, or information that is linked to location and time, can be complex, irregular, and generally tough to handle. On top of that, the data sets are usually massive. The new CyberGIS Center for Advanced Digital and Spatial Studies at the University of Illinois is poised to meet the challenge.
GIS stands for geographical information science and systems. The CyberGIS Center, which held its kickoff event on March 19, aims to enable novel, interdisciplinary collaborations that use GIS and connect various geo and spatial communities to high-performance computing and big data resources. The endeavor is built on a number of interdisciplinary initiatives, including the CyberGIS software initiative funded by a five-year, $4.43 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
“The Center is uniquely positioned to extensively draw upon and significantly enhance the excellence and distinction of Illinois across the digital and geo, spatial, and environmental areas,” said Shaowen Wang, founding director of the CyberGIS Center, “while presenting enormous opportunities for research breakthroughs, technology innovations and education benefits at Illinois and beyond with broad and deep societal impacts.”
Supporting interdisciplinary research is a shared goal of the CyberGIS Center and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), which is one of the organizations supporting the new Center, said John Towns, director of Collaborative eScience programs at NCSA. NCSA executive director Danny Powell added that NCSA is hosting the Center because NCSA's expertise and role in infrastructure research and development is critical to the future of CyberGIS.
“The CyberGIS Center and NCSA are a perfect partnership,” said Powell.
Bridging cyber and GIS
Though maps have existed for millennia, modern GIS gestated in the 1960s and 1970s. GIS exploded in subsequent decades as geospatial technologies like remote sensing satellites developed, data sets got bigger, and computers became more and more capable of storing and processing the incoming data.
The data stream has grown so much in breadth and volume that personal computing resources can no longer store, much less analyze, the data.
“What this requires is a whole new fertile field of combining cyber and GIS realms at scale,” said CyberGIS Center director Wang.
Kickoff keynote speaker E. Lynn Usery, director of the Center of Excellence for Geospatial Information Science with the United States Geological Survey, said that the holistic view of geospatial data that GIS provides often reveals answers that are otherwise invisible. For example, looking at the spatial distribution of temperature changes in conjunction with population and wealth distribution can show where climate change may have the largest impact on the greatest number of people.
Wang said this need to tie together different data sets and integrate digital and spatial studies, which inspired the vision of CyberGIS.
“People don’t understand that so many of the world’s problems now are completely interdisciplinary, that it’s about data and looking at data,” said U of I political science professor Wendy Tam Cho. “This is the rise of informatics and also of CyberGIS.”
Tam Cho studies bias in voting districts. She runs computationally intensive models on NCSA’s Blue Waters supercomputer to better understand the impact of democratic rule as it is set up in the United States. She said some days she programs like a computer scientist, and other days she develops statistical models like a statistician. Her work would be impossible without these tools at her disposal.
Tam Cho likened the development of CyberGIS to computer science. She explained that CyberGIS is not a separate field right now, as computer science once was seen as applied math rather than its own discipline. But she said she sees CyberGIS transitioning into a distinct field too.
Bringing GIS to the masses
“GIS is popping up in a lot of different areas,” said Towns, “but I don’t know that bridges between those communities are as strong as they might be.”
The CyberGIS Center is providing that bridge. CyberGIS software is already being used to address questions on topics as varied as infectious disease risk, water resources management, and optimal infrastructure for bioenergy. Middleware connects a CyberGIS Toolkit, which helps users scale their work to take full advantage of powerful computing resources, to an online CyberGIS Gateway for many concurrent users. This software suite is designed to shrink the technical barrier to access CyberGIS so more people and applications can use it.
For instance, using real-world data through CyberGIS can enhance student learning, said Ximing Cai, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois. He agreed with Tam Cho that potential users may still need to be trained to integrate subjects and use tools like CyberGIS to fully realize the potential of the bleeding edge technologies. The Center plans to tailor the software to meet the needs of the community as the community grows and help users learn the software and tools.
Peter Schiffer, vice chancellor for research at the University of Illinois, said the Center is well poised to revolutionize scholarship from engineering and science to the humanities.
About the CyberGIS Center
The mission of the CyberGIS Center is to empower advanced digital and spatial studies through innovation of CyberGIS technologies and applications. The Center is supported by College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of Geography and Geographic Information Science, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, Prairie Research Institute, and School of Earth, Society and Environment, all at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.