A spatial data deluge

10.16.13 -

by Shaowen Wang

Spatially heterogeneous and multi-scale changes across the globe, such as population growth, climate change, competing land uses, and accelerated resource and environmental degradation, have created grand challenges ranging from energy and environmental sustainability to health and wellness. To tackle these challenges, which exhibit tremendous geographical and spatial complexity, requires the consideration of interactions of spatial patterns and their driving processes across a number of spatial and temporal scales by combining heterogeneous spatiotemporal data, analytics and models to form novel problem-solving approaches supported by CyberGIS.

The development and use of geographic information systems (GIS)—computerized systems for capturing, transforming, managing, analyzing and visualizing geographic data—have grown immensely since they were invented in the mid 1960s. It is clear that this trend will persist into the foreseeable future driven by tremendous needs in numerous fields (e.g., business, emergency management, environmental engineering and sciences, geography and spatial sciences, geosciences, humanities, public health, and social sciences) and enabled by steady progress of related technologies. To sustain the trend, however, requires innovative CyberGIS capabilities based on synergistic integration of computational and spatial approaches enabled by advanced infrastructure of communication, computing, and information technologies.

CyberGIS has emerged as a new generation of GIS comprising a seamless integration of advanced cyberinfrastructure, GIS, and spatial analysis and modeling capabilities for empowering widespread scientific breakthroughs and broad societal impacts. As CyberGIS pioneers, my team provided a solid foundation for breakthroughs in diverse science and application domains and has contributed to the advancement of digital and spatial studies. During the past several years, we have fostered CyberGIS as an interdisciplinary field, leading this development through key publications and collaborative projects, meetings, conferences and workshops. For example, I am the principal investigator of a $4.43 million, five-year (2010-2015) multi-institution National Science Foundation project: CyberGIS Software Integration for Sustained Geospatial Innovation. This is a major initiative that involves seven academic institutions, one industrial partner (Esri), one U.S. government agency partner (U.S. Geological Survey), one Department of Energy laboratory (Oak Ridge National Laboratory), and three international partners in Australia, China, and the United Kingdom. The project is making solid progress on establishing a sustainable CyberGIS software environment while achieving major advances in digital and spatial studies. At the campus level, a dynamic CyberGIS community is emerging as reflected by active participation in the CyberGIS Speaker Series and a mailing list with over 60 faculty and staff subscribed from a number of units.

Tremendous opportunities exist across agencies and industries for inter- and multi-disciplinary collaborations to advance both research and education revolving around CyberGIS. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been a world leader of computing and information research for over half a century, and is the home for many world-class centers that fuel and benefit from the development of CyberGIS. A natural outgrowth from this is the recently established CyberGIS Center for Advanced Digital and Spatial Studies, hosted at NCSA, that I direct.

CyberGIS at Illinois is grounded in both basic and applied research of technologies and applications that have been carried out by my research group for more than a decade. As a result, multiple open-source or open-access software tools (e.g., CyberGIS Gateway and GISolve Toolkit) created by this research program have been used by thousands of researchers in a number of disciplines for tackling computing and data challenges and making scientific breakthroughs.

The CyberGIS Center is well poised to revolutionize many areas of scholarship, ranging from engineering and science to the humanities, and will focus on the following four interrelated areas while engaging a number of related fields across campus and beyond:

  • Sciences and technologies of CyberGIS (e.g., advanced cyberinfrastructure, computer science, computational and data science, geography and geographic information science, library and information science, mathematics, and statistics);
  • Research and engineering applications of CyberGIS for enabling creative work, discovery, and innovation (e.g., agriculture, applied health sciences, atmospheric sciences, business, civil and environmental engineering, geography and geographic information science, geology, history, political science, sociology, urban and regional planning, and veterinary medicine);
  • Human and societal dimensions of CyberGIS (e.g., business, communication, geography and geographic information science, industrial and enterprise systems engineering, and psychology).
  • CyberGIS education, outreach and training.