A World of Change


Dreams, Realities and Future Directions in Spatial Technology


by Joseph K. Berry, Keck Geosciences Scholar


W.M. Keck Geosciences Center, Ribbon Cutting Luncheon

University of Denver — September 29, 1999



[Slide #1 …title]   In contemplating what to include in this talk, the idea of “where is GIS?” kept cropping up.  Not so many years ago the answer to that question was simply, “down the hall and to the right, …I think?”  In three short decades, Geographic Information Systems have evolved from computer mapping, to spatial database management systems, and more recently, to modeling complex spatial relationships.  However, with the popularity of this technology, the readings of its current trends and probable futures are as diverse as its growing community of users. 


Keeping ahead of technology often involves rethinking fundamental concepts and assumptions in light of new capabilities and procedures.  The geosciences are at the threshold of a "World of Change" induced by technology, but do we have the cart in front of the horse?  What geographic concepts hold?  Which evolve under new map forms and expressions?  What entirely new mechanisms and techniques might arise?  How do digital maps change what we do and how we do it?  Who are the ultimate developers and users of this new technology?



These are interesting and ponderous questions.  Contrary to my academic background, I will heed the King’s advice in Alice in Wonderland—“…Begin at the beginning, and go until you come to the end; then stop”—hopefully before dessert is a distant memory and your patience exhausted. 


[Slide #2 …General Halftrack] "…there’s only one problem having all this sophisticated equipment; we don’t have anyone sophisticated enough to use it.”


Therein lies an important concern of any evolving technology—understanding.  Not only is understanding needed at the leading edge, but it's needed at the bleeding edge of general users.  Education, both formal and informal is needed to translate technological promise into practical reality. 



GIS means different things to different people.  To some, it’s a tool that extends mapping to the masses.  It allows the construction of custom maps from any desktop.  It enables the spatially challenged to electronically locate themselves on a map, request the optimal path to their next destination, as well as checking the prices of motels along the way.  When coupled with a cell phone, they can call for help and their rescuers will triangulate on the signal, and deliver a gallon of gas and an extra large pizza before its cold.  Finding yourself has never been easier—the revolution of the digital map is firmly in place.


[Slide #3…RealEstate1]  For example, a new-age real estate agent can search the local multiple listing for suitable houses, then electronically “post” them to a map of the city. 





[Slide #4  …RealEstate2]  A few more mouse-clicks and a prospective buyer a thousand miles away can take a video tour of the homes "within three-quarters of a mile from the hospital where he will work."  And by viewing a GPS-linked video, take a drive around the neighborhood.




[Slide #5  …RealEstate3]  A quick geo-query of the spatially-linked database, locates neighboring shopping centers, churches, schools and parks. 





[Slide #6  …RealEstate4]  The city’s zoning map, land use plan, proposed developments and aerial imagery can be superimposed for a glimpse of future impacts.  Demographic summaries by census tracts can be generated and financial information for “comparables” can be plotted and cross-linked for a better understanding of market dynamics.  Armed with this information narrowing the housing choices, a prospective buyer can “hit the ground running” right off the plane—the revolution of spatial database management is here, and increasingly, everywhere.



[Slide #7  Location slide)  Mapping tells us where we are; spatial reasoning tells where we might go and what to do there.


The “intellectual glue” supporting new-age mapping and management applications of GIS is still being forged on many campuses.  The Keck Geosciences Center is an intellectual and technical pillar in the whirlwind of change altering how we view and interact with spatial phenomena.  The facilities and faculty unquestionably catapults the University of Denver to the forefront.  However, along with these resources comes a great deal of responsibility, and leadership in academic organization is near the top of the list.


On less fortunate campuses, GIS has spawned a quagmire of skirmishes, not new facilities and eager individuals.  Some view GIS as a money pit draining the life-blood from traditional programs.  It appears as an insatiable beast—like the plant’s constant cry of “MORE!” in the play The Little Shop of Horrors, devouring whole computer labs with a terabyte appetite and top-end taste in peripherals.  To others it's an insertion of yet another "techno-science" into the already burgeoning curricula and limited budgets.  GIS’s tentacles are tugging at every academic department, and on most campuses, spatial technology is alternately viewed as Satan and savior like a Rorschach inkblot. 


[Slide #8  Impaired slide]  "…Life is difficult for the organizationally impaired"; spatial database technology organizes massive amounts of information previously thought to be disjoint.


While a “center of excellence,” has obvious merits, its place in the academic community must be nurtured.  As with other aspects of campus life, GIS technology benefits more from its diversity than from its oneness.  It's the challenge of the Keck Center to ensure that the multitude of perspectives and paradigms of spatial technology across campus have a fertile seedbed within its walls. 


A chemist's view of space, be it a microscope slide, in final analysis is not that different from a geographer's.  An anthropologist might analyze a series of map layers for likely areas of former civilizations without knowing that the GIS model she employed was nearly identical to that used by a market forecaster in identifying areas of high propensity for home equity loans.


Space has become the common denominator for a myriad of applications and geography is the common language.  The speed that GIS becomes intertwined into the fabric of society, and spatial reasoning a matter of fact, will be influenced by a "Center that's not centralized." 


The GIS Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

[Slide #9  Strange Beast]  GIS modeling might at first appear a strange beast but actually it’s an assemblage of many familiar disciplines and common sense.


The issues of "What GIS is (and isn’t)" and "Who is a GIS'er" are critical in the evolution—no revolution— occurring in the geosciences.  Some of the earlier responses defined it as a mapping science, and it became the domain of the cartography unit on campus.  Other responses emphasized its computer and database underpinnings and placed it in the computer science department. 


Most current definitions, however, spring from a multitude of applications in diverse departments, such as natural resources, land planning, engineering, business and the health sciences.  The result is a patchwork of GIS definitions aligning with the separate discipline perceptions of its varied applications. 



[Slide #10  Beginning Duck slide]  …actually, GIS concepts are as easy as "Beginning Duck" because the planes of reference are outgrowths of real-world experience and common sense.


Our struggles in defining GIS revolve less around its mapping and management concerns, than its application contexts and expressions.  Although there are variations in data structures, a myriad of geo-referencing possibilities, and a host of methods to derive map displays, it’s GIS’s modeling component that causes most of the confusion and heated debates of "what GIS is (and isn’t)." 


We have been mapping and managing spatial data for a long time.  The earliest systems involved file cabinets of information that were linked to maps on the wall through "shoe leather."  One would simply wear a path between the map and files whenever spatial and descriptive data were needed. 


[Slide #11  Linking Maps and Data]  The electronic link between mapping and data management certainly has expedited this process and saved considerable shoe leather… but come to think of it, it hasn’t fundamentally changed the process.  GIS software’s mapping and data management components are a result of a technological evolution, whereas its modeling component is a revolution in our perception of geographic space, spatial relationships and users of maps. 




[Slide #12  Software Life Cycles]  …like technology itself, the software life cycle begins as an idea for a super-sonic tool, then takes on a somewhat different shape as implementation reality sets in…but keep in mind, spatial technology is more than just software.



[Slide #13  Investigating Spatial Relationships]  In today's world, maps are numbers first, pictures later.  This new perspective of spatial data is destined to change our paradigm of map analysis, as much as it changes our procedures. 


For example, consider the emerging field of Precision Farming.  With mud up to axles and 400 acres left to plow, precision in farming can seem worlds away. Yet site-specific management makes sense to a rapidly growing number of farmers.  Mapping and analyzing field variability for better economic and ecological decisions puts production agriculture at the cutting edge of GIS applications—both down to earth and downright ambitious.


[Slide #14  Sstat1_Descrete]  Traditionally, fertilization programs were determined by averaging soil samples taken throughout a field.  Today, soil samples are collected with GPS coordinates then spatially interpolated for maps of nutrient variations throughout a field.  This process can be conceptualized…



[Slide #15  Sstat2_Animation]  …as first "guessing" that all of the non-sampled locations are identical to the closest sample point (click on the hyperlink to the SStat slide set).  The next series of steps involves passing a "smoothing filter" over the data… once, twice, three, four times.  Now that looks like what the point data was trying to tell you—more phosphorous in the NE portion of the field, not much in the NW. 


The “smoothing” process is similar to slapping a big chunk of modeler’s clay over the data spikes, then taking a knife and cutting away the excess to leave a continuous surface that encapsulates the peaks and valleys implied in the original field samples—a map of the variation in phosphorous throughout the field.



But what if we keep smoothing the data?  … 9 times, 19, 29, 39, 49, 99 times!  What do you think would happen if you smoothed it 9,999 times?  (last slide in the animated series) Yep, it would be a horizontal plane aligning with the arithmetic average (…press Esc to return, then advance to slide #16). 


[Slide #16  Sstat3_Continuous]  Note that the whole-field average is hardly anywhere.  Most of the field is either well-above or well-below the average.  A fertilization application based on the assumption that the "average" amount of phosphorous is everywhere, would be adding even more in the NE where it's not needed and probably not enough in the NW where it' deficient—bad for the environment and bad the pocketbook. 


[Slide #17  …PF Process]  The Precision Farming process "is about doing the right thing, in the right way, at the right place and time." 


As a combine moves through a field it checks the GPS location and yield flow every second and writes this information to a data file that is used to generate a map of yield variation every few feet throughout a field.  This map is combined with soil, terrain and other mapped data to derive a “Prescription Map” that is used to automatically adjust fertilization levels every few feet as a spray rig moves in the field.  The result is to constantly adjust the fertilization prescription to the unique combination of conditions occurring in the field. 



Whew!!!  …farmers at the cutting edge of GIS; what'll they think of next?  Consider another "non-traditional" perspective of geographic space—a floor plan of a superstore—and another off-the-wall new user of spatial technology—a retail store manager.



[Slide #18  …Shopper Movement]  In a sense, the floor plan of a mega-store—the graphic on the left—is similar to a street map of Manhattan.  The aisles are like streets and the shelves are like apartment houses.  Use of the map involves navigating the aisles to pickup items on the shelves then head for the checkout.


The cash register data identifies where shoppers have been and the plausible route they took can be modeled.   The implied paths for each shopping cart are summed over specified time periods to generate maps of shopper movement and sales activity.  The pair of maps on the right identifies shopper movement for a morning and an afternoon period.  Note the high activity depicted as warmer tones around the "impulse items" at the checkouts during both periods. 


What is counter-intuitive is the very high activity in the "cards and candy section."  At first this was thought to be a data or modeling error but the results were persistent.  The explanation didn't come until the client revealed that the test data set was for a 24-hour period before Valentine's Day. 


When shopper movement is compared to maps of sales activity the store manager can identify areas where shoppers are constantly passing but not purchasing—his thoughts quickly move to changing the product mix on the end-caps. 


[Slide #19  …Shopper Movement--animation]   The GIS model can be extended by "animation" of the maps of Shopper Movement and Sales to show how patterns change throughout the day (…click on the hyperlink to activate).  When the side-by-side displays are animated, the warmer colors of higher activity appear to roll in and out like wisps of fog under the Golden Gate Bridge.  The similarities and miss-matches in the ebb and flow of movement and sales provide a dramatic view of the spatial/temporal relationships contained in the traditionally non-spatial records of cash registers receipts. (…stop the mpeg movie, then advance to slide #20).


[Slide #20  Video Mapping System]

That brings us to another "beyond mapping" application—the linking of multimedia and GIS.  GPS signals can be "stamped" to one of the audio channels whenever a handy-cam is used.  When the tape is played back to the computer, it's automatically geo-referenced to a base map.  This allows users to click on a map and retrieve the streaming footage or a captured still image for any location.   (…hyperlink to HTMLs)


[#] For example, an ultraliteyou know a hang glider with an enginewas used for a “bumblebee” flight over Lorry State Park.  Clicking anywhere along the flight path brings up the aerial footage beginning at that location.  Users can “drop a pin” at any point and capture a still image for that location (…click on a couple of blue dots). 


[#] Field plots can be augmented with images, as well as traditional inventory data and summary statistics (…click on a couple of red dots).  In this vein, field data collection is extended to field experience collection that tempers abstract maps and dense tables with glimpses of reality (…return from hyperlink).


[Slide #21  VF general scene]  GIS's "paper map" legacy is extended through a rich set of geo-query and display tools that facilitate data handling.  Video multimedia links the GIS to reality.  However, effective decision-making requires more than just data access and graphical presentation of current conditions.


GIS not only describes “what is,” but can help us visualize and communicate “what could be.”  This slide is a computer-generated scene with texture mapping and rendering replacing familiar map colors and symbols with realistic tree-objects that are “poured” onto a terrain surface.  The result is a virtual reality of a forest database that resonates with viewers. 


[Slide #22 …Forested scene]  An important advantage of a virtual forest is the ability to simulate management alternatives and get a good picture of various effects.  For example, consider this computerized landscape derived from an ArcInfo vegetation map.  Inventory data of tree type, age, composition and stocking for each forest parcel is used to place the trees, grass, and other features in the scene.  But what would the scene look like if a clear-cut were introduced?



[Slide #23 …Clearcut scenario A]  The user should be able to query a simulation as easily as they geo-query a static database.  In this example, the user simply identified the type of harvest and the forest parcels involved to generate the simulated rendering.  Or different harvest boundaries can be simulated…




[Slide #24 …Clearcut scenario B] …to investigate the visual impacts of other possible bad haircuts.  To be effective in decision-making, the interaction with a GIS must be immediate and comfortable for the decision-makers.  If there is a time-lag for GIS wizards to concoct their magic, the interactive dialog with mapped data is lost.






[Slide #25 …Conclusion]  Whew… by now all this might seem a bit deep and farfetched.  However, it is certain that the future trends in GIS are taking us farther from the traditional map room to unfamiliar areas where spatial technology isn't a static map but an active ingredient in spatial reasoning by a host of non-traditional map users.  Within this context, GIS evolves from its traditional roles of automated cartography, thematic mapping and geo-query to an integral part of how we address complex spatial issues. 


Along this path, many of the changes in mapping will be found in new applications.  Effective education and communication with the growing world of map users becomes the catalyst for transformation.  The students, staff and faculty at the Keck Geosciences Center are armed with the resources and opportunities to lead spatial technology during this dynamic period.  As with most things geographical, people and place are the key elements—in this instance, they ensure the University of Denver a leadership role in the geosciences' changing world.


Joseph K. Berry, Keck Geosciences Scholar

University of Denver, September 29, 1999



Speaker's note:  More information on topics discussed in this presentation is posted online at…


ü       http://www.innovativegis.com/basis/present/present.html select Online Papers, "Education, Vocation and GIS Enlightenment"

ü       http://www.innovativegis.com/basis/present/present.html select PowerPoint Presentations, "Conceptual Understanding of Interpolation Surfaces"

ü       http://www.innovativegis.com/basis/pfprimer/ select "The Precision Farming Primer—Introduction"

ü       http://www.innovativegis.com/basis/present/present.html select Online Papers, "Spatial Analysis of Shopper Movement and Sales Activity"

ü       http://www.redhensystems.com/ select "Video Mapping System"

ü       http://www.innovativegis.com/ select "Virtual Forest"