Research News

UB marks 30 years as national hub for GIScience

Professor Chris Renschler (IGERT Faculty) leads a group of students in a post-disaster building damage assessment following the Haiti Earthquake.

For 10 years, NCGIA hosted a prestigious, multimillion-dollar NSF IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education Research and Traineeship) program in GIS. Here, Professor Chris Renschler leads a group of students in a post-disaster building damage assessment following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published May 11, 2018

“The work of NCGIA is vital today as GIS becomes increasingly integrated into our daily life.”
David Mark, former director
UB's National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis site

In 1988, the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) opened at UB, putting Buffalo on the map as a hotspot for GIS.

Short for Geographic Information Science, this field involves the use of spatial data to understand problems ranging from disease outbreaks to the impact of natural disasters. Crime mapping, epidemiological modeling and Google Earth are all GIS applications, to name a few.

Today — in a world where GIS technologies have become a part of everyday life — UB and NCGIA remain at the forefront of the discipline.

On May 11, university leaders and researchers will celebrate NCGIA’s 30th anniversary at a reception in Capen Hall. UB’s NCGIA site is one of only three funded by the National Science Foundation. The other two are at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Maine.

Ling Bian, director of NCGIA at UB, was a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when the center was founded in 1988. She recalls that it immediately brought UB international visibility.

“I was a graduate student at the time, and I wished that someday I could work with these guys,” she says. “I had no idea I would be the director one day. Being hired here? A career highlight.”

UB’s NCGIA site is housed in the Department of Geography in the College of Arts and Sciences. But for three decades, the center has been cultivating collaborations — and friendships — between researchers across the university. Staff have supported work in fields as diverse as engineering, public health and the humanities.

The center organizes speaker series, conferences and funding opportunity seminars. It also provides assistance in developing funding proposals, and has aided UB faculty in securing competitive grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health, NASA and New York State.

With NCGIA’s support, UB’s community of GIS researchers has tackled a variety of interesting problems over the years.

This work has included mapping damaged buildings after a massive earthquake hit Haiti in 2010; exploring how prehistoric societies in Arctic regions adapted to ancient changes in climate; and conducting a smartphone survey to track the spread of flu in Western New York — a study geared toward improving models that predict how infectious disease spreads. One new NSF-funded project focuses on mapping linguistic diversity in a rural region of Cameroon where the average adult speaks five different languages, including ones that are endangered.

NCGIA at UB has also helped to educate the next generation of GIScience innovators.

For 10 years beginning in 1999, the center hosted a prestigious, multimillion-dollar NSF IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education Research and Traineeship) program in GIS, led by then-NCGIA director David Mark, a SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Geography. K-12 outreach has included a GIScience-focused summer camp in which middle schoolers and their teachers used drones to map Cradle Beach Camp in 2017. (A similar activity will take place again in 2018 and 2019.)

“Young people in the field know about NCGIA,” says Bian, who is also a professor of geography. “It has brought UB a lot of visibility. Many of the students who went through our IGERT program are now the leaders in GIScience today.”

That’s just one example of NCGIA’s influence on global research in GIS. Another: On Jan. 1, Bian was named geographic methods (formerly methods, models and GIS) editor for the Annals of the AAG, the American Association of Geographers’ flagship research journal. Over the years, NCGIA at UB’s leadership has helped to raise the center and the university’s reputation in the field, with the past three directors being Ross MacKinnon, Michael Batty and David Mark.

“The work of NCGIA is vital today as GIS becomes increasingly integrated into our daily life,” says Mark. “With location-based functionality embedded in so many smartphone apps and vehicle systems, there is even more need for new geographic information theory and computational methods, as well as attention to the social implications of the technology.”