'World-renowned expert' joins ASU team to develop program in geographic information science

Michael Goodchild joins faculty as ASU launches the Spatial Analysis Research Center

ASU is expanding its focus on geographic information science — which takes mappable data and turns it into useful information — with the addition of a faculty member called by colleagues “arguably the world’s leader” in the field.

Michael Goodchild, professor emeritus at University of California, Santa Barbara and a well-known expert in the field, was called out of retirement to develop the study of geographic information science, known as GI science or GIS, and to help launch ASU’s Spatial Analysis Research Center (SPARC).

SPARC, which  exists within the School of Geographical Science and Urban Planning, was launched in December and aims to be one of the foremost leaders in GI science. 

"Many of the methods that we use – spatial methods, spatial analysis – were developed way back when computing technology was much more limited," Goodchild said. "And today with all this growth of technology, many of those methods can be rethought, reinvented, extended, made more powerful."

Goodchild said the field of GI science has grown exponentially since he first became involved.

“It was an exotic specialty,” Goodchild said. “This started about 30 years ago when people were being quite critical of GI (science).” 

Goodchild said that in the past, detractors thought of GI science as simple or not deserving of its own specialty. But now the technology supported by GI science is ubiquitous.

Trisalyn Nelson, a member of the SPARC team and the director of the School of Geographical Science and Urban Planning, said ASU has helped the growth of GI science and has been a leader in the field for the past 10 years.

“Now you can and you want to visualize almost everything on a map, but not all methods were designed to work in a mappable way,” Nelson said. “We’re really specialists at generating map-based analytics.”

The applications of this kind of technology range from everyday tools such as Google Maps to futuristic innovations, such as self-driving cars that rely on digital maps for navigation.

“One of the things that has happened very recently is that because of things like Google Maps it’s become possible for anyone to work… and do simple GIS things,” Goodchild said.

The technology is also used to plan where buildings, such as schools and hospitals, should be placed to serve their communities most effectively. 

“We have lots of data but we need also to figure out what's the best way to turn all of that into information that we can use to make better decisions,” Nelson said.

Nelson said ASU is pushing to hire faculty that will continue to develop the program as well as the minds and skill sets of students involved.

“It’s going to be one of the most employable fields: spatial data science, digital cartography, combining maps and statistics,” Nelson said. “These have all been identified by Forbes and others as key career options, so we want to make sure we have the faculty to support that.”

Goodchild is the kind of faculty ASU was looking for. Some of the current faculty working at SPARC were former students of his at UC Santa Barbara, another reason he said he was enticed to join the program.

“I’ve known ASU for a long time,” Goodchild said of his decision to accept a part-time position. “I’ve been tracking the changes that have occurred in the past couple decades, and I’m very impressed at what ASU has been able to achieve.”

Goodchild's hiring bolsters an "already strong" GIS program at ASU, said Wei Li, another professor in the School of Geographical Science and Urban Planning and member of SPARC.

"By adding a top-notch GI science scholar to our program, it would only make the program better," she said.

Nelson said ASU is lucky to have the combination of leaders and experts in GI science at SPARC, and said it was an “exceptional circumstance” to see an expert like Goodchild added to an already impressive team.

“We are really excited that (Goodchild) has joined our unit because he brings a lot of vision and prestige and a lot of energy,” Nelson said. “Every time he comes to campus he really invigorates ASU’s commitment to GI science.”

Reach the reporter at sabine.galvis@asu.edu or follow @sabinegalvis on Twitter.

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