University of Minnesota

Support for spatial research

The U of M has embarked on a visionary endeavor to develop a network in support of Geographical Information Sciences across the University.

June 18, 2013

Research universities create mountains of data, and more and more, that data is tethered to a place in the world. The world is, after all, spatial—and information is not an island.

The technology and field behind that spatial data are called Geographical Information Sciences (GIS). The University of Minnesota has embarked on a visionary endeavor, called U-Spatial, to develop a network to support spatial research across the University, in fields ranging from nursing to watershed restoration. By using expert consultants and providing training and support in spatial research, U-Spatial is making research more meaningful and usable to researchers and society. It's also reducing redundancy in support for spatial science research.

A leader in GIS

For more than 50 years, the University of Minnesota has been a national and international leader in spatial research. The U helped create one of the first geographic information systems in the 1960s, and offered the first professional degree program in GIS in the United States. As the world makes the "spatial turn," as some have called the GIS revolution, the U is the place to be.

More than Google Maps

GIS is growing, and it will play an ever-increasing role in the future. If you've used Google Maps, you've used an element of GIS, but it is much more than this. Society uses spatial data, for example, in responding to disease outbreaks or climate change, and in resource management, transportation, and more. The U.S. Department of Labor identifies spatial technology alongside nanotechnology and biotechnology as high growth industries in the 21st century.

At the U of M, an incredible number of researchers are working with spatial information. But with the complexity of the University, creators of U-Spatial weren't sure just how many there were and what needs they had—in other words, who and how many researchers they could assist in spatial sciences.

"When we started a few years ago, we had a list of 100 people doing spatial research on campus—now we're up to more than 1,000," says Len Kne, associate director of U-Spatial.

Improving research quality

In part, that list has grown by raising awareness of U-Spatial services, through training opportunities like GIS 101 (which has introduced GIS to more than 600 people), an annual symposium, and regular meetings to encourage collaboration.

But they're also hearing from researchers who are recognizing opportunities to incorporate spatial components into their research. Madeline Kerr, a professor in the School of Nursing, approached U-Spatial for assistance on an "age-friendly city" project that allowed her students to document dimensions of neighborhoods, such as parks, curb cuts, adequate seating for aging persons, bus stops, and easy-to-read signs.

U-Spatial developed a mobile app that allowed Kerr's students to traverse neighborhoods and collect those data points, which are then layered into searchable maps. The app could someday be used as an interface for the public to analyze the livability of cities and neighborhoods worldwide.

"We provide the technical expertise, so she doesn't have to worry about how the app works," says Francis Harvey, director of U-Spatial and associate professor of geography.

GIS research centers

The U of M has many internationally known spatial research centers, including the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, the Remote Sensing and Geospatial Analysis Laboratory, the Minnesota Population Center, the Geographic Information Sciences Laboratory, the Global Landscapes Initiative and the Polar Geospatial Center.

Reducing admin overhead

Harvey says Kerr's is just one example of potentially hundreds where researchers would otherwise have to teach themselves new tools outside their field of expertise. "That can be very time- consuming, and as a result, costly," says Harvey. "It's overhead we're helping to remove for researchers, so they can focus on what we're supposed to be doing at a University—research and teaching."

U-Spatial is also focused on safely storing data, and, when beneficial, making it accessible, so that the mountains of data produced don't end up, so to speak, piled high on an island, coordinates unknown. In the past that scenario has resulted in overlapping research—because the data, says Harvey, was on a hard drive somewhere, inaccessible to a search.

Daniel Sward, a GIS analyst in U Services, is co-leading a U-Spatial initiative to streamline data discovery, access, archiving, and preservation.

University Services, which is responsible for the physical environment of the U, uses a GIS database for asset management—for example, its hundreds of miles of pipes, its 10,000 trees on the UMTC campus alone, and its 2,500 street lights.

Sward saw an opportunity to partner with U-Spatial in an innovative approach that opens up non-academic resources for academics.

"We said, 'Hey, spatial research uses the same technical infrastructure. So how about we open it up and let U-Spatial's customers use it, rather than [researchers] having to hire five database analysts to support five databases that spring up in five different departments,'" says Sward.

"It happens," he says. "So we're trying to cut out that piece for researchers if we can."

For more information about U-Spatial, read the cover story of the 2012-13 issue of ArcNews, written by U-Spatial founders Francis Harvey, Len Kne, and Steven Manson.

Operational Excellence
U-Spatial is one of many University efforts aimed at creating efficiency and reducing administrative overhead. Learn more at

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