Spring 2013

There’s a map for that

GIS turns data into digital gold mine

Feature Image
Jonathan Cohen
John Frazier, distinguished service professor of geography, has witnessed the transition from traditional maps — like the one he is holding — to maps generated with geographic information systems (GIS) software. GIS takes myriad data sets and "attaches" them to a place (such as household incomes in particular census tracts), providing a depth of information that is easy to understand. Frazier helped bring GIS technology to Binghamton.

John Frazier remembers that “aha” moment, in 1977, when Harpur College of Arts and Sciences Dean Sheldon Grebstein first viewed a digital map of the City of Binghamton and saw the future of the “new” geography.

“He said, ‘I’ve been here a long time, and very few things shock me or get my attention, but this does,’” says Frazier, distinguished service professor of geography.

What the dean saw was more than a grid of streets; he saw distinct neighborhoods, identifiable by characteristics drawn from census data, such as the distribution of housing and income. And he understood its potential.

The map was created with geographic information systems (GIS) technology. Since then, GIS has blown the dust off traditional geography and turned it into an indispensable tool for nearly every discipline. GIS software takes raw numbers (think data, stats, GPS coordinates) and attaches them to a place, creating sophisticated, multilayered digital maps that can reveal relationships and patterns among discrete sources of information.

“It’s not just hitting a button and getting a pretty picture,” Frazier says. “You have to learn to ask which technique is appropriate to the data, or what data are required if a particular technique is used. It allows you to visualize and analyze information quickly and easily that you couldn’t do before,” he says.

Frazier helped create the GIS Core Facility at Binghamton University in 2001 and is its part-time director.

One of the first GIS maps that Frazier created shows where students live off campus, which helps determine bus routes. It is updated every few years and shows a trend of students moving to Vestal (Frazier says no names are associated with addresses in the data).

Beyond bus routes, GIS allows the University to track its economic impact on Broome County and its communities. “We’re using raw data, survey data and campus data and converting it to geography to illustrate, in real-dollar terms, the impact of the changing location of students,” he says.

Kevin Heard, MA ’02, is assistant director of the facility and its only full-time employee. “I get the data and make it talk,” he says.

On campus, the GIS facility has helped myriad groups: alumni relations, student affairs, nursing, political science, public archaeology and computer science, to name a few. David Sloan Wilson, professor of biological sciences, used it to map Christmas lights on Binghamton streets as a means of judging how cohesive a neighborhood is.

Off campus, GIS has helped environmental groups, museums and law enforcement, and it helped implement Broome County’s recycling program. In 2005, Heard was asked to create a map of cell-phone towers and call transmissions between Binghamton and Baltimore for evidence in a murder trial.

“GIS made the information into something the jury could visualize. You could tell them when and where cells were activated, but a picture speaks a thousand words,” Heard says.

Read on to learn how two Binghamton professors use GIS to help communities and solve mysteries.

Feeding a need

Geography and backpacks don’t have much in common, but a project involving both helps put nutritious food into the homes of school-age children who might not get enough to eat on weekends or holidays.

While it’s easy for a teacher to discreetly slip a bag of food into a child’s backpack, knowing which students across six counties are most in need of supplemental food requires more than just knowing who receives reduced-price lunches.

When the operators of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier wanted to expand its service beyond stationary food pantries — by taking food to the people instead of making people travel to the pantries — they asked Professor of Geography Florence Margai for help, starting with the Backpack Program.

“They wanted us to help them identify the districts most in need so they could prioritize their efforts,” says Margai, who for more than 20 years has used GIS, remote sensing (satellites) and other technologies to examine environmental hazards, health disparities and environmental justice issues around the world.

Margai, computer cartographer Lucius Willis, MA ’83, a longtime contributor to GIS projects, and their students began collecting census and other data to help identify variables such as poverty, participation in subsidy programs and access to “summer sites,” where children can get meals during summer vacation. Multiple data sets were used to create layers on a map. Statistical analyses further sorted and refined the information, and mapping software pulled it all together.

“We brought in all these layers and created a ranked distribution of the areas of need,” Margai says.

That’s the value of GIS.

“It allows you to acquire multiple layers of data and create descriptive maps — maps that show the distribution and patterns for each of these layers. You can merge these layers to look for associations. GIS is not just descriptive, it is also analytical and it is a prescriptive tool for decision-making,” she says.

Natasha Thompson, president and CEO of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, says the Backpack Program could have been done without GIS, but without the depth of understanding of the problems or the solutions.

“Those maps were incredibly useful when we were talking to donors and community groups,” she says, because they could visualize the problem. “We would say, this is our plan for growth: It isn’t arbitrary, it’s based on access to other services.”

The program started in 2005 at three sites and has since expanded to 19 sites in the 2010–11 school year. “It is tremendously successful,” Thompson says.

Mapping paths to discovery

For 30 years, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Randall McGuire has been studying the cerros de trincheras, literally the fortified hills, that rise out of the flat Sonoran desert in Mexico.

These hills have long intrigued scholars because of the terraces and walls built into them between AD 500 and 1450. Were they added to make the hills easier to climb or easier to defend? And why climb them — settlements were unlikely because water is not easily accessible — and what was there to defend?

Answers were speculative, at best, until GIS changed the way the professor and his colleagues could look at the hills, says McGuire, who did fieldwork on the trincheras in 2006, with funding by the National Science Foundation and National Geographic Society.

Kevin Heard, MA ’02, assistant director of the GIS Core Facility, turned McGuire’s data into a two-layered representation of a hill. One layer showed the natural features and slope. Another showed the hills and terraces. Points were plotted every 5 meters around the bottom of the hill, and lines connected the points to the entrance of a fortress at the summit.

Using least-cost path analysis (which determines how to get from Point A to Point B by expending the least amount of energy), two paths to the summit were measured: One ascent had no impediment, the other had zigzags and barriers created by the terraces and walls.

“If the terraces and walls are defensive, then we would expect that they would increase the cost [in effort] of climbing the hill, not decrease it,” McGuire says. “We also expect they would channel the least-cost paths so that defenders could easily intercept people coming up.”

The GIS analysis validated that theory, convincing researchers that defense was the reason for the walls and terraces. And ceremonial sites — as indicated by the location of artifacts such as shells on top of the hill — are what needed defending.

McGuire remembers when this kind of analysis would start with a topographic map overlaid with sheets of acetate showing different information.

“The time difference in using GIS rather than the old-fashioned way is not even comparable; you can’t do the same thing,” he says. “The people in the GIS facility are probably not even old enough to remember the old-fashioned way.”