GIS program moves to University Libraries

Crocheted hats for cancer patients who have lost their hair during chemotherapy treatment. A program to engage people in reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and another to encourage at-risk students to consider careers in science.

These are just a few examples of hundreds of community service projects undertaken by the faculty, students and staff of Washington University in St. Louis and reported by the Gephardt Institute for Public Service.

In the past, it would have taken tremendous time and effort to track down information on when and where such projects were occurring. But now, thanks to the university’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) office and an interactive map the office created for the institute, Internet users easily can find it with a few clicks of the mouse.

That’s one illustration of the kind of projects that GIS can do, and university leaders say its work is a natural fit for the Washington University Libraries, where it moved as of Jan. 1. The GIS program previously fell under the Office of the Provost.

“The move of GIS to the University Libraries, a joint decision by the provost’s office, the University Libraries and GIS, represents the library’s ongoing commitment to connecting users to information,” says Jeffrey G. Trzeciak, university librarian.

“Increasingly, that information is in the form of data. GIS is an area of growing interest and one that crosses many disciplines and many different parts of the campus.”

Associate Provost Shelley Milligan, EdD, agrees that the Libraries are a logical home for the GIS program as it supports both academic and administrative functions.

“We thought there could be both intellectual and administrative synergy with its home there,” she says, adding that the change could increase the program’s visibility and encourage more on campus to tap the valuable resource.

While University GIS Coordinator Aaron Addison will move from his office in Rudolph Hall to Olin Library, several GIS resources will remain. Among them are the research studio and what’s known as “the Cave.” Rudolph Hall houses the university’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in Arts & Sciences.

The Cave, formally called the Fossett Laboratory for Virtual Exploration, is a 3-D visualization room where people can explore datasets by depicting the information on surrounding screens and work with the data using 3-D glasses and joysticks. Researchers have used the room to study everything from the surface of Mars to the skull of a baboon, Addison says.

The GIS office too often seems like a well-kept secret. The service is available to students, faculty and the administration at all WUSTL campuses.

Those who’d like to plot their data on a map, for example, are urged to call the GIS office and schedule a meeting.

If it’s simple enough, GIS staff usually can walk the person through how to create the map. If it’s more involved, they will prepare a proposal and a budget for the project.

One ongoing project is the GIS office’s updating and maintenance of an online mapping application for the St. Louis Regional Database Project. The initiative is an effort by the WUSTL Department of Education in Arts & Sciences’ Center for the Study of Regional Competitiveness in Science and Technology.

The project compiles data and research about K-12 area schools, teachers and students’ state test scores in various academic subjects. The information is tracked and displayed over time and at a regional level to give policymakers, administrators, teachers and parents easy access to data.

On the education front, the GIS office also can provide a guest lecturer for a class or help with course instruction, Addison says.

As Addison leads the GIS program in the transition to the University Libraries, the program also is expanding and creating a data services component. He says Data Services will focus more on “big” data processing and analysis and is a way for the program to grow and better serve the university community. In this new role, Addison will serve as the director of GIS and Data Services.

The goal is to get GIS and Data Services involved with faculty earlier in projects to provide input on data collection and project design, he says, so all can avoid headaches and more easily create visualizations from that data later.

Trzeciak says GIS has the potential to help the University Libraries grow.

“The University Libraries have historically played a role in supporting a broad spectrum of users across campus, so it is logical to see us providing this type of support for GIS, too,” he says. “The library recognizes the important role that GIS plays and, in fact, sees this as an area of growth for us. We are excited to have this opportunity to lead in a new direction and to enhance support for Data Services and GIS.”

Addison also says the change makes sense because both the library system and GIS serve the university as a whole rather than a particular department or program.

“GIS is one of these things that’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time,” Addison says.

Anyone interested in learning more about GIS at WUSTL is encouraged to contact the office at (314) 935-6198.