by Blake Coolidge, A17
The newly expanded
Data Lab on the Tisch
Library's second floor is lined with poster-sized infographics and
maps created by Tufts students using geographic information systems
(GIS) technology. The design of the instructional computing
classroom and research workspaces in the lab fosters GIS
collaboration and innovation across Tufts campuses and departments.
"GIS uses mapping technology to answer questions about spatial relationships," explains Patrick Florance, Tufts' Associate Director of Geospatial Technology. "It can provide an understanding of the spread and patterns of disease, areas most at risk for gentrification, or help in identifying populations most vulnerable to humanitarian crises."
The scope of GIS technology and its applications at Tufts includes almost every aspect of academic study, from understanding ice sheet melting patterns in Greenland, to examining air pollution in Boston. As the role of "big data"—the collection, storage, and processing of complex data sets—continues to expand, so does the visualizing and analyzing role of GIS. "Both the faculty and student body have welcomed the expansion of GIS," says Florance. "It enhances the interactive aspects of learning in many academic disciplines."
Originally, GIS courses were offered almost exclusively to graduate students within the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. Since Florance arrived at Tufts in 2006, the demand for GIS instruction has increased dramatically, especially in the last four years. Today, more than 500 undergraduate and graduate students use GIS mapping and data analysis in courses offered in departments including environmental studies, earth and ocean sciences; public health; urban and environmental policy and planning; civil and environmental engineering; international relations; biology; and many others. Introduction to GIS fills to capacity every semester and is offered within the international relations and environmental studies departments, but allows students to pursue research in any area of their choice. Other GIS courses explore the environment, catastrophes, agriculture, medicine, public health, food, and more.
The Data Lab—a collaboration of Tufts Technology Services' Geospatial Technology Services (GTS), the Tisch Library, and the Edward Ginn Library—also provides a variety of short GIS workshops that offer students a chance to learn useful applications and research methods such as an introduction to GPS or GIS for Water Resources. GTS also coordinates student collaborations with faculty on research projects, providing opportunities for students to receive hands-on experience with GIS as well as compensation for their work.