Space and place permeate today’s pressing problems, so spatial thinking can help.
That was the message of IonE’s October 14 Frontiers on the Environment talk, in which Institute fellow Steve Manson listed example after example as he addressed the Big Question, “How can spatial thinking solve environmental grand challenges?”
In addition to his IonE title, Manson is a professor of geography, environment, and society in the College of Liberal Arts and director of U-Spatial, an initiative that has worked with every college on campus to offer software, training and consulting for spatial thinking. Here’s what he made clear:
- Spatial technology has grown up. As environmental challenges — from a changing climate to a battered biosphere — have grown worse, spatial tech has grown up. The field made important baby steps in the mid-1800s, when British doctor John Snow took on London’s killer cholera outbreak by plotting sickness on a map and finding the cause: a single water pump. This early meeting of space, health and the environment pushed us toward a more mature spatial mind set. Today, with cellphones possessing processors and memory far greater than the supercomputers of 20 years ago, companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Uber invest millions of dollars in mapping while academia — including big places like Harvard and big journals like Science — embrace spatial thinking like never before.
- Zoomed-in data enable powerful projects. Today’s data take the level of spatial resolution to, well, the next level. A satellite suspended hundreds or thousands of miles above Earth can snap photos that let us pick out individual cars, single trees, and wrinkles in the ice of a glacier. We can even count penguins from space — and that’s exactly what researchers at the Polar Geospatial Center did, doubling previous estimates of the number of penguins that inhabit Antarctica. And conservation is not the only environmental subject that gets an assist from high-resolution aerial data: Manson also described a a detailed map of solar potential in the state that University of Minnesota students crafted to help homeowners and companies decide where to install solar panels.
- Better technology means community collaboration. Faculty at the U’s School of Nursing used geographic information systems and new imagery to help plan responses to Ebola. The resulting maps can be updated by health professionals working on the ground, bolstering shared information. Meanwhile, U-Spatial has rolled touch screens into towns in rural Minnesota, enriching conversations about sustainable agriculture by giving community members the opportunity to draw their idealized landscapes on shared maps.
- Big spatial data open big spatial questions. Manson said Big Data is “remaking the nature of science,” and spatial is no exception. Armed with large data sets, scientists are addressing global grand challenges. Regents Professor Vipin Kumar of the College of Science and Engineering and others use lots of data to map vegetation across Earth in a bid to predict how climate change will affect future plant life. The Global Landscapes Initiative and the Natural Capital Project also draw on and create huge stores of data. Meanwhile, IonE keeps working with partners both inside and outside the University to build out Terra Populus, which Manson says will — once it’s finished — be the largest curated human-environment data set in the world.
- Spatial still faces obstacles. While spatial technology can help us face environmental grand challenges, it still has some challenges of its own. Database issues are plentiful, with scientists thinking about how to efficiently store, manage and use vast swaths of data. Manson mentioned one student working on airplane noise who had to devise his own solution to keeping track of several million data points. Spatial, Manson said, needs strides for a better future. Likewise, with more data and higher-resolution images available, privacy remains a growing concern.