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There’s a map for that

How far are you willing to travel to visit a clean lake?

When Institute on the Environment’s Natural Capital Project lead scientist Bonnie Keeler wanted to better understand how lake users make decisions about their recreation choices and the value society places on water quality, she turned to U-Spatial, a center that provides technical support and worldwide spatial data — often in the form of highly detailed digital maps — for researchers across the University of Minnesota system.

Using Flickr photos of vacation spots in Minnesota and Iowa and associated information about the photographer’s home location, U-Spatial was able to plot the most likely route vacationers had taken to their destination, allowing Keeler to estimate distance traveled. She found that people are willing to drive farther to recreate on or near cleaner water.

“U-Spatial added so much value to that project,” said Keeler, who has used the study as an example of how unique methods and novel data can be used by water resource managers and other decision makers to prioritize conservation investments.

U-Spatial, part of Research Computing, was established in 2011 with funding from the Office for the Vice President of Research and matching grants from IonE and other University units. So far the staff has worked with 2,000 researchers in 150 departments and centers across campus, offering support to staff, students and faculty. IonE-affiliated researchers and others both benefit and contribute to the resource.

Len Kne, U-Spatial’s associate director, says the most common request is for geocoding — finding latitude and longitude from addresses — to reveal “geographic patterns,” such as crime hot spots or clusters of heart attacks.

“It’s incredibly useful,” says Nicholas Jordan, IonE fellow and agroecology professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Jordan says he has relied on U-Spatial for “collaborative geodesign” in his work to boost the productivity of agricultural landscapes while maintaining biodiversity, water quality and other ecosystem functions.

To be successful, the project Jordan has been leading for the past eight years needed people from all sides of the issue — farmers, watershed planners, community leaders — to fully understand the benefits and trade-offs of, say, converting streamside land to perennial grass. U-Spatial created a platform to help them do that.

“U-Spatial was able to visually show how parts of a landscape relate and how multiple purposes reflect each other” through use of an interactive tool built especially for the project, Jordan said.

This video produced by U-Spatial shows the platform at work.


U-Spatial has access to worldwide remote sensing and satellite imagery through licenses with the Digital Globe Foundation, and demographic and business-related statistics from sources such as Dun & Bradstreet, NAICS and the U.S. census via ESRI ArcGIS. They offer tutorials and workshops on how to use their service as well as offer guidance for other University resources.

The U-Spatial team is developing a new resource for use by anyone affiliated with the University called Data Locker, a spatial database and file storage service. The project recently got a $50,000 funding boost from IonE, among other supporters. The service helps researchers meet the requirements of data management plans and provides help all the way through archiving data when the project is complete.

“Instead of buying a new computer for your project, you can store it in the Data Locker and share it with anyone at the University and beyond,” Kne said. “The IonE funding allowed us to create a new position in the University Libraries, a spatial data curator, who guides researchers through the increasingly complex world of big spatial data.”

Partnering with U-Spatial proved a boon to Keeler, who was recently awarded a grant to expand her social media and travel cost project to look at tens of thousands of lakes across 17 U.S. states. Keeler and Kne have already found other ways to collaborate, including a study of visitation to parks in Minneapolis and Saint Paul and a new water use portal to visualize spatial data on water use in Minnesota.

“It’s the expertise and resources provided by U-Spatial that allow us to scale our work, rapidly build prototypes for new ideas and leverage the latest tools and techniques to solve interesting problems,” Keeler said.

Photo by &#169 MeshaZelkovich (iStock)

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