CORVALLIS - If a group of geographers and universities get their wish, the field of "geographic information science" will soon gain more recognition as a scientific discipline, more capability to address problems in business, government and industry - and about $40 million a year in federal support.
The payoff for that funding, they say, will be improved ability to use computerized geographic information in everything from disaster planning to agriculture, forest science and crime control.
Modern geography is a far cry from the old days of memorizing the capitals of all 50 states or knowing the major grain crops of the Midwest. Such facts and a few trillion more have now been married to computers, satellites, remote sensing and digital technology to tackle serious, real-world issues.
In Oregon, for instance, geographic information systems are being used to study coastal erosion patterns, manage crops, identify habitat suitable for endangered species, help communities make sense of their land use options and even produce maps of the ocean floor unlike any that ever before existed.
"Geographic information technology is a powerful tool to help meet the nation's economic, social and strategic objectives," said Dawn Wright, an assistant professor of geosciences at Oregon State University, and delegate in a new consortium seeking more support for this emerging science.
Wright and other delegates from this "University Consortium for Geographic Information Science," which includes 43 of the nation's universities with leading programs in this field, last month were part of an initiative in Washington, D.C., to help educate congressmen, senators and their staffs about the potential of this science, the obstacles and the needed support to make further progress.
"In the past, geographic information science has had to find support in piecemeal fashion from other scientific disciplines," Wright said. "We think the potential of this technology is too vast for that to continue. This science deserves its own recognition, educational programs and research support."
To that end, the consortium is asking Congress to create for the 1999 fiscal year a $20 million annual research program under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, $5 million for other grant competitions in this field, and five university research centers with support of $3 million a year for collaborative research across many disciplines.
"Several of the political leaders I spoke with were very positive, and we're hoping for action this year in Congress on our proposals," Wright said. "Our university consortium is helping the science community to speak with one voice on the problems and possibilities in this area."
Just at OSU, traditionally among the nation's leaders in this field of study, there are at least 10 different departments and 40 scientists in programs heavily involved in geographic information science.
OSU geographers once would have mapped rivers or documented fishery outputs. Now, they're using everything from satellite technology to forest stand simulation models to actively help save the salmon in those streams, more effectively manage lands and restore the health of degraded ecosystems.
Near Hermiston, OSU scientists have used aerial remote sensing technology and computer programs to help potato farms decide exactly when to fertilize their fields. Global climate models are being developed that will help translate the impacts of greenhouse warming on old-growth forests.
A couple years ago an OSU engineering student outlined how an electronic device based on use of the global positioning system could help track down stolen cars. And transportation planning programs are already helping traffic flow more smoothly in Portland.
According to Wright and other scientists, the value of geographic information systems is already huge - some experts have suggested that such types of data management are already a $1 billion annual industry that may be doubling every year. Present and potential uses include:
- Developing plans and policies to solve urban development problems;
- Disaster response, weather forecasting, traffic monitoring, facility planning;
- More effective agriculture and forestry management.
However, many problems remain, Wright said. Often large amounts of data exist but users have difficulty assessing it or knowing how accurate it is. Details often need to be provided on a more specific basis - a policy that's best for the "Portland metropolitan area" might not make sense for certain neighborhoods. And data is often needed faster, and in more coordinated form, than presently possible.
"For instance, in the Oklahoma City bombing, officials found they needed information on building plans, evacuation routes, blood supplies and facts for use in criminal investigation," Wright said. "And they needed that information now, not miles away or months later. All that data probably existed, but not necessarily in the time, place and form that the officials needed it."
Such manageable challenges, she said, are where new research in this field will come into play. And when the data are better managed, it should also be possible to literally bring a world of information to the use and education of a single child in a K-12 classroom.