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May 11, 2006

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Peter Bol
Peter Bol, the director of the Center for Geographical Analysis and a professor of East Asian languages, speaks about the new importance of geography. (Staff photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

Geography center launched

Center for Geographical Analysis to explore 'vast intellectual territory'

By Elizabeth Gehrman
Special to the Harvard News Office

Those of us who remember grammar-school geography lessons as a tedious affair involving a pink and green window shade map and a chalky wooden pointer would probably never guess that, in fact, it is estimated that 80 percent of all data contains a spatial component. That point was made clearly and colorfully at the launch of the new Center for Geographical Analysis (CGA), held May 5 at the Tsai Auditorium in the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS) South building on Cambridge Street.

A string quartet played in the lobby while a full house of attendees mingled and viewed the approximately two dozen posters on display detailing research from areas of the University as diverse as the Graduate School of Design, the Harvard School of Public Health, the Center for the Environment, the Kennedy School, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Medical School's Center for Biomedical Informatics, and the departments of Economics, Anthropology, and Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The common denominator was GIS, or geographic information systems, computer hardware and software that offer interactive, panoramic, three-dimensional views, overlays, simulations, real-time tracking, and cool little flying seagull cursors, among other things. GIS is the centerpiece of the new center, which is housed at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS) and aims to support research and teaching that relies on geographic analysis, administer a standardized University-wide infrastructure, collect and disseminate spatial datasets from many sources, and enable interdisciplinary collaboration through centralized access to GIS resources.

The center is an exciting development in Harvard history for two reasons. It brings GIS full circle, as the field was actually born at the University in the 1960s when SYMAP, a computer-mapping program using line printers, was created at the Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis under a grant from the Ford Foundation. But more important, CGA represents the return of a discipline Harvard has long neglected. In 1948, the University closed its doors on the study of geography, setting off a ripple effect felt in education throughout the United States.

"Someone has said when Harvard takes a step it blazes a path," said President Lawrence H. Summers in his opening remarks. "By embracing the new geography, I think Harvard's taking an important step today."

Speaking of the decision to drop geography - a decision that involved personal politics as well as educational judgments -  Summers said, "That is the past. Geography is a very different field today, and it is increasingly at the center of a very wide range of intellectual concerns." He mentioned by name humanists in the crowd, as well as social scientists and scientists, noting their presence as a reflection of the significance of the new center.

"This is an opportunity to explore vast, not virgin, intellectual territory," he added, "but intellectual territory that can now be approached with new perspectives, new tools, and in newly important ways. The provost and I have been thrilled to lend our support to [this initiative], and I expect very, very important things will come out of it in the future."

Peter Bol, the director of the CGA and a professor of East Asian languages and civilizations, next spoke about the new importance of geography, mentioning that while computer programs can trace dust storms blowing across the Pacific Ocean, trade and migration routes, and disease patterns, "the point is not simply to trace [such events] through space, but to see how events that take place in space and time are related to each other," and how global events affect us locally.

Another reason for the return to geography, Bol said, was the exponential increase in data thanks to remote sensing, satellite imagery, smaller and more efficient tracking devices, and simply more careful monitoring of human activity. "But to be able to know more about the world places the burden on us all to make sense of what we know," he added, pointing out the shocking findings of a recent Roper poll for the National Geographic Society: 63 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 could not locate Iraq on a map, and nine out of 10 couldn't find Afghanistan - a failure of educators not to "drill geographic facts into students," but to show the relevance of geography and the relationship of one event to another.

The center, Bol said, would contribute to turning this situation around by developing cross-disciplinary platforms and also by bringing geography back into both the graduate and undergraduate curriculums through course work and labs, working with the National Geographic Society to bring Harvard research efforts to a wider audience, creating internships, fellowships, professional seminars, and a full professorship and other faculty positions in geography and GIS over the next few years.

After a session demonstrating the many uses of GIS - for studying unemployment trends in East and West Germany, murder rates in Chicago, and air pollution at a border crossing in Buffalo, N.Y., for example - Jack Dangermond M.L.A. '69, the president of GIS software leader ESRI, spoke about "Geographic Systems and the World Ahead."

With a world that is becoming more "urbanized, technological, specialized, connected, globalized, informed, and fragile," he began, human beings are leaving an ever larger and more damaging footprint. As a support system for handling complexity, he continued, geographical education can help teach the next generation to better manage the world through improved understanding, decision-making, cost-effectiveness, efficiency, communication, collaboration, and coordination. Our information society, he added, is increasingly a "georich-data society," with satellites, real-time technology, and online services increasing people's "spatial awareness."

All this, in addition to geoinformatics' rapidly evolving nature and increasingly ubiquitous presence, Dangermond said, is "transforming" organizations, the economy, and even the government, which can be particularly useful when disasters strike. "I know lives were saved in Katrina because of this harmonizing effect," he said.

CGA "will make a difference in advancing the science of many fields," he concluded. "What happens with this center and what starts today will set off shockwaves in the academic world."

Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College