Once the province of astronomers, land planners, and geoscientists, in the past several years, geospatial data and the tools to analyze it have become increasingly available – and valuable – to scholars from many disciplines.

Political scientists might use geographic information systems (GIS) to examine voting patterns across specific regions. Agricultural specialists could examine trends by laying data on deforestation patterns over regional maps. A market researcher could use geospatial data to discover the characteristics of people who buy a certain product, see where they live, and move the product into local stores.

As a result, libraries that house GIS tools are dealing with a rapidly expanding number of users, says Tom Parris, environmental resources librarian in the Social Sciences Program of the Harvard College Library. Parris, who compares the rise of GIS use in academia to that of the science of statistics after World War II, says the change is due in large part to access. “Before, people who wanted to use these methods had to write their own software,” he says. “They needed a PC decked out with the best memory, the largest monitor, the fastest processor. That was beyond the reach of many researchers.”

Now, not only is it possible to run commercially available software on a computer with Internet access, but the amount of available data has climbed dramatically over the past decade. The United States’ 1990 census was the first widely distributed in forms that support geospatial analysis, a development that has been paralleled in many industrial countries. Coupled with the rise in the availability of satellite remote sensing data, researchers from virtually every discipline are exploring the use of geospatial data, Parris says.

A new system now under development as part of the University’s Library Digital Initiative (LDI) will soon make it simple for researchers inside and outside the University to access and use geospatial data over the Web and from workstations on campus. Called Geodesy, this joint project of the University’s Office of Information Services, the Harvard Map Collection, the Environmental Information Center, and the Graduate School of Design will allow researchers to identify sources of relevant data and information, conduct exploratory analysis and then use commercial GIS software to examine and map the data they find in greater detail.

“It’s one thing to look at a large amount of data and another to see the same data spatially rendered against a map with which you are already familiar,” says Jim Coleman, digital library projects manager at the University’s Office for Information Services. “The advantage of bringing it to the Web is that it makes it easier and more accessible for researchers to use it. Geodesy will really leverage the information available at Harvard to make it more valuable and more accessible to the user.”

Inspiration for Geodesy came in part from the success of the Massachusetts Electronic Atlas, an online resource of state maps that is seeing as many as 15,000 hits daily, says David Cobb, head of the Harvard Map Collection. While similar resources exist in the University’s library system, especially in the Map Collection, their absence from the library system’s HOLLIS catalog makes them nearly invisible to those who need them, he says.

“The interests of the Harvard community range well beyond Massachusetts,” Cobb says. “We began to see that we needed something bigger, better, and more comprehensive. We are building a better presence in the digital environment as well as providing digital services.”

The first data sets to be cataloged and published in Geodesy will include popular resources such as census files, digital world maps, global land-cover classifications, and global maps of the intensity of light at night. National GIS data for China, India, Russia, and other areas of strong interest will also be included, as will data for large metropolitan areas.

Users will be able to pinpoint regions using drawing tools – by drawing a ring around Boston on a map of Massachusetts, for example – to request information. Results might include a particular data set, historical and current maps, and publications. Users will also be able to drill down to particular publications and access them in electronic form.

“Geodesy will make it easier for those who already use geospatial data to access it, and will open up a whole new world to people who’ve never used it,” says Hugh Wilburn, assistant dean for information services at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and librarian at the School’s Frances Loeb Library. “And it will present it in a way a new user can understand by walking up to the computer and sitting down.”

While the delivery of data through GIS applications is exciting for users, the work going on behind the scenes to make the data appear when the user types in a search is equally important. Cataloging provides intellectual control over the information and will allow users to access it through HOLLIS as well as through the Geodesy catalog, says Coleman.

In fact, expanding access is a key component of the project. Geodesy will be accessible from several access centers on campus, with varying degrees of staff support. Members of the library reference staff will be trained to work with the technology to assist novice users, while those doing advanced work could access the catalog and GIS applications at unassisted locations, or even on the Web.

“Students, researchers, and the Harvard community will have a richer, more powerful method to conduct GIS searches. Harvard as a community will have intellectual control over the material it collects,” Coleman says. “This project blurs the lines between what a catalog environment is, what a geospatial analysis environment is, and [what] an environment for discovery and research is in a way that nothing before has done.”