by Riad Lemhachheche, staff writer

GIS map

Global Positioning System technology has become famous for letting hikers and travelers find their location wherever they are.

GPS devices are used in cars to provide driving directions and in airplanes to display the distance to one’s final destination. But GPS is only the tip of a growing industry and academic field known as Geographic Information Systems or GIS.

“GPS is no good unless GIS is doing analysis with that data”, said Dawn Wright, professor in the Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University.

GIS technologies are used for research in forest science or oceanography, as well as being incorporated in products and services used by millions of people every day.

Mapping services like Mapquest, Yahoo Maps or Google Earth rely heavily on GIS to associate topographic data, street and highway layout and traffic information to enable their users to plan their travels.

GIS experts were on the forefront of the emergency response team during the Katrina relief effort. They were able to generate up-to-date maps of transportation systems and locate areas where flooding had the most impact.

OSU is an academic leader in the GIS field, as it is one of the 16 founders of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, the major academic consortium in the field, that now counts over 70 members.

Last fall, OSU launched a new program for students and community to provide increased learning opportunities in the field of GIS.

The certificate program in Geographic Information Science is available to students from any major. It is a collaborative effort among at least six programs at OSU: geosciences, oceanography, forestry, computer science, horticulture, and crop and soil science.

The Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI, the major corporation in the field of GIS, supports OSU’s initiative with $500,000 worth of software.

To support their coursework, students have access to the resources of different research programs on campus through the extensive collection managed by the Valley Library. An example of these resources is the Oregon Coastal Atlas built jointly by the geosciences department, the state of Oregon and Ecotrust, a group interested in sustainability.

The certificate program includes a course on ethics principles, making OSU one of the few schools in the nation to educate its students on the ethical issues associated with geographic data.

These issues are becoming ever more important as mobile phones make it possible to log every move people make. For example, Internet users have already cross-referenced public databases, such as sexual offenders listings, with Google Maps. Dots on such maps represent the location of the sexual offenders.

Today is an opportunity for the OSU community to see for themselves what GIS is all about. As part of Geographic Awareness Week, OSU is having a campus-wide GIS day where activities will present the different aspects of the technology.

Among the general public, 400 sixth graders and their teachers will invade the OSU campus for a GPS hike. The City of Corvallis Mobile GIS truck will be parked in the MU Quad from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to showcase the new wireless networking technology in use in its Public Works department.

“We look forward to seeing what our colleagues and students are doing with the technology, some of which is also receiving national attention, to interacting with the kids who will be visiting, as well as with locals from the Willamette Valley who will come to campus to see our events,” said Wright.

The OSU GIS Day activities schedule is available on the Internet at http://www .geo.oregonstate.edu/gisday.

NOTE: this is a reprint of a story published in the OSU Daily Barometer. The original is Oregon State GIS group gets ready to map your world