Taking Information in the Right Direction | Elmhurst College

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Taking Information in the Right Direction

When Mapquest mistakenly tells you to make a left instead of a right, or your car’s GPS  sends you down the wrong highway exit, the faulty directions are the result of bad data, or the incorrect use of it by the navigational system. Elmhurst College is playing a key role in trying to drive out such geographic information glitches.

The College recently was awarded a federal grant that enables two faculty members to partner with members of the Champaign County (Illinois) Regional Planning Commission. Together, the team will train geographic information systems (GIS) professionals how to determine the quality of metadata – data about data – and use it in a uniform manner that produces consistent, reliable results.

“Any map or GIS product is dependent on the weakest link, and that’s the quality of the data,” says Richard Schultz, an associate professor of geography and geosciences at Elmhurst who will oversee the project. “If a key data point is missing or if they’re using the wrong data points, it throws everything off.”

The project will jump-start a process that could lead to the development of national standards— much like the nutritional data on food packaging or the octane ratings on gasoline pumps—regarding how data are applied. That will mean more accurate and useful information for consumers.

Elmhurst College is becoming a leader among academic institutions in the development of geographic information systems, the cutting-edge technology that melds cartography with database technology to help determine where to build new shopping centers and roads, find the quickest route to a destination, and perform other vital services. The College recently acquired a computer server that enables students from around the world to tap into Elmhurst’s GIS software and a database that includes the vast resources of the U.S. Census Bureau, giving them the tools to create sophisticated, highly detailed maps. Only a handful of other colleges in the world currently offer similar access to GIS software and databases.

GIS is a rapidly growing field. The U.S. Department of Labor in 2006 identified geospatial technology as having the third-highest job growth potential, after health care and nanotechnology. Elmhurst currently offers a minor in GIS, and the Department of Geography and Geosciences is proposing that the program be expanded to a major that could be offered as early as fall 2011.

Getting everyone on the same page
GIS brings statistical data, such as population numbers and addresses, to visual life on digital maps by adding layers of information. These computer-generated maps can show not only geographic locations but also the size of the houses there, how many people live in them, how much money they earn and whether they pay their utility bills on time.

Such information, in a visually oriented format that can be manipulated electronically, is proving invaluable to demographers studying where people are moving to and from, to urban planners deciding where to locate a new fire station, or to corporate planners choosing a spot for a new Starbucks.

Schultz says that how good those kinds of decisions are hinges on the quality and accuracy of the data the planners use. But surprisingly, the vast amounts of data available nowadays are not presented in a standard format, which would ensure that everyone is operating under the same guidelines. That inconsistency can lead to misinterpreting data or using the wrong information—and, ultimately, to faulty decision-making.

“Anyone can make a map, but everyone doesn’t have the ability to make a good map,” said Schultz, who is working on the project with Assistant Professor Carmi Neiger.

The partnership with downstate Champaign County, funded under the federal National Spatial Data Infrastructure program, which is coordinated by a branch of the U.S. Geological Survey, will culminate in workshops at Elmhurst College on April 28-29, 2011. The workshops, expected to attract planners from municipal, state and federal governments and other agencies, will focus on metadata use and establishing metadata standards, first in Illinois, then ultimately, across the nation.

“The standards are not consistent nationally, and everyone is using different ways of presenting information,” Schultz said. “We are trying to get everyone on the same page.”

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