Keith Weber, director of the Idaho State University GIS
Training and Research Center, has a complex view of the
world. The center is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Image Credit: composite by Julie Hillebrant and Joey Gifford

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ISU's Geographic Information Center Puts a Spotlight on Our World

Who would have thought that the creative use of the Geographic Information System by an Idaho State University professor in Pocatello would empower indigenous tribes in the Amazon Basin to acquire some sovereignty in managing tribal lands?

"Anthropological research and application conducted by Idaho State University have put GIS in the hands of local people to empower them in several countries," says Anthony Stocks, Ph.D., an ISU professor emeritus of anthropology. "The use of GIS gives them the ability to document their land claims."

GIS is computerized, often multilayered mapping software that "allows us to analyze the world," explains Keith Weber, M.S., director of Idaho State University's GIS Training and Research Center.

Traditional uses of GIS began with geography, but applications have spread, from its use by realtors to market homes to land mangers tracking invasive weeds.

Stocks, who retired last year, is currently planning work–in conjunction with the Wildlife Conservation Society–with the Waroni people in Ecuador.

The Waroni want to represent their occupation and use of land within Yasuni National Park, which is part of the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve. Because the park does not yet have a management plan, the Waronis' mapping and documentation will strengthen their claim of rights within the park.

Stocks has completed similar projects in Bolivia and Peru, as well as outside the Amazon Basin in the Central American countries of Guatemala and Nicaragua. He has been facilitating indigenous groups in this process, using GIS, since 1993.

"When we had to do survey work with transits (traditional surveying equipment), it was amazingly expensive out in the Amazon Basin," notes Stocks. "Some of these areas are extremely remote and difficult areas to map. There is no way we could have made such accurate, precise and publicly available maps of indigenous claims without the use of GIS."

With maps in hand, outlining their traditional land uses and land claims, it gives local tribes more chips at the bargaining table when land-use decisions are made.

"With GIS, you can have tribal people collect the data, get it on a computer and make it available to a government agency so the tribal people can support their claims," Stock says. "As long as they don't have maps, they often don't exist for government agencies when they do management plans for protected areas."

Stocks says that one reasons to use what he terms "participatory GIS" is to counter government maps that ignore the indigenous people's presence and ecological knowledge, and to insure that they are included in planning.

Using GIS technology in this manner is just one example of the expanding use of the geographic information systems at Idaho State University, where its use reaches across departments, mirroring GIS' growing real-world applications.

The Idaho State University GIS Training and Research Center, one of the first on a U.S. college campus, is marking its 10th anniversary this year. The decade has seen continual expansion of its courses, research and other activities. The University's unique new Master of Arts degree program in historical-resource management, launched in fall 2007, is the nation's only master's-level history program to incorporate and require GIS use, says ISU history professor Kevin Marsh, Ph.D.

The use of GIS is increasing in a number of fields, from geosciences to anthropology. Interest is growing among engineering and computer-information system students as well, says Keith Weber, M.S., director of the GIS Training and Research Center. Its use also is widespread in research projects across a broad swath of academic disciplines. Biological sciences researcher Matt Germino uses it to track the effect of global warming on tree lines in the Wyoming's Teton Range. Weber employes GIS for broad-scale rangeland management studies of wildfire, invasive weeds and grazing practices in Idaho and abroad.

Being trained and even certificated in GIS was uncommon as recently as five years ago. Today, in some disciplines of geosciences, biological sciences, anthropology and archeology, employers may expect graduates to be competent in its use.

GIS Center turns 10

"When I came here in 1997, there were no classes in GIS, no programs that used GIS, and I was the only employee on campus that had 'GIS' in my job title," recalls Weber, the GIS Center's director. "Today, as a comparison, GIS is offered in five academic programs in three different departments and two different colleges."

Weber says that over the past 10 years, the center has brought in nearly $7 million in grants and research funds from outside the University. The GIS Center is a designated research center on campus, but it supports other programs on campus engaged in GIS research. Other campus departments use its laboratory and other facilities, and many GIS courses are taught at the center. Scores of students take GIS classes annually at the University.

The two Idaho State University colleges that are currently the most directly involved with GIS are Arts and Sciences—in geosciences and history—and Technology, in geomatics technology.

These colleges and departments offer their own academic programs, but they use the labs, facilities and equipment of the GIS Center. Some classes for these programs are taught at the GIS Center. There is also a GIS laboratory in the Physical Science Building on the main Pocatello campus, at ISU-Boise and at the ISU-Idaho Falls' Geospatial Software Lab at University Place in Idaho Falls—all under the geosciences department. GIS classes are also broadcast between Pocatello, Idaho Falls and Boise via the University's distance-learning network.

Idaho State University's five GIS-related degree programs are:

  • the Master of Science in geographic information science;
  • the Master of Arts in historical-resource management;
  • a Bachelor of Science in geomatics technology;
  • a graduate certificate in geomatics technologies.

An undergraduate minor in geomatics technologies also is available.

There are now numerous faculty and staff employed at the University with GIS in their job titles or areas of expertise, including 12 in the GIS Center. The geosciences department in the College of Arts and Sciences and the geomatics technology program in the College of Technology also either teach GIS or incorporate it in some of their other classes.

"One of things unique about ISU's GIS presence is we tend to be on the cutting edge," Weber said. "A lot of people say, 'ISU is way out there,' with the type of research we do and the directions our students have headed. But that 'way on the edge' makes our program and students very competitive."

The University's GIS programs are rigorous and comprehensive. For instance, the GIS certificate program requires students to complete a minimum of 19 credits. Some colleges and universities require as few as six.

"With our certificate or degree, it means you really know GIS and GIS science," Weber says. "As a result of that, we have established a tremendous reputation in this region."

The center has built its hardware capabilities as its program has grown. It has about $200,000 worth of computer servers to support GIS on campus, and the capacity to accommodate the transfer of large computer files.

GIS in the humanities

The master's-level historical resource management program combines an emphasis on the use of emerging technologies, especially GIS and related information technologies, with strong traditional historical training in content, research and historiography. Idaho State University history professors Kevin Marsh, Jack Owens, Ph.D., and Laura Woodworth-Ney, Ph.D., created the program, which accepted its first students fall 2007.

The University also brought in Sarah Hinman, Ph.D., who earned her doctorate in geography with an emphasis on historical GIS and medical geography at Louisiana State University. She helps teach the GIS component of the new program.

"The disciplines of geography and history had closer connections and now, in a sense, GIS is bringing historians and geographers back together," Hinman said. "GIS is about the analysis of databases of historical knowledge as it is related to a map. We can use GIS to answer a lot of historical questions."

ISU's program emphasizes hands-on training for graduates, who have good job prospects with such entities as the National Park Service or other government agencies.

"It is exciting to work with people from different backgrounds because they look at things from different perspectives, which makes combining GIS and history especially fun and particularly interesting," Hinman said.

ISU takes GIS around the world

Faculty, staff and students at the GIS Training and Research Center have published more than 90 scientific papers related to their field, and the use of GIS has been used in many other studies by University faculty, staff and students in other programs.

The University's GIS research is literally all over the map. Part of the $7 million in grants Weber and the GIS Center have attracted includes a current study comparing the health of similar sagebrush-steppe rangelands in Idaho, Spain and Mongolia.

"These places are environmentally similar and have similar growing season, elevation ranges and general plant communities, but the difference is in how people who live there actually perform grazing," said Weber, who headed to Spain this spring to work with a colleague.

In the Aleutian Islands, another ISU anthropologist, Herb Maschner, Ph.D., and his colleagues incorporate GIS into their research projects.

Last fall, Idaho State University Magazine spotlighted ISU – Boise researcher Nancy Glenn's study of rangeland dust storms in Idaho. She makes extensive use of GIS, as well. Another ISU Magazine story in 2006 documented the creation of MapWindow GIS, a free, open-source mapping software used to view and analyze computerized map data. This software was created by Daniel P. Ames, an ISU geosciences professor, with the help of several master's degree students in ISU-Idaho Falls' Geospatial Software Lab,at University Place. They developed and distributed a new software tool that joins the multibillion-dollar worldwide geographic information system (GIS) industry. The project started at Utah State University under funding from the Idaho National Laboratory and moved with Ames to Idaho State University when he joined ISU in 2004.

Other major GIS research projects the center is involved with include multiple studies on invasive weeds, rangeland health, the effects of wildfire and erosion.

Geosciences use GIS extensively in its research projects, as do faculty and students in biological sciences.

The Future

Idaho State University's GIS Center, like the use geographic information systems, is likely to expand, say those involved in the field.

"We'd like to have at least one GIS Ph.D. program at ISU, bigger and better research programs and a larger number of students and faculty in GIS," Weber said. "It seems like no matter what we put down on paper for what we'd like to see in five years, we're most likely to surpass that. The type of people we have at ISU are really driving it, pushing it, and really enjoy being on the edge."

Andy Taylor
Idaho State University Magazine