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Spring 2006
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"Crossing Borders"
A column by Doug Richardson,
Executive Director, Association of American Geographers


Geography Returns to Harvard

Doug RichardsonI am extremely pleased to announce that geography is returning to Harvard. After more than three years of study and effort by many supporters, including the AAG and Esri, Harvard University has approved the establishment of a new Center for Geographic Analysis (CGA). This development should have far-reaching positive impacts at other institutions considering adoption of new geography education and GIS research programs.

In a formal public announcement on October 20, 2005, Peter K. Bol, Harvard College Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, was named the first Director of the Harvard University Center for Geographic Analysis. Peter, who has worked closely with the AAG during the establishment of the new Center, said his "aim is to see the Center assist in research projects and teaching university-wide. During the last two decades, the miniaturization of computer technology, the ability to carry out continuous-time monitoring, the use of GPS, the increased use of remote sensing, and growing sophistication of geographic information systems have made geospatial analysis a tool of tremendous value to the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences and to the professions. But spatial analysis is not only a technology; it is a way of thinking about the relationships between things. It is not only a research tool; it can be part of an undergraduate education. I foresee a vibrant future for the Center."

Bol, a distinguished historian who also directs the China Historical Geographic Information System project, which spans Chinese history from 222 B.C. to 1911 A.D., added that "today, researchers across the natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences are coming to recognize that geographic analysis can provide a common foundation for the integration of disciplinary knowledge about the earth and its climate, the evolution of its flora and fauna, and the comparatively recent but extraordinary consequential development of human societies. This vision is at the heart of the CGA's mission in the university. . . . Geographic information sciences bridge earth and planetary sciences, engineering, medicine and public health, sociology, law, political science and economics, and history and the humanities. The interest at Harvard in geospatial analysis, spatial modeling, spatial statistics, and geographic information systems (GIS)—which has been the foundation for the development of spatial analysis generally—has been growing quickly."

Harvard's announcement noted that modeling the world computationally is a thorny problem for researchers. Today, more than 20 research projects at the Harvard School of Public Health depend on spatial analysis; all students in the Graduate School of Design are taught basic techniques in the field; and in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, geographic modeling is an essential technology in various disciplines.

The Center for Geographic Analysis was founded with the support of the university at the highest levels, including Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman, who formed the Provost's Committee on Spatial Analysis, an exploratory group with which I and others at the AAG have worked closely. Chaired by Bol, this planning effort was truly university-wide and interdisciplinary. Among the disciplines at Harvard involved with the committee were history, landscape architecture, political science, statistics, physiology, geology, environmental health, astrophysics, sociology, computer science, art history, library science, environmental engineering, English, economics, anthropology, law, and geophysics.

In 2003, members of the committee issued a Report to the Provost on Spatial Analysis at Harvard University, in which they concluded that "we are entering an era that will see the integration of spatial data and spatial analysis into the study of society and culture and the physical and life sciences. Advances in fields such as quantitative geography, computational spatial analysis, remote sensing, and computer graphics have propelled the development of new research tools to meet the needs of the earth and planetary sciences, medicine, health, design, and history (to identify a few fields) to visualize, synthesize, and analyze data. As a result, scholars and students are learning to apply analytic and descriptive tools of spatial analysis in ways that were not possible in the past. In the process, they are discovering that the techniques for mapping the inside of the earth also apply to mapping the inside of the brain, that an historical spatial database of a region serves both art historians and demographers."

This prescient 2003 committee report to Harvard's Provost recalled that "our current state of affairs has its roots in 1948 when, before the appearance of quantitative geography, [Harvard] President Conant decided to discontinue the study of geography at Harvard. . . . There is [now] a growing demand for graduates with GIS skills, and the NSF funding for applied and theoretical work in spatial analysis is increasing." The new Center for Geographical Analysis at Harvard will go a long way toward rectifying past deficiencies and meeting this new demand.

The Center for Geographical Analysis has strong potential to expand rapidly. You can imagine the thrill I felt a few months ago, after the Center's Director Peter Bol wrote to me with the exciting, but then still not public, news that "there is tremendous enthusiasm among faculty and administration. . . . I thank you for your support and advice. Getting faculty is the crucial step toward reviving geography at Harvard. Once we have one person we can start to add more, and out of that will come a program and eventually perhaps a department. We are at a moment of sharply growing awareness of why geographic knowledge matters to all that we do. . . . I will be asking your advice in greater detail in the coming months." Harvard's search for the Center's initial core faculty members is now already under way as I write.

It has been a long process of hard work by many—including our good friends at Esri—to reach this milestone for geography at Harvard, and I'd like to thank Peter Bol in particular for his leadership during this process and for his breadth of vision for the Center and for the program and department to follow. And, Peter, you can count on the AAG to continue to support your efforts every step of the way as Harvard and geography set out on this new journey together. Thanks for starting the AAG's centennial years with such gratifying news.

Doug Richardson
drichardson@aag.org

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