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Summer 2012 Edition

GIS Flourishes at Stanford University

By Jim Baumann, Esri Writer

This article as a PDF.

Recognizing the power and potential of GIS technology, Leland Stanford Junior University (commonly referred to as Stanford) invested in a site license from Esri in the mid-1990s. The university has progressively expanded its use of GIS over the years. Today, Stanford provides a model for the inherent possibilities available with an enterprise GIS implementation on a university campus.

Founded in 1891 in Stanford, California, the university is recognized as one of the world's leading research universities. It served as one of the four original nodes that composed the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), predecessor of the Internet. It is also home to SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Stanford's GIS nerve center is located in the Branner Earth Sciences Library and Map Collections. There, a team headed by Patricia Carbajales, geospatial manager, conducts GIS training, support, and research consultation for the entire university.

"Our GIS lab has state-of-the-art computers because students working on major geospatial projects need powerful computers for geoprocessing and analysis," said Carbajales. "Often, they are plotting millions of points, and our computers are the best equipped throughout the library system for that kind of data processing." The GIS support team has also preloaded some large datasets that are frequently used so that the students can pull them directly from the hard drives on their computers, allowing them to do their projects more quickly.

Originally used in the university's Schools of Engineering and Earth Sciences, whose departments include Aeronautics and Astronautics, Electrical Engineering, Geological and Environmental Sciences, and Geophysics, GIS is now increasingly taught in the Humanities and Sciences School in the History, Political Science, and Classics departments. In addition, the university's Urban Studies program has integrated spatial thinking concepts into its curriculum and requires freshmen in the department to take a core class in spatial approaches to urban studies.

Carbajales attributes some of this growth to the outreach efforts of her GIS support team. She has conducted more than 80 workshops during this past year, as well as a number of ArcGIS feature-specific training sessions. One of the primary outreach projects for the team is the annual GIS Day celebration. "This is a big event for us," said Carbajales. "A variety of speakers are invited to present lightning talks to give students an overview of how GIS is used across the campus, and we organize a map gallery and geography-related contests."

Several faculty- and student-led research projects around Stanford benefit from the GIS support by Carbajales and her team. For example, GIS is a major component of Stanford's Spatial History Project (, which uses spatial analysis and visualization to further historical research.

Among current research projects is Trail of Blood: The Movement of San Francisco's Butchertown and the Spatial Transformation of Meat Production, 1849–1901, led by PhD candidate Andrew Robichaud. Until the 1860s, commercial slaughterhouses and butcher shops were common in downtown San Francisco. In 1869, because of health and sanitary issues, the city forced them to relocate to an area along Mission Creek, which became known as Old Butchertown. "Using city directories and insurance maps to determine the locations of slaughterhouses and retail butcher shops—then mapping those places using GIS—we are able to see surprising spatial trends in meat production and distribution in the last decades of the nineteenth century. These trends would not be visible without using digital tools to breathe life into old documents," said Robichaud.

Other spatial history lab projects include the analysis of the distribution of arrests for prostitution in the city of Philadelphia from 1912 to 1918, with variables incorporating age, ethnicity, and jail sentences, as well as an evaluation of the capacity of the Amito water system during the Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991.

Stanford is so committed to integrating GIS throughout its academic research programs that the university librarian has mandated that all subject librarians take a GIS workshop from Carbajales' team to better familiarize themselves with its capabilities.

With this increasing interest in the technology, Carbajales is currently setting up a workshop program to teach the fundamentals of GIS to students who are required to learn GIS applications as part of their classes. "If we teach the essential capabilities of GIS to those students that will be using it for specific applications in class, it will lift some of the teaching burden off the instructor and make it easier for the students to learn the specific applications," said Carbajales.

Stanford's GIS lab participates in a cooperative program with the 10 University of California campuses called the University of California/Stanford Map and Geospatial Libraries Group. Formed in 1983, the group created the Unified Collection Development Plan to formalize its charter. It furthers the cooperative collection and sharing of data purchases; supports interlibrary lending of geospatial materials; and exchanges other relevant materials, such as training tutorials. The collaborative nature of the group allows it to share the cost of new acquisitions, while the greater university community benefits from having access to the extended paper and digital map collection held among the group's members.

Because Stanford has an extensive collection of historic maps that totals more than 60,000 individual works, Carbajales believes that an important area of future development for cartographic archivists is the creation of an optical character recognition (OCR) system for maps. "Historical maps hold a wealth of information that is yet untapped," said Carbajales. "Professors here regularly ask us about the availability of scanning technology that will easily allow the extraction of map features for their research. We have considered approaching a research group within our computer science department to see whether they may be interested in developing this sort of technology. I think there is a vast potential for data mining in historical maps."

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