U-Spatial: A Consortium for the Spatial University

It is increasingly apparent to many within academia and beyond that spatial thinking, technologies, systems, and services matter. Building on a rich history of research, scholarship, and teaching related to spatial topics, the University of Minnesota (UMN) has embarked on a visionary endeavor called U-Spatial to develop a collaborative consortium that supports the spatial sciences and creative activities.

U-Spatial provides support for spatial research. It helps eliminate duplication and fragmentation of scientific resources and provides a framework of data, equipment, expertise, and resources that benefits all researchers working with spatial sciences and creative activities. The need for infrastructure support for the spatial sciences and creative activities has been apparent for some years, but the opportunity to build a broad-based infrastructure across traditional disciplinary and college boundaries has come much more recently.


The spatial sciences compose a broad and fast-growing field that studies spatiotemporal aspects of people, places, and processes using information technologies that range from satellite imaging and GIS to computational technologies and social networks that rely on communication infrastructure. The US Department of Labor identifies spatial technology alongside nanotechnology and biotechnology as the three most important industries in the 21st century. Based on information from the Geospatial Information & Technology Association, the Department of Labor predicts widespread and diverse uses of geospatial technology, with the market growing at an annual rate of almost 35 percent (US Department of Labor, 2010).

For more than 50 years, the University of Minnesota has been a national and international leader in spatial scholarship and application development. Among many contributions, UMN helped create one of the first geographic information systems, the Land Management Information System, in the 1960s, as well as offered the first professional degree program in GIS in the United States. One of the key open software packages for displaying spatial information, MapServer, was developed at UMN. Along with a long history in cartography, geodesign, and geography, U-Spatial can build on a solid intellectual foundation in core disciplines ranging from computer science to remote sensing. The university has many internationally known spatial research centers, including the Center of Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), the Remote Sensing and Geospatial Analysis Laboratory (RSGAL), the Spatial Database and Spatial Data Mining Research Group, the Minnesota Population Center (MPC), the Geographic Information Sciences Laboratory, and the Polar Geospatial Center (PGC).

From 2006, momentum steadily increased to develop a geospatial infrastructure that both leveraged UMN’s spatial resources and met the array of needs for spatial research on campus. By 2011, there was a network of more than 100 spatial researchers. A call for proposals from the university to develop infrastructure to support research and creative activities was a key catalyst that mobilized this network to take the next step in developing common resources for spatial research on campus. After preliminary discussions, a core group drafted a preproposal that was circulated in this network. The preproposal was successful, and based on comments and many rounds of discussions, the group developed an ultimately successful proposal to develop U-Spatial with a combination of matching funds from more than a dozen units and university contributions, together totaling $2.5 million over five years.

Year One

U-Spatial is off to a great start. It is meeting its mission and having a very broad and substantial impact. Because of the size of the project and its need to establish governance practices among the large number of participants, the U-Spatial team has taken a “soft start” approach that involves the gradual development of U-Spatial services while allowing a more rapid development of support for existing research.

The U-Spatial team is particularly interested in developing successful and sustainable models of spatial infrastructure that recognize and facilitate the many ways in which spatial science and thinking are essential to support the core missions of the university: research, learning, and service.

Service—Spatial infrastructure is essential for the university to meet its long-standing mission of service to communities ranging from local to global in scope. Spatial systems are essential to community-based service learning projects and internships in ways ranging from learning to use GIS software to track home foreclosure to helping develop web mapping applications. The concept of service to the immediate university community is also seen in how enterprise GIS helps universities be effective managers of public resources required for operations, facilities, and planning.

Four Infrastructure Cores

Collectively, U-Spatial offers four infrastructure cores (thematic areas): (1) Central Core services include technical assistance, training, resource coordination, and development of the spatial science community; (2) Imaging Core infrastructure focuses on data and analysis of aerial and satellite imagery of the earth; (3) Data Core initiatives include development of data discovery and archiving tools, as well as shared computing infrastructure; and (4) Analysis Core efforts center on spatiotemporal modeling, geodesign, and mapping.

Central Core

The Central Core is in many ways the most visible component of U-Spatial and addresses overarching needs for helping organize and provide access to existing spatial resources on campus while also actively aiding spatial research via help desk support and training.

The most visible facet of the Central Core is the help desk. Since beginning operation in fall 2011, the help desk has assisted hundreds of researchers with questions ranging from locating data to creating interactive web maps. The goal of the help desk is to be the first point of contact when someone needs help with a GIS or spatial technology question. If help desk personnel cannot answer a question, they will find an expert in the U-Spatial network who can.

The Central Core regularly offers a popular GIS 101 workshop. This free, one-day workshop introduces participants to spatial analysis fundamentals, mapmaking, and working with common GIS applications. More than 500 people have attended the workshop, which often leads to contacts with the help desk or further consulting projects involving U-Spatial. Introduction to Web Mapping Using ArcGIS Online was recently added as a free three-hour workshop to introduce participants to how to create online maps using ArcGIS Online. Lidar 101 is another new workshop, offered this fall, that shows participants how to work with lidar data in ArcGIS for Desktop. Lidar data has been collected for the whole state of Minnesota and is currently being processed; having statewide lidar data has created interest among a wide variety of researchers.

To help sustain collaborative connections, U-Spatial supports bringing outstanding national and international researchers working on spatial issues to participate in colloquia hosted by departments/units. The primary criteria in making selections include the relevance of the speaker’s spatial-related work to the university community and the capacity for presenting on topics that interest host departments, as well as the larger community. The aim of bringing in these speakers on the part of U-Spatial is to create a more persistent presence and framework for spatial science activities.

One of the first jobs that U-Spatial undertook was a census of spatial science researchers on campus. The U-Spatial team found that there are nearly a thousand people working with spatial information at the university. The sharing of information is crucial for people to expand their skills and knowledge, as well as foster research collaboration. In October, U-Spatial hosted the first U-Spatial Symposium, which brought together researchers from across UMN. The symposium featured a student poster competition and divided people into breakout sessions to discuss core interests for networking and provide guidance for the future of U-Spatial. In spring 2012, U-Spatial started a GIS user group for people to get together and share ideas. Having a regular meeting will allow people to learn who else is working with spatial data on campus and create a network of expertise. Anyone associated with the university is welcome to participate in the user group.

U-Spatial cores with activities.
U-Spatial cores with activities.

A final area where the Central Core has focused effort can best be described as raising awareness or marketing. The founding members of U-Spatial are well-practiced in their area of spatial research and for the most part are self-sufficient. But there are many colleagues at UMN who could make use of U-Spatial and resources described earlier. To make these contacts, the U-Spatial staff has been attending a variety of seminars and workshops, as well as countless meetings, to introduce U-Spatial. Growing U-Spatial participation is a first step toward making it sustainable beyond the five years of initial funding.

Imaging Core

Remote imaging, or capturing digital images of the earth from airplanes and satellites, is critical to research domains ranging from deforestation measurement to urban growth analysis. Given the vast amount of data involved and the expertise and systems necessary for converting raw data into a format suitable for scientific analysis, researchers cannot currently take full advantage of these resources. U-Spatial helps support research at regional, state, national, and global scales and make remote imaging more accessible to UMN researchers. Currently, RSGAL provides assistance to researchers interested in using imagery and also provides raw and interpreted data products to all researchers. U-Spatial leverages existing imaging research to create detailed histories of Minnesota land and water resources. RSGAL manages data from multiple sensor platforms and offers expert help on image collection and analysis. PGC, the department of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE), and the Institute of the Environment (IonE) specialize in acquiring and analyzing global-scale imagery and attendant data. U-Spatial is building on these and several existing UMN research projects to develop some of the best available characterizations of global features, such as land cover, agriculture, and urbanization.

Data Core

A special issue of Science titled “Dealing with Data” (February 11, 2011) argues that it’s important to deal with the growing “deluge” of huge and complex datasets in the face of critical shortcomings in data archiving and discovery. These needs are writ large for spatial science research on campus. U-Spatial is helping researchers archive their data, curate it, and make it discoverable and reusable by others at the university and beyond.

The University Libraries and MPC leverage their deep expertise in data management, archiving, and discovery services to improve data reuse and citation capabilities. Reuse refers to the ability to archive datasets, making them searchable and available over time for multiple uses and users, thereby minimizing duplication of research. Citation goes beyond basic metadata concepts to provide a robust identification framework for connecting data sources to scholarly publications. Data management services will facilitate and regulate open access to contributed datasets via a data portal and web communities that assist with spatial knowledge discovery. U-Spatial is in the process of exploring the use of data architectures that facilitate sharing with other university institutions.

The Data Core has developed a plan for collaborating with large data projects and is developing a prototype data management and access environment for geographic information. Access to spatial data is being addressed from two directions. One group is piloting a web-based system to make spatial data easy to discover and access; a second group is focusing on the long-term archiving and preservation of data. Out of this work will be procedures for creating data management plans for all research projects, a huge benefit to researchers on campus. Throughout this activity, U-Spatial is collaborating with researchers at a variety of institutions around the world to ensure its efforts contribute to the development of broader information infrastructure that is open and standards based.

The University Libraries and MPC are working with the office of information technologies, Enterprise GIS (EGIS), and others to develop a shared U-Spatial Data Core server infrastructure for the university. In addition to hosting specific projects as needed to support data activities, it will host virtual servers and a technology stack of Fedora Commons Repository archive software; the Lucene/Solr indexer platform; and spatial tools, such as MapServer, OpenGeoportal, ArcGIS for Server, and ArcGIS Online.

Analysis Core

Research on complex systems and complex issues, such as climate variability and rapid social change, requires advanced spatial analysis. While U-Spatial supports all spatial research on campus, its initial focus is leveraging current interdisciplinary research on human-environment systems to develop a solid foundation for the sustainable research infrastructure of the spatial university. The Analysis Core has been making important steps in developing the specifications for a geodesign environment that will support researchers in the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs (HHH); College of Design (CDes); and College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences.

Both IonE and Computer Science and Engineering have been collaborating on developing modeling for networked data. CURA has hired a research assistant to support requests for scientific data from the community by creating a web mapping application of CURA’s project work statewide to facilitate handling and enhancing access to external queries, as well as supporting the development of more connections to the Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center by offering workshops on how to use ArcGIS Online.

These activities all involve the three areas of modeling, geodesign, and mapping.

  • Modeling—IonE and CSE collaborate to develop modeling infrastructure, including a library of open source models and expertise for applying it to various domains. U-Spatial will also develop specific datasets that are currently in great demand, such as a spatially enabled public health database that is tied to census data or access to parcel data describing Minnesota and other places.
  • Geodesign—CDes, IonE, and HHH focus on geodesign—the application of technology to allow decision makers to collaboratively construct and evaluate landscape plans using spatiotemporal modeling and three-dimensional visualization. Geodesign nodes will host touch tables and multiple display facilities that will be synchronously interactive using ArcGIS 10.1 for Server services and web-based client interfaces.
  • Mapping—The University of Minnesota has several mapping initiatives under way. It is a beta tester and early adopter of ArcGIS Online subscriptions. This transformative service will help with curriculum, research, and administrative spatial analysis. Much of U-Spatial’s testing of the service relates to how it can be implemented in a large and diverse organization. U-Spatial is working out issues with administration of ArcGIS Online that require the organization to look at how U-Spatial shares data and maps in a new way. CURA and EGIS build on successful GIS and web mapping programs that provide data and expertise to researchers working on scientific problems in Minnesota and elsewhere. The University Libraries have datasets for many regions of the world, consisting of thousands of data layers extending back to the 1800s, giving our researchers a competitive advantage in domains ranging from racial diversity to ecosystem services.

A Little Help from Friends

U-Spatial is only one piece of the future spatial university. Curriculum, outreach, and programs will have to evolve. U-Spatial is fortunate to have received significant support from the Office of Vice President for Research and the College of Liberal Arts in the stages that led to the successful U-Spatial collaborative proposal.

An important check for U-Spatial was a survey conducted in spring 2012. The staff contacted close to 300 people across the university with an invitation to complete a short survey to help refine the vision and prioritize the activities of U-Spatial. The responses gave broad and useful input for developing U-Spatial.

A Simple Concept with Many Impacts

U-Spatial is a simple concept for a large research university that provides the foundation for the development of the spatial university. When fully developed, U-Spatial will support the research, learning, and service missions of the university. The short-term goal is to ensure that U-Spatial provides an umbrella for science and creative activities and organizes researchers into an interconnected network of cores.

In addition to focusing on providing help and other services, for U-Spatial to be sustainable, it will also need to identify several layers of funding sources. At the large scale, it is actively participating with researchers throughout UMN to secure outside grants. At smaller scales, U-Spatial provides GIS and remote-sensing expertise to a growing number of research projects, helping them grow, and provide specialized training that is turning out to be an excellent value for those who take the courses. This diversified approach to funding and sustainability, along with providing good value to participants within U-Spatial, will help ensure that support for spatial research is pervasive at the University of Minnesota.

About the Authors

Francis Harvey is director of U-Spatial and associate professor of geography. He is one of the U-Spatial cofounders and contributed to previous projects as well. With input from across the University of Minnesota, he guides the implementation of U-Spatial on its path to becoming one of the world’s premier centers for the spatial sciences. Len Kne is associate director of U-Spatial. Kne leads the day-to-day operations of the Central Core and looks forward to the day when everyone is thinking spatially. Steven Manson is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and directs the Human-Environment Geographic Information Science lab. He also cofounded U-Spatial and its antecedents, including the Geospatial Consortium, and is excited about continuing the development of spatial science and activities on campus.

For more information, contact Francis Harvey, director of U-Spatial and associate professor of geography, University of Minnesota.