New map tool bolsters studies

A data organization is letting the University use its special satellite imagery for research.

Ethan Nelson

Michelle LaRue always had trouble getting her hands on the proper satellite imagery for her research projects.

For studying wildlife populations, the University of Minnesota earth sciences research associate uses satellite images of the Earth, which she said are challenging to get.

But since University researchers like LaRue gained access to new satellite imagery earlier this month, they say their work will be easier to do.

The DigitalGlobe Foundation, a spatial data organization, is allowing the Universityto use its interactive database of satellite maps, which are similar to a higher resolution version of Google Maps.

The foundation’s executive director Mark Brender said the agreement was made because the foundation wants to understand how universities can use its images.

Previously, LaRue had used satellite images to study and measure the movement of penguin and seal populations, which she said was costly and tedious work.

LaRue said she plans to use the new, free imagery to study African elephant populations.

Polar Geospatial Center director Paul Morin said he’s been talking with the DigitalGlobe Foundation for a few years about how to best help researchers.

“This kind of imagery is generally used by the U.S. federal government,” Morin said. “Researchers don’t have the budget to use it.”

The University is allowed to use the maps as long as researchers provide DigitalGlobe with quarterly feedback about how students and researchers use them.

The database includes photos from the past 15 years, but it’s unclear when images — like those on Google Maps — were taken.

“With Google Maps, you can look at imagery, but with this, you can download the imagery,” Morin said.

Forest resource professor Joe Knight said researchers can also get the images more quickly than with their past methods, which he said is the primary benefit of the databases for his work.

“Everything you need is right there,” he said.

To get access to the database, students and researchers must submit an application to U-Spatial, the University’s center for mapping support.

U-Spatial’s associate director, Len Kne, said the center will train people to use the new database and help write grant requests for researchers hoping to use it for their work.

The University of Minnesota stood out to the DigitalGlobe Foundation because of its spatial data center, Brender said, which is uncommon among colleges and universities.

The foundation also gave the University of California-San Diego access to the maps earlier this month.

Bender said the foundation plans to give other schools access on a limited basis.

University researchers have access to the databases until October.

“This opens up the door to all kinds of different endeavors,” LaRue said. “It’s busted the door open.”