All mapped out: New master’splan could be first of its kind

by Jacqueline Couillard

Rooftops, like red currants, dot a computer screen. With a swift mouse click, Howard Veregin, a University assistant professor of geography, changes the aerial city scene into a crayon-colored map.
The bright map, created with a geographic information system, identifies rooftops, grass and asphalt as permeable or impermeable so Veregin can make a model for how storm sewer water flows or backs up in the city.
Geographic information systems, as well as the science they’re part of, are referred to by the acronym “GIS.” Current interest in GIS is indicated at the University by a proposed master’s program, faculty research and three University classes about GIS or related technologies taught this quarter.
A proposal for a Master of Geographic Information Science at the University, possibly the first master’s program of its kind in the nation, is expected to go before the Board of Regents this month, said Associate Professor Robert B. McMaster of the geography department. He would be one of two administrators for the program if it passes.
“Right now seems to be the best time to get into GIS at (the University) with the start of the new proposed master’s program,” said Mary Charpentier, a master’s student in geography with an emphasis in geographic information systems. She has already done some consulting in her specialty and plans to graduate this spring.
Charpentier said she aims to do full-time GIS work after graduation. The current job market for people with GIS training is strong, Veregin said.
Veregin said that GIS technology has only become readily accessible in the last five or 10 years, though it started around 1960 as a way for the government to store paper maps.
Now, GIS is used not only in government, but also in geomarketing or geodemographic analysis, McMaster said.
Geomarketing lets companies geographically target mail to areas containing people like their ideal customers. Companies find people through sources, such as census data and store purchase transaction slips.
“Some company has probably identified the Marcy Holmes neighborhood as having a high concentration of students, and there are probably advertisements targeted to the neighborhoods around (the University) because of college students,” said McMaster.
The three GIS-related classes taught at the University this quarter are Remote Sensing of Natural Resources — taught through the Department of Forest Resources — and two classes taught by Veregin through the geography department.
Veregin estimated that his Introduction to Geographic Information Systems class is packed with about 120 students from majors like landscape architecture, geology and geography.
This quarter, Veregin said his students will change an aerial image of Minneapolis, which even shows the paint stripes on the streets, into a land-cover map.
Veregin’s and McMaster’s research using GIS has been driven by practical applications. For example, McMaster is working on a project that evaluates risk from companies using, producing or emitting hazardous materials on an Environmental Protection Agency list; more than 400 materials are on the list and have to be reported by law. The project also looks at how groups in areas at risk will use GIS when given access to it.
McMaster’s project looks for correlation between areas at risk, and the income, race and other social variables of residents in those areas. It also considers the proximity of schools, day care centers and retirement homes to companies that use hazardous materials.
“Of interest to the U Community is American National Can — directly next to the East Bank campus,” said McMaster, citing his research.
Veregin looks at conclusions drawn from GIS-based research to see if the underlying assumptions about things such as confidence in data are accurate, or if the chance for error makes conclusions unimportant.
United States Geological Survey maps are available on the World Wide Web for whoever chooses to analyze them, Veregin said.