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With the Help of GIS, Masonís Worldview Becomes Clearer

Sergei Andronikov
Sergei Andronikov, director of Mason's Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence, says, "The technology is blossoming at Mason. Geographers can be plugged into almost any kind of project."

By Colleen Kearney Rich

When ENSCO Inc., a high-tech company in Falls Church, Va., was developing an autonomous vehicle to enter the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge in 2004, it turned to Sergei Andronikov and Mason's Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence (GISCE) for the software and know-how to get the vehicle to drive itself.

Team ENSCO competed against 14 other teams with a vehicle they named "David." The goal of the challenge was for an autonomous all-terrain vehicle to traverse a 142-mile course in the Mojave Desert for a $1 million prize.

Two of Andronikov's geography graduate students, Damian Kolbay and Elise Fisher, were instrumental in developing the navigation program using global positioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS) to get "David" on its way.

Coming to Terms
While most people are familiar with the term GPS, thanks to commercials touting the benefits of having such capabilities available in cars, few people have a clear perception of how GIS can play a role in their daily lives.

"When people hear the word 'geography,' they think of maps," says Andronikov. "But GIS is so much more than that."

The example he frequently uses is a business one. Say you are the head of a bank and looking to relocate one of your regional offices. Naturally, you want the office to be where the customers are, and you also probably want to consider major traffic routes, among other concerns.

"This is geography, "says Andronikov. "We are all part of the world and are trying to navigate our way around it."

GIS integrates database operations with visualization techniques and geographic analysis. By providing layers of information, GIS allows users to analyze such layers of information independently or in combinations, and this is where its applications cross disciplines.

Whether the data is tracking endangered monkeys in Brazil, voting patterns in the Commonwealth of Virginia, or demographics on low-income housing, GIS can pull together the information and translate it into full-color, easy-to-understand graphics.

Real-World Applications
On Nov. 16 and 17, the university and GISCE celebrated GIS Day with hands-on demonstrations and an afternoon of presentations showing the diverse uses of GIS throughout Mason. GIS projects at the university often involve collaborations among the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Computational Sciences, the School of Public Policy and the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering.

GISCE employee Akiko Otsuki at kiosk for GIS Day
Akiko Otsuki of GISCE answers questions at a Johnson Center kiosk on GIS Day.

"The technology is blossoming at Mason," says Andronikov. "I see GIS as a bridge between fundamental science and applied science. Geographers can be plugged into almost any kind of project. Through GIS, we [researchers in different disciplines] can all be together."

On-Campus Efforts
While many of the projects conducted at GISCE involve outside clients, the center also has several initiatives under way that benefit the university community. A little more than a year ago, the university did not have an electronic version of the campus map. Working with Keith Bushey, the university's chief safety officer, graduate student David Strong developed a geodata base of Mason's information. The resulting virtual map can be used for a variety of purposes and can be modified.

Fellow geography graduate student and GISCE colleague Aaron Showker has already begun adding to Strong's map. Earlier this year, Showker walked every inch of the Fairfax Campus with a Trimble GeoTX.

"This is my buddy," he says of the black and gold GPS handheld device that has helped him make additions to the map accurate within three feet. Also working in conjunction with the university's Safety Office, Showker has mapped security equipment on campus, including the call boxes and surveillance cameras.

Student Aaron Showker
Geography graduate student Aaron Showker mapped security equipment on campus to help University Police monitor the systems.

With the help of Steve Williams, another undergraduate student, and a light meter, Showker also analyzed the light levels in parking areas and added the information to the electronic map. The long-term goal of the project is to provide the University Police with a map that is interactive and will help them monitor and maintain these systems easily.

Commitment to the Region
One thing about GIS is certain: there can never be too much data. One of Andronikov's goals for GISCE is that it becomes a data depository and clearinghouse for spatial data, not just for Mason but also for the region.

"The idea is to create a virtual server on campus where all the departments can put their data," says Andronikov. "Then if I am doing a project, I can pull from that data."

With interdisciplinary cooperation, he believes Mason professors could build upon each other's research, learn from their colleagues' scholarly pursuits and still retain control over their own findings - all while enhancing the overall academic pursuits and expertise of the university.

"There's so much cool stuff that you can do with GIS that the real issue is narrowing it down to what do you want to do with it," says Showker.

Sergei Andronikov
Professor Sergei Andronikov explains some of the applications of GIS to an audience gathered for GIS Day.
Creative Services photos