Stanford University
People observe map displays.

Participants observe map displays during GIS Day 2017. Photo credit: Danielle T. Tucker

Industry leaders share mapping insights during Stanford GIS Day

GIS, or geographic information system, is a modern mapping tool used by many researchers at Stanford Earth to better understand the planet using big data. Stanford’s 17th annual GIS Day offered students and faculty the opportunity to learn about the latest developments in the constantly evolving field.

BY Danielle Torrent Tucker
ClockDecember 21, 2017

Standing in front of a digital screen reaching from floor to ceiling, Stanford Geospatial Center manager Stace Maples discussed his recent work using satellite maps to understand where people live in Ethiopia.

Maples was speaking to a packed room at Stanford’s David Rumsey Map Center at Green Library, a treasure trove of collections for map enthusiasts, as he kicked off the 2017 GIS Day hosted by Stanford Libraries on Nov. 15.

GIS, or geographic information system, is a modern mapping tool used by many researchers at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences to understand the evolution of the planet. From crop cover and water use to street routes and nomadic passages, experts use GIS to organize massive amounts of data so they can identify patterns. Social scientists and economists are also leveraging big data to analyze demographic and social trends to develop sustainable solutions to social challenges such as health care and access to clean water.

GIS is a boundless horizon right now...And this is where the connections happen.

GIS Day in 2017 featured talks from industry leaders at major corporations and breakthrough technology companies advancing the capabilities of mapping systems and data management, including Facebook and Google, and data visualization firms Stamen Design and Development Seed.

“I see people reconnecting with one another and that’s exactly what this day is about,” Maples said.

Speakers shared their latest projects to address problems like food shortages and poverty, as well as their efforts to push technological limits with machine learning.

“This wouldn’t have been possible without industry partners,” Maples said, emphasizing the difficulty of tracking nomadic pastoralists on remote terrain. “And now we’re bringing good maternal health practices because of these projects.”

People in front of globe on large screen.
Geospatial instruction and reference specialist David Medeiros, left, and Geospatial manager Stace Maples stand in front of one of the Rumsey Center's large screens used for displaying maps. Photo credit: Danielle T. Tucker

How we see the world

Drishtie Patel, a program manager for maps at Facebook, discussed her work expanding OpenStreetMap (OSM), a project to create a free and open map of the world. With 2 million registered users and 40,000 active users per month, the community-based project is being built globally and academics play a large role in its success.

“Maps are the basis for everything, whether you see it or not,” Patel said. “It’s how we see the world, it’s how things are represented, it’s how we live our day-to-day lives as easily as we do.”

Patel became involved with GIS Day after meeting Maples at a local map-a-thon, a gathering that brings volunteers together to map their local communities. GIS Day is a great way to make connections and learn about other projects in the field, she said.

“I’ve seen a lot of amazing research come out of students, so I think it’s nice to try and connect their work with the real world,” Patel said. “There’s definitely learning on both sides.”

Student perspectives

During a series of 7-minute flash talks, Stanford students shared their research using GIS to understand sanitation in rural India, disease spread in western Kenya, flood and landslide hazard patterns, urban recovery from earthquake damage, and the productivity of tropical plantation forests.

Devin McMahon, a PhD student in Earth System Science, discussed her work analyzing the land-use sustainability of eucalyptus forests in southeastern Brazil. Her research combines remote-sensing satellite data, soil chemistry and meta-analysis techniques to address concerns about water and nutrient depletion at large spatial and temporal scales.

“I thought this would be a good chance to connect with some of the speakers because I use the Earth Engine platform in my work,” said McMahon, who spoke with Google Earth Engine platform co-founder Matt Hancher during lunch on the Mitchell Earth Sciences patio. “It was also fun to see all the different applications people have for spatial research and think about other directions it could go and other tools you could use.”

What is your map?

Mapping has come a long way since traditional cartography, and digital tools are creating rapid change. Jordan Winkler, a geospatial big data product evangelist at DigitalGlobe, discussed his latest venture, Penny, in which programmers trained artificial intelligence to predict wealth from space. The project is a partnership with Eric Rodenbeck, the founder, CEO and creative director of Stamen Design – a collaboration that never would have happened if Winkler hadn’t connected with Rodenbeck’s colleagues during GIS Day two years earlier, he said.

“As soon as I saw what they were doing at the GIS Day presentation, I just knew that Stamen and DigitalGlobe had to work on something together,” Winkler said. “I keep coming back because this is one of the only places that GIS people are starting to think outside of traditional geographical spatial analysis.”

Discussing the challenge of leveraging 100 petabytes of data to understand the planet, he noted that humans may only be grasping a sliver of what it means to describe the physical world. Given the needs of mapping as an industry and where it’s going, maps are not going to be made to be digested by humans, Winkler said.

“GIS is a boundless horizon right now,” Winkler said. “And this is where the connections happen.”

Media Contacts

Danielle T. Tucker

(650) 497-9541

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