Inventing the Science of Geographic Information Puts a Professor on the Map

Courtesy Michael Goodchild

The latest efforts of Michael Goodchild, a geographer at the U. of California at Santa Barbara, involve neogeography, the crowdsourcing of geographic information, which proves useful in relief efforts after natural disasters like earthquakes and wildfires.
April 10, 2011

To say that Michael Goodchild, a professor of geography and the first appointee to the newly created Jack and Laura Dangermond endowed chair at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is well liked by his students would be an understatement.

Dar Roberts, chair of the department of geography at Santa Barbara, says student evaluations of Mr. Goodchild often contain phrases such as "Give this guy a raise!" and "This guy rocks my socks."

It's a sentiment that Jack Dangermond, founder of Environmental Systems Research Institute and donor for the endowed chair in geography, can understand. He says Mr. Goodchild, whom he has known since the middle of the 1970s, "nurtures and encourages good students, people who are passionate about the stuff—he is really good with them. But he is nobody's fool."

Mr. Goodchild cemented his place in geography in 1992, when he wrote a paper proposing the creation of geographic information science, the study of the technological tools that track the location of objects on the earth's surface and the way they interact with other objects. In the paper, which earned him the title of "father of geographic information science," Mr. Goodchild argued that there was more to geographic information systems than just than "a matter of pushing the right buttons."

"If profound thoughts can come from the telescope and the microscope," they can also come from geographic information systems, Mr. Goodchild says. "There is some real intellectual power here."

Mr. Goodchild says his thinking is guided by "a fundamentally scientific frame of reference," which he developed in his undergraduate years as a physics major at the University of Cambridge. After Cambridge, Mr. Goodchild was drawn to McMaster University in Canada to do his doctoral work so he could indulge his interest in spelunking by becoming a part of one of the leading cave-research groups.

"It was the context of the mid-60s, and I thought, Why not?" he says about his decision to accept a position at the University of Western Ontario after he earned his Ph.D. "The world was your oyster; jobs grew on trees. I applied for seven jobs, got six offers."

After spending 19 years at Western Ontario, "a pleasant, peaceful place," Mr. Goodchild realized that "ultimately the world had grown larger." In 1988, he accepted a position at Santa Barbara and at the newly created National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis. He is now the chair of the center's executive committee.

Since his move to Santa Barbara, Mr. Goodchild has continued to gain accolades for his work, including becoming a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2002 and receiving the Founder's Medal from the Royal Geographical Society in 2003.

Those around him are not surprised by his success. They have noticed that he focuses intensely on his tasks regardless of his surroundings. Many people dread the time lost in flying, Mr. Roberts says, but "Mike really can get a lot of work done on the plane."

For Mr. Dangermond, the image of Mr. Goodchild that sticks in his mind is seeing "him sitting alone at a symposium, thinking and working like crazy, composing what became a book."

"I feel inadequate to be able to describe him because he is such a magnificent scholar," Mr. Dangermond says, "but he is humble."

Mr. Goodchild is also becoming a leader in neogeography, or volunteered geographic information. Neogeography uses the "crowdsourcing of geographic information" to supplement the materials geographers create and to provide information about who and what might be where in time-sensitive situations. (Think something similar to the Foursquare app that allows cellphone users to share tips on their favorite hangouts.)

The growth of technology means that everyday people, the crowd, can provide some of the most up-to-date geographical information, he says, especially in times of natural disasters, such as wildfires or the earthquake in Haiti.

"In Haiti, it took very few days to crowdsource an accurate map" of the post-earthquake environment, he says. Such new forms of information-gathering used when speed is critical are likely to "upset the apple cart of geography," Mr. Goodchild says.

The additions made by those on location, with appropriate technology, may start to override some of the work that geographers do in the popular sphere. Quality remains the largest area of concern in such a project, he says: "Any time a project gets too big, you get malicious behavior and intent."