Beyond the Quantitative Approach

Q&A with Dr. Peggy Agouris

2017 ISSUE 1

Dr. Peggy Agouris is dean of the College of Science, director of the Center for Earth Observing and Space Research, and professor of spatial informatics at George Mason University. She is also a member of the USGIF Board of Directors. 

Q: How did you become interested in the geospatial sciences?

My early background is in infrastructure engineering. I grew up in Greece and that’s where I did my undergraduate work. During my undergraduate studies I got into photogrammetry and applications related to imagery depicting structures, and when I came to the U.S. for my master’s degree and Ph.D. I started learning more about satellites and the evolution of digital imagery. The computational part of that was very interesting to me, and automation excited me the most.

Q: You’ve received more than $30 million in external research funding. What are you currently researching?

How to combine information from a variety of sources—databases, social media, traditional satellite and airborne sensors—and automate the extraction of information and the detection of change. It’s exciting to work in the lab with graduate students on incorporating the human component into traditional computational approaches, like for example, how to infuse predictive features into safety monitoring for military operations support, crisis management, and humanitarian response—among other applications.

Q: What research are you most proud of?

From an early stage, before the explosion of social media, my group recognized the importance of the human aspect in our work. We are engineers and scientists so we weren’t used to dealing with things beyond the computational and the quantitative. I consider it one of my most significant scientific contributions when I started integrating and expanding my work to include the human component, tracking movement and human behaviors in a way that can guide and enhance the underlying quantitative approach.

Q: What do you predict for the future of GEOINT education?

Geospatial science was always multidisciplinary and didn’t have a defined niche. It comprises people like me who came from different backgrounds, discovered it along the way, and became interested. One of the major trends I see—and which is already reflected in our college’s geospatial programs—is the universal recognition that location and geospatial aspects exist in everything. Another trend is that people who are educated in this field cannot be one thing anymore. They have to be good at understanding data constructs and quantitative methods as well as developments in social media analytics and much more. GEOINT is becoming more its own field yet still demands several layers of education in order to be effective.

Q: What advice do you have for students and young professionals?

Be open minded in terms of where you gain the knowledge you seek. Even though we are becoming more centered on the human aspect, you should sharpen and maintain your quantitative skills because the combination of the two differentiates geospatial science from other fields. And you can’t just extract and present information. You have to understand how reliable this information is and its origin. Given the recent spread of fake news, you have to be able to understand truth, accuracy, and precision. Finally, I recommend looking beyond the surface and deeper into the expertise and knowledge offered by the faculty who teach you. The experience you get from working with people actively involved in cutting-edge research, who have made significant contributions to the field, is more valuable than what can be taught through textbooks in the classroom or online.

Watch Dr. Peggy Agouris' presentation at MIT's Human Environment Mobile-Based Interactions (HEMBI) workshop.