A Social Approach

The GIS program at UT Dallas incorporates many academic disciplines


One might expect to find the geospatial information science program at the University of Texas at Dallas housed within the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics—but it’s not.

Located within the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, the geospatial information sciences (GIS) program at UT Dallas explores not just the technical side of the subject area, but also its applications within the social sciences.

“There are few [GIS] programs in the country that can say they are housed in a social sciences school,” said Denis Dean, Ph.D., dean of the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences. “Here at UT Dallas, we offer a well-rounded approach to geospatial intelligence. We pair our strengths in the technical aspects of spatial statistics, geo-computation, and remote sensing with the strengths that a social science school offers. For example, we try to get our students into courses in public administration and public policy, which relate to [applications] like infrastructure protection.”

In 2009, UT Dallas became the third academic institution in the nation to achieve USGIF accreditation for a GEOINT or GIS program. The 20 Ph.D. students, 50 graduate and certificate students, and 55 undergraduates who are enrolled in the UT Dallas GIS program receive instruction from faculty who are experts in the field, Dean said.

Among the most notable faculty members is Brian J.L. Berry, Ph.D. His contributions to urban and regional research helped spark geography’s social-scientific revolution of the 1960s and gained him a place among the most cited geographers of the past 25 years. Today, Berry works one-on-one with Ph.D. students and has some strong insights on the future of geospatial intelligence.

“As I see it, the major developments are going to be a continuation of more and better sensors of a variety of kinds, which will [create] data environments that are richer and richer,” Berry said. “Some of the more interesting developments will come in new and improved methods of data mining that are fully cognizant of both the requirements and capabilities of spatial analysis.”

Berry also referenced the rapid emergence of other fields, such as game design and gaming.

“I think that there will be a marriage of gaming technologies, spatial analysis, and the need for intelligence so that there is a much deeper understanding of the nature of spatial interdependencies, and change, and greater anticipatory capabilities,” he said.

Berry also noted that the fastest growing undergraduate and master’s program at UT Dallas is a degree in arts and technology, which concentrates on education in gaming technologies.

“We are already discussing ways in which we can link up with that relatively new and very rapidly developing program,” he said, further emphasizing the GIS program’s inclusion of other disciplines.

Dean said other prominent GIS faculty members include Fang Qui, Ph.D., and Daniel Griffith, Ph.D. Qui’s latest research and development efforts combine light detection and ranging (LiDAR) and hyperspectral imagery.

Griffith helped pioneer a technique called eigenvector spatial filtering, which is a sophisticated way of analyzing remotely-sensed data. The filtering technique can be used to process raw data acquired from satellites or aerial photography to identify what is in those images based on not just spectral characteristics, but also spatial patterns.

“[Griffith’s] work is really revolutionizing some of the processing in remotely-sensed imagery that we are going to see in the future,” Dean said.

Students in the program have the opportunity to work alongside faculty members like Griffith and Qui on their respective research and development efforts. For some, that has meant working with Qui in collaboration with local governments for a project dealing with the urban forest in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The project involved using remotely-sensed imaging and data to identify individual trees through their species, health, and growth characteristics.

Other hands-on student experiences include opportunities to solve real-world problems within the oil and gas sector, aerospace industry, and environmental areas. For example, students have worked with
Raytheon to develop technologies which first responders to large natural disasters can use to learn about an unfolding disaster in order to deploy resources effectively.

“It’s a very exciting time [for our students] to be involved in this field,” Dean said. “Hold on to your hats, because it’s only going to get more exciting as time goes on.”

Featured image: A group of students from around the world participate in a class exercise as part of an international spatial filtering conference conducted by UT Dallas faculty, with support from the National Science Foundation.


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