In 2021, iSEE helped establish the Institute for Geospatial Understanding through an Integrative Discovery Environment (I-GUIDE), securing a $15 million, five-year grant through National Science Foundation’s Harnessing the Data Revolution. Five such institutes across the United States now explore questions at the frontiers of science and engineering.
Becky Vandewalle, a Geography Ph.D. student who works with the new center, and Primary Investigator Shaowen Wang, Head of the Department of Geography and Geographic Information Science and Founding Director of the CyberGIS Center for Advanced Digital and Spatial Studies (CyberGIS Center), offer answers to some Frequently Asked Questions about the new initiative.
What is I-GUIDE?
The Institute for Geospatial Understanding through an Integrative Discovery Environment (I-GUIDE) is an interdisciplinary intercollegiate institute supported by the National Science Foundation that brings together people who are working on a wide variety of geospatial problems. I-GUIDE combines geospatial-related expertises and resources to achieve things that couldn’t be done individually.
There are many challenges to working with geospatial data. These challenges involve handling data, computing, finding people with the know-how to work with the data, getting ideas together, and figuring out what insights and solutions can be pursued. Geospatial problem solving is inherently interdisciplinary — it’s basically anything that’s got a geographic or spatial component. That’s the cool thing about this area: We are all doing geospatial work but using very different methods and data sources. This allows us to tackle these challenging problems because we have people looking at them with different perspectives.
What is GIS, and how is it used? What about cyberGIS?
GIS stands for “geographic information systems” or “geographic information science,” depending on the context.
GIS blends geospatial data with information technology and computer science to enable decision making and problem solving in numerous domains. It’s an umbrella term that looks at anything embedded in place and space, and then supports data-driven analysis and modeling.
The work on cyberGIS, which specifically focuses on synergizing GIS with cutting-edge advances in artificial intelligence (AI), data science, and high-performance computing has gone a long way to help figure out what we can do with I-GUIDE.
Why should the average person be interested in I-GUIDE?
I-GUIDE works at a high organizational level, but ultimately the goal is for the impacts to trickle down to make things better for people living in the real world.
We study ways to more holistically address some of these problems. You can study something through the lens of trade, or the lens of agriculture, for example. But cyberGIS gives us the integrative opportunity to tackle these problems holistically. Because of that, we can put together some really neat insights. It’s challenging, but also why it’s really cool.
Do you have an example of the work I-GUIDE does?
One example is aging dam infrastructure. There are tens of thousands of dams in the United States. We’re looking at U.S. dams made in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s — old ones. And a lot of them are now degrading because there hasn’t been active maintenance for them.
We can use I-GUIDE’s collaboration and capabilities to look at what kinds of things might signal which dams are vulnerable. We can develop methods to estimate where people could be affected by spillover effects if a dam fails. It’s not just that the dam can fail; it can hit the power infrastructure, it can hit the transportation system, it can hit people’s houses, and so much more. And if the power infrastructure gets affected by flooding caused by a dam failure, then that can cause other issues. A hospital might lose power, for example. So we estimate what might be the non-obvious risks if a dam fails. The interdisciplinary research enabled by I-GUIDE can go even further, and also address what factors can lead to dam failures, and how communities can work together to limit the impacts of such failures.
What are the main objectives and outcomes of I-GUIDE’s work? What are some examples of its impact?
I-GUIDE aims to enable practitioners and scientists from numerous disciplines to access data, run scientific models, and be able to innovate algorithms and gain insights from complex and massive data. Our new knowledge and experience will represent how advances of artificial intelligence and high-performance computing can invoke ethical and FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable) data principles — regardless of the nature of the data type and its purpose — in the broad context of addressing a variety of sustainability challenges.
We have begun with topics of biodiversity loss and water and food insecurities, including aging dams, agricultural disruptions, extreme climatic events, and global-to-local-to-global modeling of trade, and we look to the broader community for collaborative work on additional challenges as well.
A key common theme within I-GUIDE is convergence science. For example, we want the people who focus on cyberinfrastructure innovation to directly work with domain scientists — the people harnessing the power of computing and data to pursue solutions to complex problems. Similarly, I-GUIDE fosters collaborations between those doing quantitative research and those doing qualitative research.
Then there’s also the aspect of communication. How do we take these research advances and communicate them to the people who need to hear them so that change can happen? That means we’re not only communicating to decision makers and practitioners, but lay people as well.
I-GUIDE often fosters collaboration spanning different domains. What do these interdisciplinary projects look like?
We have some team members who are very skilled with data analysis, some who are very skilled with high-performance computing, and some who are very skilled with cyberGIS. And then we have people focused on AI and machine learning, and we have others who are more focused on solving specific problems in particular domains spanning natural and social sciences. Everyone brings a different perspective and skillset to the table, which is critically needed to tackle diverse sustainability challenges
And that’s both a strength and a challenge. Different perspectives and skills mean that we’re prepared to solve diverse problems, but we must work hard to make sure everyone is on the same page.
How can people learn more about I-GUIDE and get involved if they’re interested in the work you’re doing?
There’s a “Contact Us” page on the I-GUIDE website. Additionally, if you’re close to Champaign-Urbana, you can physically walk in. We’re headquartered in the Natural History Building.
We’re always looking for students who are interested in solving real-world problems and passionate about innovating computing, data, and geospatial technologies for a better world.
— Article by iSEE Communications Specialist April Wendling and Communications Intern Kratika Tandon