Dr. Duane Marble Explains William L. Garrison Award

By Nora Parker

The Association of American Geographers and Dr. Duane Marble recently announced the third annual William L. Garrison Award. The purpose of this award is to encourage doctoral-level students to "increase their knowledge of computer science and to apply this knowledge to their research in geographic science." Nora Parker asked Marble to provide further background and information about the award.

Nora Parker (NP): Can you help Directions readers understand the purpose of the William L. Garrison award? Do you feel there's a lack of understanding of the "important role that advanced computation can play in solving the complex problems of space-time analysis that are at the core of geographic science"?

Duane Marble (DM): The development half a century ago of digital computing technology provided an opportunity in geography to create powerful new modalities or ways of looking at and solving complex spatial problems. Although immensely challenging, it was not a pleasant experience for many of us since, quite frankly, we had little notion of what we were doing and computer technology was very expensive and not generally accessible. We quickly learned that attempting to get computers to do anything at all for us involved knowing how they worked and, most importantly, what they were and were not capable of doing.

After 50 years, this is no longer the case. There is a general feeling, even within major segments of the scientific community, that geospatial computing is nothing more than a pervasive utility much like electric power - as long as I flip the light switch and get the desired result, I do not need to understand what goes on behind the scenes. Modern geospatial computer technology is far more than just some icons on a screen. Much of it is object-based and, for example, by rearranging and linking the basic objects you can create new specialized tools of substantial power. If you do not understand that, or even if you do and are incapable of such manipulation, then you are operating at a professional level that does not reflect the inherent possibilities of what you could be doing.

On a more conceptual level, computers have assisted us in discovering that geography is far more than static maps or even comparative statics (e.g., map overlay). What we see spatially at any moment is only a snapshot of a very complex continuous space-time process. This has raised the complexity of what we need to comprehend by several orders of magnitude. As the people in physics have known for some time, formal mathematical models of space-time processes are very difficult. However we have been forced in our practical work (largely by the massive amounts of spatial data represented by our planet and all the things on, in and above it) to utilize computer approximations based upon heuristic algorithms and specialized and efficient data structures. However the ability to apply such thinking to advanced conceptual development is severely hampered by many scientists whose education has taken place in the "icons on the screen" environment with little formal knowledge of computer science and its potentially substantial contributions.

The purpose of the Garrison Award is to try to provide an incentive for young scholars at the doctoral level - in any discipline and in any part of the world - to increase their knowledge of computer science and to apply this knowledge to their research in geographic science. It is, of course, difficult to do this if you have not acquired such geographic science/computer science knowledge earlier in the education process. This reflects a very real problem with a significant number of bachelors and masters level graduates in geographic science who have had only a minimal exposure to formal computer science concepts. (There are a small number of excellent exceptions to this, as can be seen in programs supported by the Departments of Geography at the University of Utah, Penn State and a few other places.)

To help address this problem, the AAG's Marble Fund (with the assistance of a generous contribution from my friend Jack Dangermond) will shortly announce a program of annual undergraduate achievement awards to help encourage excellent students from the U.S. and Canada to complete programs that strongly emphasize integrated education in geographic science and computer science.

NP: How long has the Garrison Award been active?

The award was established about three years ago and we have now gone through the first biannual award cycle and have recently announced the second. The winner of the first award was Dr. Stephane Joost, whose dissertation was entitled The Geographical Dimension of Genetic Diversity: A GIScience Contribution for the Conservation of Animal Genetic Resources which he did at the Laboratory of Geographical Information Systems of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. Information on Stephane's research may be found in the article, "A spatial analysis method (SAM) to detect candidate loci for selection: Towards a landscape genomics approach to adaptation" that appeared in Molecular Ecology (2007) 16, 3955-3969. Stephane's work not only demonstrated the value of advanced computational approaches in geographic research but has also provided groundbreaking insights into the operational links between geography and genetics.

NP: Who is William L. Garrison?

Bill Garrison is, in my mind, one of the most important geographers of the 20th century. After service in World War II, he completed his Ph.D. at Northwestern University and then joined the faculty of the Department of Geography at the University of Washington. While there, Bill exerted an enormous influence upon a number of graduate students who were interested in scientific approaches to spatial problems. In addition to me, he worked closely with other Ph.D. students such as Brian Berry, John Nystuen, Michael Dacey and Dick Morrill, as well as significantly influencing others such as Waldo Tobler. In addition to stressing the value of scientific approaches to spatial problems and the value of interdisciplinary work, Bill was one of the first to see the potential of the primitive digital computers of that day for enhancing scientific approaches to geography. He now is retired and is currently Professor Emeritus of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Emeritus Research Engineer in the Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

NP: Who are the trustees of the Marble Fund for Geographic Science of the Association of American Geographers?

The Marble Fund has three trustees who are responsible for decisions regarding its operation. These are Dr. Randall Jackson, who is Director of the Regional Research Institute at West Virginia University; Dr. Donna Peuquet, who is Professor of Geography at the Pennsylvania State University; and Dr. Jay Sanhu, who is a senior software developer for ESRI. Randy is a valued colleague whom I have known for many years. Donna and Jay are two of my former Ph.D. students who are well known for their work in geographic science and GIS.

The AAG and I have set up the Marble Fund to continue indefinitely, with half of the growth in the Fund each year being directed toward further growth of the Fund's capital while the other half is made available to the trustees to support the Fund's award programs. This will permit the amount of the awards to be increased from time to time and hopefully, with the help of further donations to the Fund, to be extended to other aspects of geographic science.

NP: I understand you retired recently? Can you provide highlights of your career?

I retired from formal teaching a decade ago but I have managed to keep myself busy professionally in other ways (my wife feels far too busy ...). These include some research on human mobility in the natural environment as well as continuing to support (with the kind assistance of ESRI) the free on-line bibliography in geographic science and GIS that now contains about 57,000 references. Working to set up the Marble Fund for Geographic Science and assisting the AAG in getting it to an operational level has been one of my personal retirement pleasures.

From my own standpoint, the professional highlight that stands out most was being one of Bill Garrison's Ph.D. students at the University of Washington and, while there, being part of an immensely exciting and important period in the history of geography. My professional career has been of an academic nature and I view myself primarily as an educator and the real highlights of my career have been the very talented students that I have worked with over the years. Many, if not most of these, have gone on to change geographic science, both conceptually and operationally, from a limited academic activity to something that has substantially changed our whole society. I am proud to have had a part in this.

Published Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

Written by Nora Parker

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