Dr. Duane Marble Explains William L. Garrison Award
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
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?
DM: 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
NP: Who is William L. Garrison?
DM: 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?
DM: 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
DM: 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
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.