GIS Adoption and Use on College Campuses: An End-of-Year Review and Look Ahead to 2012

January 12, 2012

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In the last few months, the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science has quietly been taking stock of its accomplishments and developing a strategic plan to move forward to the next decade. We are calling this push GIScience 2.0, a theme that will be reflected in our upcoming symposium in May 2012. As part of this strategic planning effort stemming from the Futures of Spatial Sciences meeting held on Catalina Island and reported in Directions Magazine, UCGIS decided to conduct a scan about the experiences of our member institutions in fostering the adoption and use of GIS on their campuses. Specifically, we wanted to understand how GIS is being used to foster research, teaching, service and community building across departments, schools and the broader communities within which our institutions are situated.

In 1995, when UCGIS was founded, GIS activities on campuses were multi-disciplinary endeavors that brought togetherdiverse fields of expertise including but not limited to, cartography, computer and information science, cognitive and behavioral science, engineering, geography, landscape architecture, statistics, surveying and urban planning. In acknowledging and celebrating this diversity, the UCGIS organization required its member institutions to create a Web portfolio that described the synergistic activities occurring within each institution and demonstrated the presence of a critical mass of actors committed to developing the fledgling discipline.

In addition to fostering research and teaching, many of the conversations on college and university campuses in 1995 were about establishing GIS as a community of practice. GIS champions on college campuses invested considerable energies in developing a technology and data infrastructure, acquiring new software, dealing with issues related to software licensing, finding appropriate curriculum materials, and providing basic training in GIS for interested faculty and staff. The common purpose of supporting a fledgling field helped to overcome conventional departmental and disciplinary boundaries. In addition, the work of the NSF-funded National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA), a de-centralized consortium of three universities in Maine, Buffalo and Santa Barbara, along with its numerous partners and affiliates helped to create a buzz around the idea that GIScience was sustainable as a separate discipline.

The primary goal of the 2011 survey was to understand if and how GIS adoption and use on college campuses has evolved over the years. It was intended to serve as a baseline assessment about the state of a GIS community of practice on individual campuses. Our intent is to build a database of best practices for guiding successful campus engagement. The questions we asked of our participants were designed to identify the players on campus with whom GIS faculty, students and staff interact, enumerate the means by which these interactions take place, and obtain an understanding of what has worked (or not) and why. We wanted to obtain a clear sense about the experiences of faculty and staff at our member campuses to understand the degree to which GIS is being used as a lever to facilitate engagement within and outside the university.  

The survey was launched at the end of August 2011 and distributed to the network of 60+ UCGIS institutions through our mailing list. The lead delegate on an individual campus, typically a faculty member, responded to the survey, based on those who provided us with an e-mail contact address. They also forwarded it to colleagues. When we closed the survey six weeks later, we had 94 responses, including several from non-UCGIS institutions as well as from staff and students at these institutions.

One fact that jumped out immediately was that there is an amazing richness when considering where GIS can be found on an individual campus. The list of departments and campus units reporting adoption and use of GIS included many new areas, including humanities, criminology and public health, in addition to the conventional and expected users. What was different from the past was perhaps the number of university departments that are using or planning to use GIS. These included the Office of Research, the Office of Admissions, the Library, Alumni Services, Campus Planning, Fundraising and Development, and Facilities Management.

The preliminary findings from the survey identified many overall similarities among survey respondents, but also highlighted key differences where the same approach or tactic resulted in markedly different outcomes. Based on our survey results, as expected, the most popular uses of GIS on campus in descending order of importance were performing spatial analysis or mapping (92%); providing GIS data or software (55%); building, operating and maintaining systems (51%); and offering training (43%). In terms of service to the broader community, GIS was being extensively used to support community mapping activities (38%); planning and emergency preparedness (36%); and data and services hosting (26%). Universities also reported fostering campus engagement through intern placements at on-campus and off-campus locations.

Our respondents reported being generally hopeful about the level of engagement on their campuses stemming from these varied approaches; 59% reported a medium level of engagement with GIS use, training and outreach, although the responses suggested that experiences were highly variable across campuses and that the situation could change dramatically from year to year. While 22% of the sample rated the level of engagement as high or very high, about 14% of the sample rated the level of engagement as low or very low. The challenges are many, but one of the key points that respondents made repeatedly was the need to engage university administrators about the value of GIS. Many respondents felt that while faculty appreciation of GIS was stable or growing, administrators still saw GIS either as an income generator (fee for service operations) or as something that was a resource-hungry endeavor. Many of our respondents stated that they had more engagement with the outside community than within the university itself. Some respondents pointed out that the rise and fall of GIS depended heavily on the attitudes and experiences of administrators such as deans, provosts and chief information officers.

Some of our responses indicated that engaging the campus community through various outreach activities including GIS Day seminars and GIS short courses generally increased enrollment in semester-long GIS courses and brought new collaborators to the table; however, these same attempts failed to improve levels of engagement at many other institutions. In contrast, there was consistent agreement that bringing real-world projects from community groups, campus administrators and faculty from other departments into the curriculum as semester-long projects served the dual purpose of enhancing the student experience while deepening and extending the ties between centers of GIS research/education and potential collaborative colleagues.

Although a majority of participants reported participating in grant writing to obtain funding to support GIS activities (56%), identifying and collecting consistent income streams for GIS software licenses, resources for support staff and hardware were identified as continual challenges that hindered the expansion of collaborative networks within and beyond campuses. Hiring one or more full-time staff members dedicated to offering campus support, performing GIS, doing outreach and offering specialized training sessions tailored to different departments was seen consistently as a critical component for successful campus engagement. The highest return on these activities was noted when a single campus entity managed GIS resources on campus.

The received and anecdotal wisdom suggested that, as a discipline, we have made great strides since these fruitful beginnings, but we still have much work ahead of us if we intend to remain relevant and productive on our respective campuses. Given the results of this survey, it is clear that GIS can be and is being used as a tool for engaging a broader campus and local community to advance the missions of universities across the country. Filling classes and training sessions with non-GIS students and faculty interested in learning and applying GIS within their respective disciplines is just one of the pieces to this puzzle. This goal must be paralleled by obtaining buy-in from administrators and other non-academic units in order to ensure long-term sustainability of a GIS enterprise on a university campus, particularly when it comes to funding ongoing costs such as dedicated GIS staff and site licenses.

The preliminary findings of the survey suggest that GIS has a central role to play in establishing university-community partnerships, especially in areas such as community mapping, emergency preparedness and serving as stewards for community-generated data and information. In recognizing this contribution, UCGIS is already striving to support the idea of embedding GIS as a critical part of university extension activities that are tailored to the needs of particular campuses and the communities they serve. The next steps for UCGIS and the broader GIS community stemming from this survey will be to further enumerate the challenges and opportunities that GIS provides on university campuses in order to offer a variety of training, service, research and outreach models that can be employed at a diverse set of campuses to best utilize resources to meet these goals. We thank all of those who participated in this survey. We invite you to stay tuned and join us at the upcoming UCGIS symposium in May 2012, where we will present further details from these results along with sample models for promoting campus engagement through the vehicles of GIS research, training and outreach. In the meantime, if you have a success story about campus engagement you would like to share with us, please write to us at


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