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Mount Holyoke College News and Events College Street Journal Vista

SPRING 2002 • VOLUME 6, NUMBER 3

Center for Environmental Literacy Spatial Data Server to Inform Students, Faculty and Administration

BY JANET TOBIN

 
  Geographically referenced information about the campus environment is now accessible to anyone via the Internet and the College's new spatial data server.

A Mount Holyoke art class can use its data on College plant species to create accurate botanical drawings. An economics professor can use its information to prepare a report for the president on the cost-effectiveness of adopting alternative energy sources in a proposed new building. Facilities management staff can use its data on the rate and cause of sediment buildup in the College’s Lower Lake to make decisions about redirecting storm water runoff. It is a new spatial data server (SDS), an ongoing project of the College’s Center for Environmental Literacy (CEL) that is being supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Uncommon in the Information Age are tools that provide both the titanic amounts of information we crave and ways to find the meaning we often struggle to extract. Just such a hybrid, Mount Holyoke’s new SDS allows nonscientists and scientists alike access to many layers of campus environmental data and provides ways to analyze it—all with the click of a mouse. In fact, anyone with access to the Internet can use the SDS to perform, in a matter of minutes, an analysis that formerly would have taken a scientist trained in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software a significant amount of time to complete.

For the past thirty years, scientists have been using GIS, computer systems in which geographically referenced information is assembled, stored, manipulated, and displayed, to analyze and attempt to solve environmental dilemmas. A GIS typically has two components: one that operates on graphics (satellite images, for example) and another that operates on descriptive, text-based information (data relating to the mapped areas). Because of their complexity, these systems have been accessible only to specialists. “Lots of campuses have more GIS data than they know what to do with, since most people don’t have the training to use the systems,” says Scott Bergen of the CEL. “Mount Holyoke’s spatial data server combines GIS and environmental data in a way that is useful to everyone.”

The campus data, which have been amassed by the CEL over the past four years and now compose the server’s database, include everything from satellite maps of campus buildings and undeveloped areas to information about roads and trails. The server retrieves and processes descriptive information useful for tracking and analyzing environmental impact. Linked to the Stony Brook watershed on the SDS campus map, for example, is a table with information about streams, land use, and vegetation for specific locations within the watershed.

“I don’t know of another college that is using GIS data both to inform administrative decision making and to assist in integrating environmental content throughout its curriculum,” says CEL director and Associate Professor of Geography Thomas Millette, an expert in GIS and the founder of the College’s GeoProcessing Laboratory. “The spatial data server is one part of the College’s steadfast commitment to fostering an environmentally sustainable college community.”

Take a look at the SDS at http://www.mtholyoke.edu/proj/cel/sds.

 

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