Thoughts on NITLE and NSDL and GIS and Environmental Studies

7-9 February 2003
I've been thinking about the intersection of Environmental Studies, GIS, and digital library development. Below I'll gather a building collection of thoughts and schemes that circle around some prospects for developments over the next few months. These are linked to several existing texts (a notice of interest I wrote a couple of days ago, a NITLE Environmental Studies summary I constructed, a brief summary of my then-current thinking for Bryan Alexander, and my version of the GIS in the 81 schools summary drafted by Deena Berg of ACS).

During the last week, I spent a couple of days exploring the possibility of a proposal to NSF's National Science Digital Library (NSDL) initiative for an April deadline, but conclude that time is too short, the necessary collaborators cannot be mobilized in time, and some of my ideas are still too vague to make the extreme effort worthwhile. A better strategy is to work in the direction of a proposal for the next round of NSDL development. While coming to this conclusion I started some exploratory threads that need to be gathered and put where others can get at them, and where I can work on them more too.

Considering GIS issues first:

We (W&L, and ACS, and NITLE) have a very big problem with Total Cost of Ownership for GIS capabilities and spatial data. We need to assure ourselves of appropriate returns for the investments, clear pedagogical utility for the technologies, and the wherewithal to support growing involvement with spatial information. At the same time, we have to plan and build the structures that will support growth we can envision, and create the environment for evolution which we can only dimly foresee.

GIS capabilities rest on software and hardware foundations, which include annual license fees and considerable network and systems and storage demands. Some of these are pretty unyielding: we have no choice but to work with ESRI, and need to figure out how to do that on a surer basis (hanging together that we not hang separately, and so on). Other vendors' capabilities (ERMapper, Idrisi, etc.) also need to be investigated, though their uses are mostly complements to the ESRI base.

Within the suite of ESRI tools, the issues for exploration and solution include: transition from ArcView 3.x to ArcGIS, management of data (ArcCatalog and server/network issues), development of ArcIMS as a data distribution platform and public display technology, use of ArcGIS extensions in analytical contexts, support and development of scripting languages, and storage and retrieval with ArcSDE. Some of these can be dealt with at a consortial level; others are problems that have to find local solutions, since all local users face them to some degree.

GIS is not a free-standing technology which can be mastered by enthusiasm alone. Among the immediate problems for any campus that attempts to build programs incorporating GIS technologies are: a famously steep learning curve for the software, vast arrays of options and extensions, multiple data types and scripting languages, and interconnection with many other technologies. The default path for GIS implementation on a campus seems to involve the creation of a GIS lab, often under departmental aegis, but sometimes in a more neutral location like a corner of the library. The setup costs for a dedicated GIS lab are substantial --and are prohibitive unless curricular uses are clear. Access to the knowledge and services of a GIS specialist becomes a necessity once users progress beyond the basic descriptive uses of the software; such a specialist is essential to manage the extension of analytical capabilities and the implementation of advanced features. Some institutions are so fortunate as to have a full-time GIS specialist as a lab manager, but a more common model is the part-time services of an IT staff member, who may or may not have formal GIS training.

Models for GIS support that do not rely on new hiring need desperately to be constructed for campuses which are in the exploratory stages of GIS development, and the wherewithal to share experience and data needs to be built, organized, and delivered. Some of this can be developed via local and consortial experiments and prototypes, such as the Digital South projects at W&L, but we need to consider the next stages as well, especially the need to scale up (probably to the level of NITLE) the development of tools and procedures.

NITLE may also be the appropriate organization to deal with ESRI --ACS is neither large enough nor active enough in GIS to attract ESRI's attention for collaborative development efforts, but a NITLE-wide initiative seems likely to bring the GIS perspective to the attention of students and faculty at a significant cross section of liberal arts colleges. The pitch to ESRI is that the interest of NITLE schools is less in GIS training than in developing the applications of spatial perspectives to teaching and learning in many fields. Technical training in GIS is well-tended ground, amply supplied with models for development and delivery in large institutions and certificate programs, but GIS perspectives are clearly not reaching deeply into the liberal arts institutions from whence come many of the leaders of rising generations.

We see a classic problem of chicken-and-egg, or lever-and-fulcrum: where does it make the most sense to begin an initiative to expand GIS as a curricular adjunct and information management tool? Which departments and programs are most susceptible and most in need of the descriptive and analytical capabilities GIS offers? How can GIS be situated so as to maximize flexibility as other faculty recognize its potentials? How and by whom should the information storage and distribution needs be planned and developed? The specific answers may be different on the various campuses, but many of the strategic choices will be the same. NITLE may be able to serve as an information clearinghouse, developmental ringmaster, collaborative matchmaker, and group negotiator. A NITLE-based GIS development project could be both a basis for an information infrastructure for member colleges and a model for post-secondary development.

Environmental Studies as a focus:

If we seek for common threads that appear on most NITLE campuses, Environmental Studies is one that recurs: 68 of the 81 have some sort of offering in this area. Most are programs (rather than autonomous departments) which coordinate courses in specific disciplines and rely upon fortuitous combinations of faculty interests; many are configured as minors to augment study in traditional disciplines. The program descriptions have much in common in the rhetoric of their summary pages: they invoke some combination of multidisciplinarity, analysis of complexities, awareness of impacts, training in scientific approaches, concern with sustainability, and constructive engagement with real-world problems. Most have explicit reference to student involvement in empirical research, on local, regional, national or international levels.

Most of these approaches and concerns have obvious spatial dimensions, and demand the means to use and develop and integrate spatial data into teaching and research. Despite this, in the tally of GIS activities at NITLE schools, only about half of the institutions with ES programs explicitly indicated Environmental Studies faculty involvement with GIS. Of the 283 people with GIS training or interests tallied in that survey, 18 are identified as library staff, 30 are primarily assigned to IT and computing support, 10 represent dedicated GIS support positions, and most of the remainder are faculty in various disciplines.

One of the missing pieces for a fuller integration of GIS into Environmental Studies and other campus settings is infrastructural: with few exceptions, faculty have neither incentive nor support to develop publicly-accessible repositories for their data and other resources. Typically, GIS data in use on a campus reside on servers which have no connection to library catalogs or other institutional digital asset management systems. ESRI's ArcCatalog and ArcSDE solutions to spatial data management are implemented on very few (if any) NITLE campuses, and no systematic procedures for metadata creation and management are sufficiently developed to provide the basis for sharing resources on a campus, let alone for linking GIS resources between campuses. The Digital South project at W&L is working on prototypes for inter-campus management tools, and there may be other projects afoot on other campuses that I haven't heard about yet. This is the realm in which an NSDL proposal could be developed, to provide the conduits and database structures and interfaces for a shared and distributed digital library for spatial information.

Digital libraries and distributed resources:

Paradoxically, the work of college Environmental Studies programs seems to take place in isolation from one another: I see very little evidence of collaboration among campuses, or of efforts to develop shared resources for study and research. This is partly a matter of academic style (limited campus histories of interdisciplinary collaboration, primary orientation of faculty to scholarship in a traditional discipline, little history of inter-campus exchange), but significantly mirrors the general absence of infrastructure to support sharing and collaboration. To a considerable degree this is an information management problem, common to all programs.

What would a digital library to support Environmental Studies look like? What would it contain, and how would it serve its users? It is not that there are no digital libraries for Environmental Studies, but most of these are first-generation "libraries" that consist of collections of static links to text resources: a Google search gets more than 2500 hits, most of which are subject guides in the form of Web pages of links to other Web pages. The next generation of digital libraries will create applications which facilitate interactive access to a broad spectrum of resources (including data and imagery as well as text), will provide for federated searching over multiple collections, and will be integrated with its host institution's strategies for digital asset management.

The model for emergent digital libraries is NSF's National Science Digital Library (, a fully-interoperable association of digital collections being built to serve as "the comprehensive source for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education." The most recent RFP states that the NSDL is intended to "enable the discovery, collection, organization, and delivery of quality teaching and learning resources", and mentions "rich, learner-centered educational materials and environments" and the prospect that "resource users may become resource providers". In the last two rounds of development, NSF has funded digital library projects in Biology, Earth Systems, Geosciences, Technological literacy, Anthropology, Demography, Microeconomics ...but not in 'Environmental Studies'. While most of the grantees are large institutions, a few are based at small colleges. W&L's Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues ( is one such collection, and exemplifies the possibility of building a resource of international significance at a small liberal arts college.

The NITLE colleges have a long history of innovation in American education, and possess skills and resources which can be mobilized to build solutions to common problems. An NSDL proposal to build an information management resource for the use of the 81 NITLE campuses is an interesting possibility, and the needs of Environmental Studies programs seem especially acute, particularly in the area of the management and distribution of georeferenced data. Collections of spatial data should include national and global datasets for the use of all, but would also encourage agreement on format and metadata standards, and provide for contribution of new data to the distributed digital library. Accessibility and mutual awareness might inspire comparative study and further data-gathering: thus, comparative juxtaposition of analysis of exploitation in southern Appalachian forests (from Sewanee's Landscape Analysis Lab) and data from regrowth in Williams College's Hopkins Memorial Forest might provoke forest succession studies around other campuses, and build toward a mosaic of ecological analyses across the eastern states. Collaborative urban ecology and regional watershed projects can similarly be imagined, drawing upon the energies of students and the analytical capabilities of Environmental Studies programs, and building shared databases for further study.

The somewhat overinflated term cyberinfrastructure is a general label for much of what I describe above. It will be interesting to watch its progress as a meme. See Advisory Committee for Cyberinfrastructure Overview.

===links to incorporate...

NITLE needs to be thinking about making connections with programs and institutions that are active in the evolution of GIS as a technology and as a pedagogical tool. Among them:

University Consortium for Geographic Information Science is one of the institutions that NITLE needs to connect itself with --the members are almost all LARGE universities, and the terms for membership involve the presence of GIS training programs.

Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science at UC Santa Barbara --see the abstracts for chapters of Spatially Integrated Social Science (Edited by Michael F. Goodchild and Donald G. Janelle, Oxford University Press, forthcoming [October] 2003)

The MIT-based DSpace "durable digital repository" is another important initiative and model to explore for its applications to information management on and among NITLE campuses. As I have observed elsewhere, such explorations are not the assigned task of anybody in the world of liberal arts colleges; it may be that their natural home is at the consortial level.

NJ/Rutgers Projects seem a particularly rich example of serving a variety of spatial data projects over the Web. I'm perpetually in search of analogs.


Thinking toward an NSDL proposal:

The NSDL Track we would apply under is 'Services' ("services to increase the impact, reach, efficiency, and value of the digital library in its fully operational form"), and the fundamental objective would be to build the structure into which contributors at the various campuses can put information resources (text, images, datasets, GIS layers, etc.) on their research and projects. Thus, the objective is to seek funding for infrastructure development, and not for the subsequent Collection development (a separate Track). The Civil War project I'm planning at W&L this summer and the ACS Digital South project are both prototypes for this much more ambitious undertaking.