Using GIS in Interdisciplinary Research: Natural and Social Sciences Making the Case

It’s that time of year again – the RGS Annual Conference and Dr. Ellul and I were fortunate enough to have another session. To build off off the ideas from last year’s session, instead of looking at Interdisciplinary Research in Geography and the challenges face, we were instead curious about the challenges of using GIS in Interdisciplinary Research – a slight difference, but an important one. This year I was really excited for the people who submitted papers to our session because of the unconventional ways they were using GIS in their projects. The presentations were as follows:

  • “GIS in the Humanities: Entering the Historical and Literary Dimensions” (Patricia Murrieta-Flores [Lancaster University]) – Patricia presented on the use of GIS in Corpus Linguistics, which seeks to understand references to real world phenomena in text. In particular, in Patricia’s project, they are analysing classical texts from the 1800s to map references to areas of the Lake District to see how these areas waxed and waned in prominence during this time period. It was really interesting to see how they had to build into their analysis engine (Corpus Query Processor) rules to understand when Lancaster was referring to a person or a place, and to ensure that that place was in the United Kingdom (opposed to elsewhere). For further information on her department’s work, please check out their website.
  • “Using GIS to Follow Environmental Change Through Time” (Esther Rind [University of Edinburgh]) – Esther’s work involved taking lifetime health information on people to hypothesise on elements that may effect people’s health. By combining old maps, green space data, and information collected from participants, this particular case study seeks to draw correlations that may imply that living near a park is better for your health. For more information, please check out their website. In her presentation, she established the power of GIS as a tool and advised that the modelling approach taken must be clear, so that all parties/disciplines involved can understand it.
  • “Arts & Humanities GIS: Interdisciplinary Translations” (Charles Travis [Trinity College Dublin]) – Charles’ work focuses on the subjective impressions of place and decided at one point to take his own PhD, which focused on the literary geographies of 1930s Ireland, and map the places/time periods mentioned in a 3D GIS. Through a psychogeography approach, Charles mapped the experiences discourses of time and place from literature (chronotopes) using the 3D GIS visualisations produced as a metaphor; in the work being presented on, to point out four distinct time periods by type of rule: theocratic, aristocratic, democratic, and the ricosso. Check out Charles’ bio for more information on his work. His curiosity with GIS was quite refreshing and he suggests that we all continue to push the envelope with what’s possible.
  • “Getting Value from GIS: Experience from the UK National Ecosystem Assessment” (Amii Harwood [University of East Anglia]) – Amii work on the UK National Ecosystem Assessment project, which hoped to convey the value of nature to human well being and ensuring that the ecosystem be included in the decision making process. Establishing the holistic values for various ecosystems involved large interdisciplinary teams (over 500 economists, natural scientists, geographers, etc.) to understand gains and losses across the UK in regards to lands used for agriculture, recreation, etc. This work can be quite sensitive, which sparked a debate at the end of her presentation, and she herself acknowledged; similar to the others involved in interdisciplinary research, Amii reiterated the rewards of interdisciplinary research but warned of its time consuming nature.
  • “Potential Uptake of Geographic Information Systems: Reading Between the Lines” (Patrick Rickles [University College London]) – In my talk, I drew together many of the challenges and potential solutions, some mentioned by the other speakers in the session, when embarking upon Interdisciplinary Research. To test the theoretical, I went through Google Scholar to see what the top journals from each of Google Scholar’s categories returned, when searching for “GIS” and “interdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary” or “transdisciplinary” by number of search results and top cited articles from the categories. In particular, I was able to see that GIS is popular tool in interdisciplinary projects analysing water or health issues and that, in comparison to the topics put forth by prominent GIS curricula, spatially data modelling was done in the GIS, but then the outputs were taken into discipline specific tools, often not really bothering with producing a map. These findings lead on to our understanding of how the different disciplines are using GIS and, therefore, implying what we should focus on when we’re introducing people to GIS.

This year’s talk was very well attended and the audience seemed thoroughly engaged. Interdisciplinary Research can be quite rewarding, and the outputs can be more than any one discipline could hope to do on its own. Through perseverance and open communication, the goals of the project can be achieved, but it does take hard work.


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