Have you ever thought about what really goes into supporting digital scholarship? Well, some may say it takes a village but here at the University of Illinois it’s bigger than that. It Takes a Campus. The Scholarly Commons will be interviewing experts across campus about all the new and exciting things that are happening to support digital scholarship. We will sit down with a specialist to learn about what they do, how they do it and why they got started working in their field. Hear what we mean when we say it takes a campus to do what we do.
Mallory Untch: Hello everybody, and welcome back to another episode of “It Takes a Campus”. My name is Mallory Untch, and I’m a graduate assistant in the Scholarly Commons. I’m excited today because I’m joined with Wenjie Wang, who is our Geographic Information Systems Specialist. So, hello and welcome to our podcast. Thanks for coming out and taking time out of your schedule to talk with me for a bit today about Geographic Information Systems, or as it’s more normally called, GIS. And at the Scholarly Commons, we get a lot of questions about GIS, and a lot of those inquiries are referred to you. But, for some people who are listening who may not know what GIS is, can you tell us, simply, what, what is GIS? [laughs]
Wenjie Wang: Yeah sure, I will make it as short as possible. Uh, so, GIS is short for Geographic Information Systems, uh, based on the name of GIS it’s obvious that GIS is highly related to geography. So, it’s a framework for gathering, managing, and analyzing data. It analyzes spatial location and organizes layers of information into visualization using maps. It can relate unrelated information by using location as the key index variable. So, in general, GIS technology allows people to connect data with geography.
Mallory: Yeah, that’s, thank you for explaining that so simply. I have always understood it as just being, like, data visualizations using maps so you can visually see and connect and assess the data that you have over a geographic or a spatial region. Can you tell me a little bit then what you do as a GIS specialist? What kind of duties do you have in your day-to-day or, um, you know, what kind of members of our campus community do you work closely with?
Wenjie: Yeah, sure. Uh, at Scholarly Commons I give introductions of GIS concepts and terminology to faculty and students who do not have experience of GIS, and I also provide GIS training and teaching for them and help them understand GIS data characteristics and file formats. I also have faculty and students discover, explore, and visualize GIS data by using GIS software, such as ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Desktop. So they can learn about how their research could be turned into digital deliverables that will help to expand or speed their research, communicate and understand the outcome of the projects. I also act as University Library’s liaison to the Big Ten Academic Alliance Geoportal Project. So, I would, um, identify myself as an instructor. I give instructions and suggestions every day. I also work on some projects, such as developing GIS web applications and writing GIS-related tutorials. And also, sometimes I teach GIS workshops or GIS lectures in class. So, that’s me.
Mallory: That’s really interesting. I mean, you started this past summer, isn’t that, is that correct, right? Over the summer you started…
Mallory: And so, you came to the Scholarly Commons when our physical space was closed. And so, I haven’t really been able to work closely with you and so it is really interesting to learn a little bit more about, you know, what you do as a GIS specialist.
Wenjie: Yeah, uh, I mean I started my work just after the pandemic so… [laughs] That’s not the perfect timing.
Mallory: No, it’s not at all, but, uh, you’ve been doing great, and I know we didn’t have a GIS specialist for a little bit before you came, so, um, your service was much needed. So, let’s talk about you. Before you got to Illinois, what’s your background? You just received your PhD, that’s great, congratulations. So, where and what were you studying? What kind of research were you doing? So, really, just, where were you before you got to Illinois?
Wenjie: Yeah, um, so I got my PhD degree from the University of Connecticut, and I got my Master’s degree from Duke University. So, it was a kind of challenging time for me to take the defense during the pandemic. It was not easy to communicate with my committee members since everyone works from home. And, I had to, I had to take my dissertation defense on Zoom, which feels quite different from the in-person presentation because you can’t see everyone’s face, you don’t even know if they are listening to you. It just feels very weird. [laughs] But finally, I made it, so I’m still excited about this. Um, yeah and my study interests are land use/land cover change, uh, my research is about improving the land use/land cover classification by using the Markov Chain geostatistical post-classification method. I know it may sound pretty new to many people, the Markov Chain, [laughs]. I won’t talk too many details about what Markov Chain geostatistic is, it could be a very long story and we, uh, it’s a geospatial statistic method used in my research. And, uh, I was Census and Geospatial Data Specialist in the Map and Geographic Information Center at UConn for about five years. So, I did pretty much the same as I do at the Scholarly Commons. So, yeah.
Mallory: That is interesting too because you can’t major in GIS, right, you have to study geography? Or, is there any other types of fields that, you know, incorporate GIS that could lead to this type of job or position?
Wenjie: Yeah, GIS is more like a tool. You cannot adjust your tool without any topic, you know?
Mallory: Yeah, exactly. Um, but, do you think it is an interdisciplinary field? Like, you don’t, you don’t have to be coming from a geography background to be using GIS in your research.
Wenjie: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it’s a very interdisciplinary tool.
Mallory: Mm-hmm, so what kind of projects do you see from students and faculty at the University?
Wenjie: Oh, there are a lot of… [laughs] So, I mean, GIS can be a very powerful tool in interdisciplinary research. I have worked with faculty from the department of History and the project was about mapping the history of UConn. We created a lot of maps and the old maps. And another project was about land use/land cover change and its impact on invasive species. I worked with faculty from the department of Political Science, uh, department of Economics, and I also have been involved in a project from the School of Business, and the project was about quantifying the impact of the rail stations on real estate values. Yeah, I think that’s a lot of examples.
Mallory: No, it’s important ’cause it’s hard to imagine, you know, the possibilities. Like, someone could be working on a project and GIS tools and, you know, methodologies could be a really useful way of understanding their, the data that they have. And you know, answering these more complex questions about their research. So, I think it’s interesting to understand what fields that people are coming from, especially for our listeners who may be working on their own projects and say, hey, you know, maybe GIS would be a good avenue or tool for me to use. So, on that same note, what kind of inquiries do you usually get? Do people come to you already knowing that they need to use GIS, or are they brand-new, they’re like, I don’t really know what I should be doing with my project, can you help me find some direction?
Wenjie: Uh, yeah, this is a very good question. I mean, a lot of patrons do not have any background of GIS, and I think GIS has a really, uh, steep learning curve at the very beginning, um, our patrons have no idea where to find data and what kind of tutorials they can use to get started. So, a lot of, uh, requests is about where to find data and how to use this kind of data, how to use GIS software, so, it’s a very basic level but it’s also very important. Once they get guidance at the very beginning, then they can go through the tool very quickly.
Mallory: That’s great. So, at the University of Illinois, you said you do partner with, like, the Big Ten Alliance. But do you do any other type of independent research with GIS, working on your own, your own projects with your own interests?
Wenjie: Uh, yeah, I do have my own, uh, projects. So, uh, yeah, my research is about improving land use/land cover classifications, so now I am writing a manuscript which discusses accuracy assessment of global land use/land cover product and feasibility of its improvement. So, that’s what I’m doing right now.
Mallory: That’s interesting! That’ll be exciting to read about. I mean, I personally do not know much about GIS so this is a very enlightening conversation for me. But, what has been your favorite project that you’ve worked on in the past, if you have one?
Wenjie: Uh, yeah, I have one. So, I created maps for, `um, to provide a quick and user-friendly way for communities to reflect on the differences in children outcomes across the local communities in Connecticut. This project has been done a lot of years ago, so it was my first big project and it was very meaningful. So, it’s my favorite project so far.
Mallory: Yeah, I always find that, you know, some of the, like, earlier projects are the ones that you’re, you find yourself being most proud of because it’s the first time that you’re applying those skills and you’re feeling that achievement in using your, your knowledge. I guess my next question to you would be, what do you think is something that people misunderstand about this field? I think, personally, I have a hard time understanding what GIS is because I know that there’s ways to, for example, use the U.S. Census to find data across, like, a geographic region. So, I have a hard time drawing that line. When is it just data about space, and when is it GIS?
Wenjie: This also a very good question. I think a lot people think GIS is just a tool to make maps. And, uh, however, GIS guys are not just producers of maps. Maps, uh, are simply a key outcome from our work. Sometimes people do not fully understand their data until they see how it relates to other things, you know, geography context. And they can understand what belongs where by using GIS. So actually, GIS is a tool used to understand where things are found, why they are there, and how they develop and change over time. And, I think GIS reveals deeper insights into data, such as patterns, relationships, and the situations. It can help users make smarter decisions. So we use maps because they are intuitive and easy to understand, but it does not mean that GIS is all about maps. I would like to say that GIS is more than just a software or a map. It’s a solution-provider.
Mallory: That is very insightful, thank you for sharing that. And I think that I agree, I think that is a misconception, at least from somebody who doesn’t know about the, the field of GIS too much. I do associate it with maps. [laughs] But, it is interesting, you say your work at UConn was in the map library, or, not the library…
Wenjie: Um, so it’s kind of the same, so… we also call it MAGIC. MAGIC is under the, is in the library, so…
Mallory: Okay, so it’s kind of similar to the Scholarly Commons, as you’re saying. It’s in the library, but it’s not necessarily the commonly understood library space. So, your previous position and this position are both situated in the library, but you are not a librarian, you don’t have a background in Library and Information Science, so do you think that this position fits well in a library setting? And why would that be?
Wenjie: Yeah, this is also a very, very good question. I mean, um, a lot of people may think it’s strange to have a GIS position in the library. They think the library is just a place to borrow and lend books. This is a very common misconception, uh, misconception. I think library is a partner in the teaching and research processes. And the library supports students and faculty through the provision of information resources and technologies. And also, I’m proud of that I can be one of the members in the library to provide this kind of service. Um, I remember that, so I think GIS fits very well in the library with the explosion of information that’s available. Finding relevant and reliable data resources can be a very challenging thing, but if we can help our faculty and students to get access to the GIS data resources, and GIS can be a powerful tool in many interdisciplinary research. Um, I think the learning curve with most GIS software can be lessened with the help of librarians that are able to explain software, recommend useful media, and uh, preserve geospatial data. Therefore, I believe this position can be a bridge between our patrons and GIS technology and help them make progress in their research.
Mallory: Yeah, I completely agree. As somebody who is coming from a library background, I’m getting my degree in Library and Information Science in just a few months. I think the library, people misunderstand the library as just being a center for books or finding research papers, things like that. And so, having a service like a GIS specialist and, you know, finding specialized data, things like that, you know, I think it’s a really important role in our library. But do you think that it is specific to, you know, large institutions, or do you think this could be a position that is across all academic libraries?
Wenjie: Um, I believe it’s a, um, it’s a very common position in most of the library, um, academic libraries. I remember all current members of Association of Research Libraries were selected to participate in an online survey a few years ago. If I remember correctly, the results shows that 100% of survey respondents offer GIS software or mapping technologies at their libraries. And their campus communities are supported by library staff in a variety of ways with regards to GIS. So, I think it’s very common to have GIS positions in academic libraries.
Mallory: Do you think this type of research is only done in an academic setting, or how is GIS used in a more, like, common-place setting, like outside of, you know, people working on dissertations or faculty working on research?
Wenjie: So, I think we can, uh, help them to explore the GIS data, and we can help them to relate their data with GIS data and find some deeper insight relationship between the data, and I can, we can help them to make progress in their research.
Mallory: So, I have one final question for you. Is there anything that you wished you had known when you started your, you know, your Master’s degree, before you started going to your PhD, before you got to where you are now, you know, did you imagine yourself being, working in a library, you’re constantly learning in your career. So do you think there was anything important that you learned about your field along the way?
Wenjie: Nothing particularly. I mean, we cannot predict most things, so we have to learn something new all the time. For example, I spent lots of time learning C++, but now Python becomes so popular and is considered as the primary scripting language for ArcGIS. So, I started to learn Python a few years ago. So, I mean, GIS is always changing. In this field, I think that, like, listen to a webinar, go to a conference is very important way for me to learn the new trend of GIS. I think conference provide great opportunities for me to network with other professionals, and I can see demonstrations, ask questions, and get hands-on experience with a variety of GIS software. And, so, during the pandemic, I think it’s quite easy to attend conference now, there is no need to consider the budget for some conference, and we don’t need to fly to a different state to join a conference. But, uh, to be honest, I still prefer to join the in-person conference. It’s much easier for me to communicate with others.
Mallory: And it’s just nice, you know, having people around. It’s hard when you’re at home and you’re just watching a webinar, or something. It’s hard to, you know, give it your 100% attention versus like, being present in the space. So, I agree, but I think that, especially in information sciences, which I’m kinda gonna group GIS under, it’s so, it’s evolving so rapidly as technology advances, and I think that you’re always learning, and I appreciate you recognizing that, even somebody who is the specialist, the expert in this field, you know, you’re still learning, and you don’t come into the positions knowing everything about everything. So, it’s really insightful for you to share that. Well, thank you so much for, for giving me your time today. I really appreciate our conversation and I learned so much about GIS that I did not know before our conversation. So, I hope our listeners have learned something new too. If you have any GIS questions, Wenjie is available at the Scholarly Commons. Check out our website: library.illinois.edu/sc. We have a whole page on GIS with all of our resources and ways to reach Wenjie. So, thank you again Wenjie for being with me today.
Wenjie: Thank you, Mallory, thank you so much for inviting me.
It Takes a Campus is a podcast brought to you by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Scholarly Commons located in the Main Library. If you want more from us be sure to check out our blog Commons Knowledge publish.illinois.edu/commonsknowledge and follow us on Twitter @ScholCommons. That’s S C H O L Commons. The opening and closing song is Tranquility Base by A.A. Alto. You can find their album Bright Corners in the Free Music Archive by searching for A A Alto at freemusicarchive.org. Thanks for listening.