Matt Artz | Profiles from the Geospatial Community

Matt Artz is the editor of GIS and Science, a blog focused on “the use of GIS technology by the scientific community and for scientific applications“.  Mr. Artz is also the GIS and Science Program Manager for ESRI and in the editor of GIS.com.  A listing of both his professional and personal writings, as well as his photography can be accessed at MattArtz.com.

1.  How did you get involved with GIS?  What drew you to this industry?

Maps fascinated me from a very early age, and I took computer programming classes in high school back in the 1970s, so that convergence is probably where it all started.  In 1984 while an undergrad at Cal Poly, I had a huge database for an archaeological site and had no clue about GIS so was writing BASIC and FORTRAN code on a PDP 11 to try to make sense of all the artifacts scattered across the site spatially and temporally.  My first exposure to GIS was in 1987 while working as a consultant on some highway and airport noise modeling projects.  We used GIS to manage the inputs to a noise model, then to analyze and display the results coming out of the model.  As someone seriously concerned about the environment, I came to the realization that I could have a much larger positive impact on the world by evangelizing GIS than I could working on environmental assessment projects covering small geographic areas.  So I sent my resume to ESRI, and as they say the rest is history.

2. As the editor of GIS.com, your blog, GIS and Science, and author of numerous papers, you’ve certainly written your share about GIS.   What are some of the common misperceptions about GIS that you’ve run across?   What do you consider to be the most undervalued aspect of GIS?

A lot of people see GIS as sort of a “niche” technology.  Maybe you could characterize it that way from a market share standpoint, or based on the total size of the user base compared to some of the more “mainstream” technologies.  But find the web sites for a handful of peer-reviewed scientific journals, and search the recent papers for keywords like “GIS” and “spatial analysis,” and you’ll probably be amazed by what you find.  GIS is used for a lot of different types of applications, and I see it as a pretty fundamental tool for much of science.  The movement of geospatial technology “to the masses” (thanks to things like the web and mobile devices) is a glorious thing to watch as a GIS geek, but let’s not forget the incredible contributions to scientific research and analysis made by GIS every day.  That was the whole idea behind starting my blog—it’s really a celebration of GIS as a valuable tool for science.

3.  What’s the most fascinating application of GIS that you’ve seen or been involved with?

That’s really hard to say—as the editor of GISandScience.com, so many things cross my desktop.  I’m fascinated every day by the ways people are using GIS, and am most impressed by the breadth of applications.  But the Tangible GIS demos are probably the coolest single thing I’ve seen in the last several months.  The ability to make a small dam out of clay, place it on the 3D display, and re-run the model to instantly see the impact the dam has on the watershed—it doesn’t get much cooler than that! (http://skagit.meas.ncsu.edu/~helena/wrriwork/tangis/tg1bak2_ed4_1min640.mov)  Also, I love the way you can visualize the results of various climate models on the Nature Conservancy’s Climate Wizard site (http://www.climatewizard.org/tnc/FutureClimateModels.html).

4.  What’s the one direction that you would like to see GIS evolve towards?

One of my primary tasks over the last year has been to help communicate the vision of GeoDesign.  Looking a few years out, I would love to see a convergence of GeoDesign and massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs).  The time people are investing in playing MMORPGs is pretty astounding, and it’s only going to increase.  Why not tap in to that as a resource?  And as the virtual worlds in these games become increasingly complex to design and manage, it only seems logical to use GIS and GeoDesign tools to design and manage the virtual geography.  But what about using these virtual words as testing or prototype environments for the real world?  Using GeoDesign principles, let’s design future buildings, roads, cities, parks, etc., and then test alternative designs in the virtual world of an MMORPG.  It’s sort of like agent-based modeling, except behind each agent is a real person holding a game controller or typing at a keyboard.  If we do it right, so that the players are entertained, they will never realize that by playing a video game they are helping make the real world a better place!  It could even become a new business model for video game companies—get contracted to stand up several designs in the virtual world for a set period of time, then deliver a report back to the client about which alternative scenario worked best, and why.

5.   What advice would you give those seeking to develop a career in GIS?

I would encourage people looking at a career involving GIS to think big: the future is in integrative thinking, in systems thinking.  As I stated earlier, there are so many amazing ways that GIS is being used in science.  But science has become so narrowly focused and fractured as all these very smart people are making amazing discoveries in their own little tiny isolated areas.  The big challenge is integration of all this knowledge into a larger picture of what is going on.  I think that GIS is the unifying force that can bring together all the fragmented data and disciplines into a common framework so it makes sense at a systems level.  Collating and combining all the little discoveries is where the big discoveries will be made, and GIS could be a key technological tool in doing this.  I think that’s where the big opportunities are to really make a difference in the future—not just for GIS, but for all of science.  But I don’t know how you set yourself up for a career like that.  So maybe a more practical answer for to your question would be to study GeoDesign and MMORPGs!

6.  Any other thoughts or comments you’d like to add?


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A lot of us got in to GIS because we wanted to work on things that mattered; to contribute something to society and the environment; to make a difference.  I think that GIS has done a lot of good for the world, and has the potential to do so much more.  No matter what you do or what software you use, I think that everyone in the GIS community has a lot to be proud of.

Follow Matt Artz on Twitter at @mattartz for news about the use of GIS in science, GeoDesign, and geospatial technology.



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