Sometimes, in the midst of our ever-busy Yale student lives, we don’t take the time to realize what’s around us. Yale’s campus has a seemingly infinite array of resources, bits of history and knowledge woven into the finest of details. It might be a Picasso in your Head of College’s sitting room. It could be that chalice the Yale Dramatic Association stole from Cole Porter. Maybe it’s what at first glance appears to be a simple slideshow on the digital media wall of the Center for Science and Social Science Information, also known as the CSSSI. But stay a while, and that slideshow can lead you on a mind-boggling, globe-trotting odyssey across disciplines, approaches and even centuries.
The exhibit, Navigating the World: Geospatial Approaches at Yale begins with some simple definitions and a little timeline to get us started. It quotes a study of C. Dana. Tomlin FES ’83, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor at the Yale School of Forestry. Tomlin coined the term Map Algebra, a method of synthesizing geographical data in the creation of new maps.
Geographic information systems, also known as GIS, “interpret facts that pertain to the surface of the Earth,” a definition that can be “applied to things ranging from hand-drawn maps to computer systems to groups of people and even animals or plants,” Tomlin said.
This diversity is then put on full display when the exhibit highlights a collection of researchers at Yale who are using GIS data to do research in disparate fields. Natalie Schultz FES ’17, a research associate at the School of Forestry, for instance, looks at the impact of land use on local surface climates, and does her investigations with — amongst other tools — a drone that she flies herself. The exhibit includes aerial footage from Schultz’s drone. School of Forestry professor Xuhui Lee examines the interplay between the terrestrial biosphere, the atmosphere and human activity. Lee is the director of the Yale Center for Earth Observation, of which several contributors to the exhibit were a part. William Nordhaus ’63, a Yale professor who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences last year, focuses on the economic impacts of climate change; the exhibit includes an incredible topographical map of world economic activity put together by him and Quinnipiac Professor Xi Chen. On the humanities end of the spectrum is Laura Wexler, a Yale professor of American studies and women’s gender, and sexuality studies who tracks the history of civil rights through geography and photography through Photogrammar, an application that pairs the photos to the places they were taken.
The minds behind this digital wanderlust of an exhibit are Lori Bronars, Gwenyth Crowley and Miriam Olivares, who is also a featured researcher in the exhibit. They are all librarians who work with the Center for Science and Social Science Information and specialize in the sciences, social sciences and GIS respectively. Bronars and Crowley typically curate the exhibits at the CSSSI, of which there are two a year. They brought on Olivares when they decided to take on GIS, a topic they’d been considering for a while. In an interview, the librarians expressed pride at the fact that while many libraries show what texts or artifacts they have in the archives, the CSSSI exhibits the gains that Yale researches are making with the help of library resources. The librarians “brainstorm what people are interested in, consult different faculty members, the University report,” Crowley said. “It’s outreach for us, we’re the library and help people do research and show them the end product and what they’ve done. GIS is very popular and we thought that’s something people would be interested in.” This has been the strategy for many years of CSSSI exhibits — past topics have included work in sustainability, emotional intelligence and economics being done by Yale faculty.
While the availability of GIS information has increased exponentially as the cost of sending satellites into space has decreased, it was also important to the curators to include some historical pieces, courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s Margit Kaye. Combined with the general design of the exhibit by Yale designer and illustrator Mark Saba, these antique maps add even more to what is a masterpiece of quantitative aesthetics. The oldest map is from 1553, and though it might seem ancient by our standards, it was revolutionary for its time, created with the help of a new device, “the mariner’s compass.” And, from 1748, a map of New Haven is included based on the drawings of James Wadsworth, class of 1748.
The exhibit will be featured at the CSSSI for a little over another month; it’s on 24 hours a day for any Yale students that happen to meander up to Kline Biology Tower at four in the morning. The exhibit reminds us of all the opportunities technology affords to us, and how many different ways a single technology can manifest. And for students that catch the GIS bug after stopping by, the library hosts workshops for STATlab and other softwares that went into the very research on display.
When asked if they found out anything new putting the exhibit together, Bronars responded, “You learn things for each exhibit. Even in my own area, getting the materials from current faculty members for their own research, even a caption on a picture can be very informative.”
Sometimes our lives and our planet can feel infinitely complicated, with billions of people and quintillions of data points. But a map can smooth all that out, give us something visual to grasp and keep us grounded. And here, at the CSSSI, there’s something for everyone to discover. Our eyes are so much clearer when there are so many different lenses we can put atop the places we live.
Zak Rosen | firstname.lastname@example.org .