GIS Offers New Directions for Data
By Brian Hudgins
Sometimes a simple picture can say more than mountains of data—especially if that picture is created from the data itself. Akhlaque Haque, Ph.D., an associate professor of government at UAB and an expert in the use of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, learned this lesson in Cleveland.
Haque was working as a graduate assistant at Cleveland State University in the early 1990s when he found a new way to drive home a point about shifting city revenues. “I took data showing the gradual loss of tax base in the city, and I was able to connect that data to geography and show where the tax base was moving,” he says.
GIS combines satellite images and other mapmaking tools with data on economics, health, crime, or virtually any other type of information. The technology has been used by police to track crime rates by neighborhood, by businesses to pinpoint key customer bases, and by public health experts to analyze outbreaks of infectious diseases, among hundreds of other applications.
After Haque came to UAB in 1995, he developed a GIS course that was initially offered to public administration students. Statistical data that used to be displayed in printouts and spreadsheets can now be brought to life with software programs like ArcGIS, Haque explains. Those tools and class projects enable students to get a feel for the role of GIS in funding and policy decisions, he notes, as well as in developing vital emergency response routes (a project Haque has pushed forward in his native Bangladesh—see "UAB in Bangladesh" below).
Haque’s students have gone on to jobs in many different fields, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and demand from students in the UAB schools of Engineering and Public Health has led him to expand GIS course offerings.
Building Blocks in Birmingham
For the last two years, Haque has taught a summer course, Community Health Mapping, which teaches graduate-level students from the School of Public Health to assess the quality of life in a neighborhood and capture that information visually.
Students start out by hitting the streets and evaluating hospitals, schools, and other facilities. Then they come back and share their ideas on improving the community, Haque explains. “It could be as simple as new sidewalks for kids to go to school or new food items at the mall. It makes a big difference when students can map a community. GIS is a valuable tool for civic engagement.”
Maps are a powerful vehicle for discovering patterns, communicating information concisely, and thinking about abstract concepts in a graphical and practical way, says Shatomi Kerbawy, a Detroit native who graduated from UAB in 2008 with an M.P.H. in epidemiology and now works at the School of Public Health as a contributor on research projects. “Before I took Dr. Haque’s course, I thought the main value of maps was just to showcase information we already know about our community. However, I soon realized that the true power of maps is to serve as a catalyst for action.”
Maps also help people see the big picture, Kerbawy adds. “Even though we may live in different neighborhoods, we are all part of a larger common community, which means that the burdens borne by one segment in our society affect everyone’s long-term quality of life.”
Mapping the Future
Haque says that GIS training at UAB serves as preparation for several career tracks. For example, GIS data can be used by real estate agents, military staff, and marketers. Nonprofit staff members and managers also benefit from GIS-based data, which allows them to locate and connect to potential clients who are in need of assistance, he adds.
As workers in numerous fields constantly search for better research tools and more precise information, there is an ever-changing demand for GIS data, Haque notes. “We used to analyze things like income and population as standalone data points. Now people want location attached to everything. Geo-spatial information is becoming critical to understanding the world.”
UAB in Bangladesh
Akhlaque Haque, Ph.D., is a native of Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Floods and cyclones regularly threaten the millions of Bangladeshis living in the massive capital city of Dhaka, but emergency evacuation plans there are inadequate due to the lack of digital maps of the city, Haque says.
In 2007, Haque traveled to Bangladesh as a Fulbright scholar in order to introduce GIS technology to social planners. Working with students and faculty at Dhaka’s BRAC University, Haque crisscrossed the city on foot, by car, and by bicycle-powered rickshaw to begin to collect the necessary data and train future generations of GIS users.
Haque returned to Bangladesh in November 2011 to present his research at an international conference in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the country’s independence.