Suchi Gopal bursts into her classroom, buzzing with energy. The 11 graduate students parked behind glowing computer monitors rouse themselves from reverie. It’s late in the semester and they are preoccupied with their final projects. But Gopal has more to teach. “Aha!” she claps with delight. “Today we will do some math!”
She grabs a piece of chalk and draws a grid on the blackboard, then fills in numbers: temperature data from points across the United States. Gopal, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment, is a renowned expert (and devoted teacher) in the field of geographic information systems (GIS). It’s what laypeople might call “making maps with computers.” And, as Gopal teaches, maps are power. A long list of statistics on bicycle accidents at BU, for instance, is just an inscrutable jumble of numbers. But insert the data into GIS, overlay a map of campus, and the computer builds a map that makes the data instantly understandable. In that case, it becomes clear that most bike accidents don’t occur at intersections, as one might expect, but when the bike lane veers too close to parked cars and bicyclists get doored. Maps provide a deeper understanding of a problem, so people can choose the right solutions.
Over the past two decades, as computing power has increased, GIS has risen from an obscure tool for measuring Canadian farms to a powerful technique that maps a wide range of topics, from the eating patterns of orangutans to health care access in Zambia. And Gopal, with her expertise in statistics and geography, as well as her wide-ranging scientific interests, rides the tip of this trend. Her students in Introduction to GIS come from public health, social work, geography, neuroscience, anthropology, and myriad other fields to learn how to turn their dry data into spectacular maps. Today, Gopal is teaching them the power of computing by snatching it away.