Leveraging Spatial Data to Examine the World’s Grand Challenges
New to the georgraphy department, Assistant Professor Eric Shook's research is interdisciplinary, allowing him to "bring social scientists into the computational landscape and help solve some of the world's biggest problems; problems in health, crime, risks, and hazards all can be examined from a diverse lens by leveraging big spatial data," he says.
His current work centers on deciphering what universal principles help with solving problems when working with geospatial data. His research aims to discover what these universal principles are—and the first step towards that is developing a programming language designed specifically for geographic information science (GIS) to make geospatial data processing easier. "We have to combine our spatial thinking approaches with our computational thinking approaches," Shook says.
This research ties to several different projects that Shook is working on, one of which involves collaborating with an archaeologist to use supercomputers to simulate the past climate, vegetation, and hunter-gatherer culture of South Africa. This project is called the Paleoscape Model. Shook traveled to South Africa last year and will be returning again this summer for workshops on Paleoscape where computational researchers, field researchers, and anthropologists discussed how to move the project forward. Shook's expertise serves as a bridge between supercomputers and models. "The experience was amazing and I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to interact with an interdisciplinary group of leading scholars from around the world," he says, "all trying to better understand how the climate and environment affects the behaviors of hunter-gatherers at the point when we evolved into modern humans."
Further, Shook recently started collaborating with the Minnesota Population Center. There he is helping to incorporate the programming language to help one of their projects, Terra Populus (TerraPop), and provide special analytic support for their web portal. Not long ago, Shook traveled to San Diego for the Gateways 2016 Conference to present a "new vision" for TerraPop as a Science Gateway. "We continue to have many interactions to identify key areas where my research expertise could benefit their projects with particular focus on TerraPop," Shook says.
Last semester Shook taught advanced geocomputing, where students learned how to write their own GIS computational methods. While working on the Parallel Cartographic Modeling Language project, he asked his students for feedback on what was helpful in developing the language. This feedback has already led to new innovations in language development, which will advance his research projects. The students' feedback will also be discussed in a course he is currently teaching, Principles of Geocomputing and CyberGIS. In this way Shook brings his teaching and research full circle, giving students insight and experience into work they may encounter in their postgraduate careers while gaining useful feedback for the language.