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Geographic Information Systems: A New Opportunity for Psychological Scientists

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a rapidly evolving area of research and technology that is being integrated into a wide range of fields, including economics, political science, natural resource management, urban planning, and marketing.

By Nicolle Singer

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a rapidly evolving area of research and technology that is being integrated into a wide range of fields, including economics, political science, natural resource management, urban planning, and marketing. As will be explored at an upcoming APA Advanced Training Institute (July 16-18, 2008, Santa Barbara, California), GIS has great potential for psychology as well.

GIS uses powerful software programs to represent and analyze data that are linked to geographic or other spatial information. The scale of the data may range from the level of millimeters to that of the entire planet. Various forms of spatial coordinates or reference frames can be used to organize the data (e.g., latitude/longitude, street maps, zip code areas, grids on a mouse chamber floor, pixels on a computer monitor).

GIS techniques are utilized both in research on broad societal trends, such as the spread of diseases or crime, and in studies of individual behavior, such as navigation and wayfinding. By highlighting spatial relationships, GIS enables information to be understood and manipulated in new ways, supplementing traditional verbal and quantitative approaches.

Courses in GIS theory and application are now standard in most geography departments, with applied courses attracting students from a wide range of disciplines. Some courses are designed for students in the behavioral and social sciences, while other courses have been developed for students in areas as diverse as computer science, architecture, art, and dance. In addition, institutions focused on undergraduate teaching are integrating GIS into the curriculum at a rapid pace, according to the Council on Undergraduate Research.

Funding for cross-disciplinary GIS research has been provided through initiatives by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. A GIS Special Interest Group has been formed at the National Cancer Institute. Other agencies with significant interests in GIS include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Census Bureau, and the Agriculture Department.

GIS and Psychology

Although GIS is not yet well known among psychologists, a few have begun to incorporate it into their research. For example, Roberta Klatzky (Carnegie Mellon University) and Jack Loomis (University of California, Santa Barbara) have both used GIS in studies of how people perceive, explore, and represent the spaces around them and how they use perceptual information to guide their movements in those spaces. One goal of this line of research is the development of wayfinding technologies for people with visual impairments.

Edward H. Cornell and C. Donald Heth, psychologists at the University of Alberta, have used GIS, coupled with findings from basic research on cognitive maps and wayfinding, to improve the methods used by emergency responders searching for lost hikers in the wilderness.

Research on naturalistic animal behavior has also incorporated GIS technology. Richard Byrne (University of St. Andrews) has used GPS to track apes’ movements through their large home ranges. The apes’ trajectories were analyzed for evidence concerning their planning and spatial memory abilities.

It can be expected that many research efforts within cognitive, environmental, health, and other areas of psychology will be enriched by incorporating GIS methods. Some resources for investigators pursuing such work include the Free GIS Project, a website disseminating free georeferenced data and data analysis software; the Harvard Geospatial Library, an archive of free maps and satellite imagery; and the US Census Bureau, which offers detailed demographic data divided by state and county.

Advanced Training Institute

To enable more researchers to learn about GIS, the APA Science Directorate is sponsoring an Advanced Training Institute on “Geographic Information Systems for Behavioral Research, ” directed by Dr. Reginald G. Golledge of the University of California, Santa Barbara. The ATI will be held on July 16-18, 2008, in Santa Barbara. It is an expanded version of a one-day course offered in 2007 at the APA Convention in San Francisco.

This summer’s course will feature coverage of GIS usage in the health sciences, cognitive science, counseling, criminology, and education. 

Related articles:

Adelson, R. (2007, March). Checking the coordinates: Psychologists and geographers together study spatial thinking and skills. APA Monitor on Psychology (vol. 38, no. 3), p. 16.

Golledge, R.G. (2003, November). Isn’t that spatial: Where psychology and geography intersect. APS Observer (vol. 16, no. 11).