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CG3i Turns Research into Real-World GIS Innovations

When Christopher Franklin came to UT Dallas in 2010 to pursue a PhD in Geospatial Information Science (GIS), he did so because he knew how influential geospatial information could be.

An entrepreneur with a master's degree in demography from the University of California at Irvine, Franklin saw a business community dominated by narrowly focused quantitative analysis. It had not always been that way. Through his earlier education and 30 years of business experience, he had acquired a broader understanding of human behavior, and he believed that broader understanding would open the door to innovative new techniques across disciplines, including in GIS.

"Quantitative analysis is useful, but you need to take account of the human element," Franklin said. "To really understand how things work, you have to balance those nice predictive models with human behavior, which many times may be unpredictable."

When he arrived at UT Dallas, Franklin was surprised by the limited funding for and awareness of GIS software in the other six UT Dallas schools. At the same time, GIS was booming as a global discipline. After a relentless search for new avenues of funding to build awareness, Franklin turned to Dr. James Marquart, now an Associate Provost at UT Dallas.

Dr. Marquart had a new suggestion: Seek outside support and outside funding.

That is exactly what Franklin did.

In April 2012, Franklin began working with his former classmate, friend and colleague, Dr. Bryan Chastain, a senior lecturer in GIS at UT Dallas. Dr. Chastain and Franklin co-founded the Center for GIS Innovation in Industry and Institutions (CG3i). With their fledgling organization in place, the two began to search for interest in innovative GIS solutions, first among law enforcement organizations.

"We spoke to several crime analysts in local police departments, including campus police, but they were better served by their software vendors in terms of workshops than we had initially perceived," Franklin said.

Then, at last, Franklin and Dr. Chastain uncovered an opportunity with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Officials at DHS were seeking solutions for a perennial problem involving GIS mapping. They had treated it as an engineering problem, but Franklin and Dr. Chastain disagreed. With their GISc experience, they saw a way to radically improve age-old techniques, and later in 2012 CG3i began work on its first project.

The impact of CG3i's agreement with DHS went beyond the creation of their first major project. CG3i's contract with DHS and innovative non-disclosure agreement put the organization on the map. Franklin says that "From that point, we took off."

Today, CG3i consists of 25 associates, including Dr. Chastain as Principal Investigator and Franklin as Chief Director. Even as the center has grown, though, it has not lost the focus on broad cross-disciplinary approaches to problem solving that Franklin has championed from the beginning. The resonance of Franklin's vision can still be seen in CG3i's motto: Focused Minds — Global ThinkingTM

"We want to remind team members that they can be focused, they can hone in on one aspect of an important problem based on their skills set, but they also need to integrate that focused approach with an attempt to look at global solutions using their creativity, inquisitiveness and – not be afraid to take a chance and make a mistake – that is where the REAL innovative thinking comes in – that is where the MAGIC happens!" he said. "And that is why we say you have to 'focus' your mind on 'global' solutions."

Researchers for the Center range from undergraduate students to PhDs, with faculty and staff from several universities and industries acting as advisors. Franklin has seen the benefits of this collaborative approach in past experiences at Tier One universities. "We have to build a sense of team spirit and challenge and when we do – the whole becomes much greater than the sum of the parts".

"For undergraduate students especially, they don't typically understand research," he said. "They see something that is vague and doesn't really have a clear endpoint and many get intimidated, but we want to help them move past that. We want to expose them to research, to show them how it works."

One of the undergraduates currently working with the center is Braden Herndon. A senior cognitive science major, Herndon has emphasized the importance of computational modeling throughout his studies, and one of the CG3i projects he has started working on promises a series of new innovations in that field.

Codenamed "Avatar", the research project offers a brand new innovative means for visualizing geospatial temporal "big" data. By allowing users to view time and location data dynamically in 3D/4D, the new technique could allow individuals to discover unseen patterns in the oceans of data currently available worldwide.

Herndon believes that the most important element of "Avatar" is its immediate accessibility and familiarity. "We evolved as a species to perceive certain information that's presented to us in a certain way," he said. "What we need to do is make models that show us big data in a form that we're used to seeing." Herndon is currently conducting a literature review and seeking to design an empirical human factors research framework that will further demonstrate the usefulness of "Avatar".

The multitude of projects underway in CG3i demonstrates that GIS is ripe for offering innovative solutions across disciplines, and Franklin has worked to ensure that the enthusiasm he sees in CG3i does not disappear outside the organization. Even as he has promoted and expanded CG3i, Franklin has also tried to promote broader student appreciation of GIS, and those efforts came to a head with the celebration of GIS Day on November 20, 2013.

Franklin said "For years, GIS Day had been this sort of family affair with a handful of people in Green Hall, but I knew it needed to be something bigger. We needed everyone involved, all the schools at UT Dallas, so I got to work."

Progress did not always come quickly, and Franklin claims that he spoke with more than 60 individuals at UT Dallas to finally organize the ATEC hosted event, but when November 20th arrived, it was a tremendous success. With nearly 400 attendees, 13 faculty presentations, Industry represented from California, Austin and Dallas, local Educational and Municipal institutions, Consultants, K-12 STEM schools and all seven schools at UT Dallas participating, it was the largest GIS Day event ever held at the university.

"It really proved that GIS is everywhere, that it's important everywhere." Franklin said. "With a proclamation from the Texas Senate it's another one of those things that put UT Dallas on the global "International GIS Day" map for 2013."

The growth in all aspects of GIS has been stunning, and Franklin sees no reason to stop now. Franklin is confident that CG3i's research will continue to break down disciplinary boundaries, and he welcomes the opportunity to expand the center's horizons. "We will get involved in anything where an innovative GIS approach can solve problems."