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UW launches geomatics program, analyzes environment with computing tools

November 14, 2006

Source: University of Waterloo

WATERLOO, Ont. (Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2006) -- What are the forces driving land use change in the Amazon? Where is the best location for a business looking to expand? What areas of a city have higher rates of childhood asthma? How far back from a river does the risk of flooding and property damage extend?

Those are just a few of the questions that students in a new program at the University of Waterloo will learn to answer.

Geomatics is a multi-disciplinary field applying the latest satellite and computing technologies to the study of environmental issues such as climate change, deforestation and urban growth. The undergraduate program will be offered next fall by the geography department in the faculty of environmental studies, with support from the schools of computer science and planning.

Students will study environmental topics while acquiring skills in geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing, modern surveying and mapping techniques, as well as computer programming. They will learn to apply that knowledge during co-operative education work terms, which could see them working in the Arctic or Australia.

"Statistics and data on their own aren't always meaningful," said geography professor Richard Kelly,one of the driving forces behind the program along with colleague Ian McKenzie. "Geomatics allows decision makers in many different fields to analyze and map information so they can make meaningful decisions."

By deploying geomatics, he said, experts are able to figure out answers to such key questions as whether the amount of precipitation in an area is changing and what the implications of that change will be for agricultural crops.

McKenzie said students will graduate with a bachelor of environmental studies degree in honours geomatics. "They will enter a rapidly growing and dynamic field as geomatics is considered one of the three most important emerging and evolving fields, along with biotechnology and nanotechnology," he said.

Geomatics consists of a number of tools used to create a detailed but understandable picture of the physical world and our place in it:

  • GIS, a powerful computer-based tool, combines layers of information to give a better understanding of a place, such as finding the best location for a new store, analyzing environmental damage or viewing crimes in a city to detect a pattern.

  • Remote sensing involves cameras, imaging radars and thermal mappers mounted in airplanes or orbiting satellites to measure the Earth's surface, along with atmospheric patterns and processes. It provides information on natural and human environmental changes, such as global climate change and growth of urban areas. It also maps the effects of natural hazards, providing natural resource managers with key decision-making information.

  • Surveying examines and collects information about the area and features of a given area in order to create a map or plan.

  • Mapping takes spatial or geographic information and puts it into a two- or three-dimensional form.

  • Global positioning system (GPS) uses a constellation of satellites to provide a person's exact location on the face of the Earth.

    The geomatics program draws on core research and teaching strengths built up in the faculty of environmental studies over last 20 years under the leadership of UW professors Ellsworth LeDrew and Philip Howarth.

    Beginning with remote sensing research in 1982 and the first GIS courses in the mid-1980s, the faculty's research and teaching has grown to encompass a wide variety of courses in such fields as GIS, remote sensing, cartography, spatial analysis and field methods.

    These fields have come together in the new geomatics program. They will provide students with expertise in geomatics, computer science and geographic principles to apply the geomatics tools in many different career areas.

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