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2010 Chancellor's Report

Where the People Are


Lines of traffic under a setting sun

Give him five minutes and a cell phone and he'll stop you in your tracks. At least, that's how geographer Shih-Lung Shaw would come across in a Bond movie, or maybe even an episode of MacGyver.

A geography professor at UT Knoxville, Shaw is a researcher in the rapidly changing field of geographic information science (GIS), which analyzes geographic data and other information about human movement and transportation. Are we going to move around in the same ways 20 years from now? Probably not. Modern technologies... are changing our activity and interaction patterns. --SHIH-LUNG SHAWBy outlining when and where people travel and any patterns that emerge, researchers can gain a better understanding of our society to develop solutions for problems like traffic congestion, the spread of infectious diseases, and homeland security. Today, scientists can obtain such information nearly instantly from cell phones, PDAs, and other location-aware devices.

The ability to analyze and predict human behavior is a valuable one, with implications for military operations, as well. Using space and time data, scientists like Shaw can uncover hidden patterns of behavior to make predictions about future actions or link people with events in the past. By better understanding the "human terrain," the military can track and monitor terrorists more closely, predicting their precise locations before they arrive.

"With this data, we know the dynamics of the city or country every minute," Shaw says.

Shaw has been interested in geographic information science (GIS) since his graduate school days at Ohio State University, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1986. In addition to geography, Shaw took courses in civil engineering and psychology to gain a better picture of human movement and behavior.

At the beginning of Shaw's career, geographers relied on census data as their main source of information about people's lives. He praises modern technologies for providing comprehensive and up-to-date geographic information but adds that it has also created challenges for GIS researchers. People's behaviors generally keep pace with technological changes: The faster technology advances, the quicker we change and adapt to it.

"We often start long-range transportation planning 10, 15, or 20 years ahead," Shaw says. "But are we going to move around in the same ways 20 years from now? Probably not. Modern technologies such as the Internet and cell phones are changing our activity and interaction patterns."

At UT, Shaw is constantly exploring new technological developments. In 2006, he received a three-year National Science Foundation grant to develop a computer GIS program, which he has put online for free. The program's site has been accessed by more than 150 universities and by government agencies and private companies from more than 75 countries and territories around the world.

He is also collaborating with medical and public health research centers at other universities, studying the potential medical benefits of GIS technology, such as heart rate monitoring, on projects funded by the National Institutes of Health.

So why is Shaw at UT Knoxville and not making big money at Google? Shaw says he likes the university setting where he is free to work on projects that interest him: "I enjoy the environment where I can stay ahead in terms of ideas and research. I've also had discussions with the university about patents for some of my work."