U-Spatial Prize Highlights Thought-Provoking Data Maps

Digital world map

Crop species diversity map courtesy of Peder Engstrom

Maps bring information to life, adding dimension to numbers and statistics to draw out the stories contained within them.

A University of Minnesota research center recently recognized undergraduate and graduate students from across disciplines for their inventive, thought-provoking maps. U-Spatial, which supports spatial research as part of the Office of the Vice President for Research’s Research Computing unit, selected nine submissions out of 50 as winners of its 2017 Mapping Prize.

“Maps don’t just show us where to go—they have the potential to transform our ways of seeing and understanding our world,” said Len Kne, associate director of U-Spatial. “The annual Mapping Prize encourages students at the University to make provocative and innovative maps about subjects that interest them.”

The maps explore a wide range of subjects both close to home and far away. For example, one pinpoints the locations of beekeepers in the Minneapolis area, while another examines how travelers on the Camino de Santiago trail in northwest Spain affect the economies of the rural communities they pass through.

Peder Engstrom, a student in the Master of Geographic Information Science program and a geographic information scientist with the U’s Institute on the Environment, received this year’s top prize for his map highlighting the level of food calories produced on croplands across the globe. The map was used as part of a larger project to illustrate how good nutrition requires both a sufficient supply of food calories and a variety of different foods, making both small and large farms crucial.

Another winning entry was a collection of maps that show disparities in how pollution levels affect various Minneapolis communities. For this project, a team of 30 undergraduate students in a Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies course on environmental disparities and sustainability collaborated with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to investigate how emissions from various industries in Minneapolis unevenly affect people of specific races, socioeconomic classes, ages and more.

Digital map

As part of an environmental justice course project, Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies students created a series of digital maps to demonstrate how emissions from major industries affect vulnerable Minneapolis communities. Image courtesy Michelle Garvey. 

This year’s submissions come from students in fields ranging from fine arts and landscape architecture to political science and statistics. Overall, Kne said the map submissions demonstrate the widening access to and use of mapmaking technologies across academic disciplines.

“Making maps use to be the domain of geography, requiring complex tools, cartography skills, and lots of time,” he said. “This all changed a few years ago when easy to use, web-based mapping tools were created that allow anyone to tell a story with a map. Yes, geography students account for many of the maps submitted, but students from all over the University are entering maps.”

There are over 4,100 U students, faculty, and staff using University-supported mapmaking tool called ArcGIS Online, he added. In the last 12 months, 1,200 people in the University community have created 15,500 maps and data layers.

See the full list of U-Spatial Mapping Prize winners  from 2017 and previous years.