When Jason VanHorn was a youngster he told his teacher he wanted to be a cartographer. Perhaps, a few decades ago, his teacher smiled and thought, “Creative idea, but not much of a career in mapmaking.”

Enter GIS.

GIS, or geographic information system, is a way to analyze complex information on a digital map. And Calvin geography professor Jason VanHorn is an expert at it.

Most people are familiar with it as the system that runs their car’s GPS device or Google maps. But as complex as those contrivances seem, they don’t begin to account for what is possible using GIS. “People can’t even imagine all the ways we use GIS,” said VanHorn.

First invented in 1962 by Roger Tomlinson of Canada’s Department of Forestry and Rural Development in an effort to use map overlays to analyze areas of Canada, GIS came into commercial use in the mid-1980s. By the 1990s more satellites were launched, which provided more information of our planet’s geography. But it wasn’t until the 21st century that GIS became a widely used tool for analytical purposes.


"GIS: A New Kind of Mapping" from VERGE.

Professor Van Horn

Prof. Van Horn with a colleague in Ethiopia.

GIS in everyday life

In a recent class discussion, Van Horn shared the many ways GIS is invisibly a part of our lives: taking a shower, which involves monitoring water flow; eating a banana, which includes distribution from places like Costa Rica to the States; and riding public transportation, which encompasses effectively planning and evaluating bus routes.

“Fundamentally, GIS is about mapping and solving real-world problems,” explained VanHorn—real-world problems like environmental sustainability, rural and urban planning, public health and terrorism.

Terrorism, in fact, was the focus of VanHorn’s January interim class, “The Geography of Terrorism,” a passion of his since writing his doctoral dissertation on the topic a few years ago. With a degree in political science and geography, Van Horn was fascinated by the topic, which few others have researched in the geographical discipline. “The lack of research in this area left open a wide door for potential use of GIS in anti- and counterterrorism efforts,” he said.

In fact, prior to Sept. 11, 2001, there was very little research on terrorism in general, according to VanHorn. “After that many disciplines started to have a voice in terrorist literature. Between 2001 and 2006, there was an explosion in the amount of terrorism literature,” said VanHorn. “But there were still very few geographers with GIS skills talking about it.”

Spatial analysis contributes to answers

VanHorn believes that the use of GIS has much to offer to the conversation.

“My particular goals are to understand it, to prevent it and to learn how to counter it appropriately,” he said. “With GIS you can look at space and place uniquely and analyze it,” he said. “In terms of preventing terrorism you can evaluate in what areas will there be a high density of people and where should we situate our police or protective agents? In the case of the Boston Marathon, what’s there on the streets before the crowd is there? Where could someone secretly put a bomb? Through spatial analysis GIS can contribute to answers.”

In VanHorn’s dissertation, using GIS he analyzed the city of Columbus, Ohio, to understand its vulnerability and risk to a terrorist attack. “I think the data could be applied to other cities around the U.S.—Washington, D.C., New York—and around the world,” he said.

In a more recent case, VanHorn then-student researcher Nathan Mosurinjohn ‘09 used 3D spatial analysis to model how GIS could be used to protect an event like President Gerald R. Ford’s 2007 funeral in Grand Rapids.

And in VanHorn’s class, students first explored the definition of terrorism and then the spatial dimensions of particular incidents. They analyzed Iran’s capability of mass destruction, the global distribution of aircraft hijacking, the spread of disease via the anthrax attacks in 2001 and the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan. Last, they reflected on a Christian response to terrorism—a part of the course about that VanHorn finds particularly gratifying.

“To be able to pursue this topic from a Christian perspective still blows me away,” said VanHorn, who never pictured himself teaching at a Christian college. “I always thought I would go to a research 1 institution [not a smaller, private school]. “Being encouraged to go deep into your discipline informed by Reformed thought is so encouraging to me. Being in a place that values it, that says, ‘yes, we want you to do this’—this is an amazing place.”

Exponential growth

As VanHorn continues to reflect on how Christianity influences geographic research, interest in geography and proficiency in GIS is growing exponentially at Calvin.

Since 2007, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of students taking GIS courses at Calvin, and the diversity of students taking the classes has also greatly increased.

“There are students from all different majors and minors with an interest in being trained in GIS,” said VanHorn. “Besides geology, engineering, business, international development and public health majors all have an interest in it.”

VanHorn noted that two recent grads are already putting their GIS skills to work in Grand Rapids working for the public transportation division analyzing bus routes.

Interest in the use of GIS is growing globally as well. VanHorn recently served as the lead GIS consultant for the National GIS Summit for Standards in Ethiopia this past December. “In developing countries, there is so much spatial data poverty,” he reflected. “It’s a real issue for Ethiopia. Once you open up the streams of data, the capacity is unlimited.”

With a seemingly endless flow of data in the United States and elsewhere, the potential for GIS is impossible to predict. “As data streams continue to grow, there is an ever-increasing capacity for analysis,” said VanHorn. “There are loads of ways GIS can still be used that haven’t even been thought of yet.”

Lynn Rosendale is managing editor of Spark.