Columbus State Student, Staff, Faculty to Discuss Work at Local GIS Day

COLUMBUS, Ga. — Thomas J. Rice might be the only person who looks at the manicured landscape of Columbus State University’s main campus and thinks of “a plate of spaghetti.”

But Rice, a CSU senior, knows what lurks beneath. A budding expert in the growing field of geographic information systems, better known as GIS, Rice knows that, anywhere from inches to a few feet below CSU’s sidewalks, sod and buildings exists a maze of wires, cable, pipe and fiber that ensure the university runs smoothly.

T.J. Rice“We’re at the tip of the iceberg right now,” Rice says of his ongoing project to map, using GIS tools, all the underlying elements of CSU’s “spaghetti.”

Rice, who goes by T.J., is part of a Columbus State group that will participate in GIS Day on Nov. 14, an annual event sponsored by Columbus Water Works and showcasing its GIS-related work, as well as the work of other entities in the area.

Brad Huff, assistant professor of geography at CSU, got the call from Columbus Water Works and suggested that he share the Columbus Civic Center stage with Rice and Jim Moore, the Plant Operations staffer Rice is working with in his effort to map CSU’s infrastructure.

“I want the CSU face of GIS Day to be students like T.J. learning about GIS and people using GIS like Jim (Moore),” Huff said.

Columbus State hired Moore, a technical design expert for CSU Plant Operations, about five years ago to combine dozens of paper layouts detailing the location of pipes and wire, into an integrated series of digital documents that would be more user-friendly to construction planners and landscapers.

“(CSU has) pipes and wire that started back in the ‘60s,” Moore said. “If you break a line, it can halt construction for hours while you try and figure out what you’ve cut, or if it’s even still used.”

After Moore met Huff, who joined CSU’s faculty this fall, the professor suggested the Plant Operations paraprofessional could probably benefit from an intern’s help, particularly since Rice and other students in CSU’s three GIS classes learn how to use tools like the geographic positioning instrument Moore uses to pinpoint to within four inches the location of above-ground and underground lines and objects.

Besides physically traversing CSU’s two campuses and verifying, for instance, the location of the university’s 720 or so utility poles, Rice is also helping Moore convert the old paper designs into a common digital format.

During GIS Day, Moore and Rice will discuss their ongoing project, Huff will detail what his students are learning in preparation for GIS-related careers, and an information technology staffer at CSU, Mack Ragan, will describe his work in an ongoing project to create a three-dimensional, computerized map of the university’s campuses to help students and visitors use their smartphones to find their way from one location to another.

“A lot of people use GIS without really realizing they’re using it, especially on their smartphones,” Rice said. “It’s hard to think of something I can’t apply it to.”

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts there will be a 35 percent jump in GIS-related jobs from 2010 to 2020.

GIS, also known as geospatial information systems, combines hardware, software and data to manage and analyze a wide range of geographically referenced information. Expert geographers such as Huff, who earned a doctorate in the field from Florida State University, know how to deploy GIS to reveal patterns, relationships and trends that often help with strategic decision-making that, for governments and corporations, can result in increased efficiency and cost-savings.

Rice, who will graduate in December, has embraced GIS as a career field and been involved in several projects before his internship with Moore. Last year, he helped the Boys and Girls Club of West Georgia choose a new location for a center that would reach the most children.

“I collected several demographics,” Rice said. “I told them where people were renting, where the density of children ages 5-18 was the greatest. There were several layers of census data to look through.”

Rice already works part-time as a GIS technician for Troup County in his hometown of LaGrange.

Columbus State offers geography as a minor within the Department of History and Geography. Huff is hoping to expand GIS-related course offerings, even as the department promotes the idea of graduate students learning GIS as a historian’s tool in its new master’s degree program in history.

“There’s a lot of demand for (GIS),” Huff said.

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For more information on GIS Day, from 1-4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 14 at Columbus Civic Center, contact Victoria Barrett, a GIS specialist for Columbus Water Works, at 706-649-3476 or vbarrett@cwwga.org. CWW is charging nothing for the conference but asking participants to pre-register.

Caption for photo:

Thomas J. Rice, a senior at Columbus State University, takes a break from using a geographic positioning instrument in tandem with an antenna that better picks up satellite signals in his GIS work with CSU Plant Operations. The high-tech tools allow CSU to pinpoint the location of objects to within four inches in compiling complex maps of campus utility systems.

Editors: High-resolution original of photo