A team of UCF students and their professor is using geographic information systems, better known as GIS, to help map the islands off Belize in Central America to give researchers around the world high-resolution data related to climate change and human adaptation.

The team founded the Open Reef Mapping Society, which relies on scientists and volunteers from around the world with GIS skills to collect, store, verify and display data related to positions on the Earth’s surface. The information is valuable to planners working with communities living on the islands, conservationists trying to protect wildlife, and researchers studying how sea level rise and human-adaptation works. The UCF team heads back to Belize in March to continue its work.

But that’s just one way GIS skills can be applied to help solve problems. Many apps and websites are based on location and GIS is increasingly essential in making decisions because it helps determine where things are occurring. GIS also allows us to analyze spatial patterns and make location-based decisions in new ways. For example, the imagery captured from GIS can show structures and help plan for emergency management in a way that satellite imagery cannot.

The skills are in high demand because the technology is still relatively new and UCF offers local and international opportunities to get the training.

“We now offer GIS certificate programs at the graduate and undergraduate levels to complement nearly any major on campus,” said Tim Hawthorne, assistant professor of GIS from the Department of Sociology, who leads the reef-mapping project. “These courses and research experiences teach technology skills that are in incredible demand in the government, nonprofit, education, business and private sectors.”

The reef project is just one of many Hawthorne and his students are working on through the  Citizen Science GIS organization he founded when he arrived at UCF.  Its mission is to work with communities across the globe to visualize local knowledge through GIS, drones and collaboration.

Hawthorne, sociology master’s student Nicholas Altizer, sociology doctoral student Lain Graham, and second-year religion and cultural studies student Emily Clark will return to Belize in March to continue their work with collaborators from the University of Belize, Australian researcher Karen Joyce and others.

“We all agreed that UCF and the University of Belize could come together to use drones in a creative way to provide high resolution and updated imagery of all of the islands of Belize,” Hawthorne said. “The clarity we can offer through Open Reef, especially for smaller islands that are often not even visible through current imagery, is astounding for research and teaching purposes.”

University of Belize lecturer and GIS specialist Antonio Cano said the collaboration between UB, UCF, the Coastal Zone Management Authority & Institute, and other partners that are part of the Open Reef Mapping Society is exciting.

“The dynamic cross-cutting international collaboration that guides the Open Reef Mapping Society is significant as it enhances the potential for capacity building, further research, and sound conservation efforts,” Cano said. “The initial imagery that has been collected through the ORMS is of extraordinary quality and is a substantial improvement over existing imagery. The subsequent use of this imagery is boundless.”

The imagery is used to create open geographic data that can provide researchers and citizen scientists with important information such as land use, shoreline boundaries, damages and human adaptation to climate change. The data can help to create sustainable development plans, assess storm damage and much more. The captured images also show how some of the Belizean islands are being destroyed by the effects of global warming and development.

“And for students who can’t make it to Belize, we have several opportunities to participate in our research here on campus,” Hawthorne said.

Hawthorne will also lead a group of students this summer for the second year of the National Science Foundation REU Site in Community GIS and Citizen Science. Hawthorne landed funding for the program last year (https://sciences.ucf.edu/news/gis-reu-site-wraps-successful-start/ ) and is continuing it this summer.

To find out more about the reef mapping or GIS at UCF click here.