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Putting CURA on the map

Will Craig has earned a spot in the Geographic Information Systems Hall of Fame

By Stephanie Wilkes, executive office and administrative specialist

Will Craig 165
Will Craig

April 13, 2010

In the world of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Will Craig is more than just associate director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA)--he’s a Hall of Famer. Spending 50 years at the University, 40 of which he dedicated to GIS technology, his efforts have earned him a spot in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Hall of Fame, awarded by the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) in September 2009.

Cofounder of the U of M’s master of geographic information science professional degree program, Craig is dedicated to preparing students to utilize the GIS technology he has helped shape, and to learn how to connect this technology to the real world.

"Will has made the University of Minnesota a major player nationally in the GIS community, and he has made CURA an invaluable partner for many community organizations in the Twin Cities region," says Edward Goetz, director of CURA. "What is wonderful about his work in GIS is that it combines national leadership in this field with real, practical engagement with local communities."

Geographic Information Systems
GIS--or Geographic Information Systems--is computerized mapping. Google Maps and GPS are commonly recognized forms of GIS today, but GIS maps can also be used to convey other information geographically, like a map showing homes in foreclosure.

Craig entered the U of M in 1960 as a freshman and "part of the Sputnik generation," studying math and technology. He continued with his doctorate in geography and directed the West Bank Computer Center until 1970, when he joined CURA as associate director. In the early 1970s, Craig also began as system manager and project director of one of the first GIS: the Minnesota Land Management Information System.

Craig and Jeff Matson, coordinator of the Community Geographic Information Systems (CGIS) program, teach an Urban GIS course through the geography department, pairing student groups with community organizations who have a GIS project need.

John Vaughn, former director of the Northeast Community Development Corporation (NE CDC), has been one of these community clients. He believes that the benefits of these partnerships go both ways, and cites the importance of the ‘seasoning’ this work can provide students.

"Academics are academics, and practice is practice. Often you need to understand both in order to get things done,” says Vaughn. "It helps students to decide what direction they want to go. Working with us is a way to find that direction.”

Public participation GIS in CURA’s history

Working with neighborhood and community organizations has been a hallmark of CURA’s since the late 1980s, and by the early 1990s, Craig and others in CURA were taking steps to bring GIS out of the institution and make it useful to those in the community. At the URISA conference in 1994, Craig put on a special "Data for the People" day, sharing different models for ways in which GIS professionals could get their data out into the community.

Craig’s involvement with public participation GIS also led to his work on Community Participation and Geographical Information Systems. A presentation of case studies, it has become a seminal book in the field and a standard for best practices in public participation GIS.

One of these best practices is connecting faculty and students with these community organizations through this work. Craig views the work of CURA as a bridge, helping to facilitate relationships between these two groups.

When faculty work with the community on a GIS project, they often get more out of the partnership than they expect, says Matson.

"There are whole research areas that you have never even thought about until you start working with somebody in the community that’s got a real world problem they are trying to address," says Matson. "You might do something for them, but you get new ideas that lead to some really breakthrough research that are good for your career."

CURA has gained a name for itself through these types of partnerships and is even starting to change the perception “about the separateness between the community and the University,” says Vaughn. “For the people in communities that are involved, that participate civically, and for the civic leaders, I think CURA has become a household word.”

The CGIS program provides GIS assistance to 50-75 organizations per year.

It is these kinds of community-driven projects that are the mark of CURA, whose work is considered “both innovative and authoritative,” says Nancy Obermeyer, one of Craig’s Hall of Fame nominators—and that reputation is due in no small part to Craig’s influence.

Craig also considers CURA a national model for public participation GIS, and sees recognition like CURA’s invitation to join the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership at the Urban Institute as proof of the influence they have on the future of GIS community.

"You’re Minnesotan, you don’t want to toot your own horn, but it’s nice to get recognized," says Craig. "I think Minnesota is seen as a place where this stuff is happening and worth paying attention to."

Obermeyer believes that Craig is not only a leader in the field, but also sets an example for young GIS professionals who want their work to make an impact.
"Will's contribution to public participation GIS has been significant and he is one of the founders of the movement," says Obermeyer. "The democratization of this valuable technology has enabled many local organizations to speak truth to power, contributing their insights to policy debates that affect them and their constituents."