Mapping for the future


Do you find things easier to understand when they are visually displayed?

I know I do!

Sometimes in the world of science, investigations take place and turn up a whole mess of information that can be hard to piece together. This can be especially true when this information is displayed as a series of boring tables and lists.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and in the world of spatial information science (SIS) a picture can be priceless.

In a recent seminar, Dr Michael Chang and Dr Alana Grech, from Macquarie University, explained how visually displaying data in maps can add incredible value to wide variety of research areas, as well as learning and teaching tools.

So what exactly is spatial information science?

Spatial information science is the science of using geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing to map, visualise and store data (Chang & Grech, 2014). Most importantly it provides unique ways of interpreting and communicating information to support decision making in a range of different fields (Chang & Grech, 2014).

You actually use spatial information science every day. When you check in via Facebook to let others know where you are or when you look for directions using google maps on your smart phone (see figure 1).

Global positioning systems or GPS (used by google maps) are just one of the tools used in this area of science. The use of maps to integrate and display information (cartography) and satellites as a source of spatial data (remote sensing) are also integrated into geographic information systems (Chang & Grech, 2014). Figure two illustrates how different types of information relative to a spatial area can be combined, layered and displayed together in a very effective visual representation.

One significant application of these techniques is within the field of animal conservation and management. Dugongs, for example, are a threatened species vulnerable to extinction due to habitat and food supply loss (Hagihara et al, 2014). This Australian animal is in serious need of effective conservation management strategies in order to prevent future population loss (Hagihara et al, 2014). However, before strategies can successfully be put in place, one must find out how many individuals there are and where they are located (Hagihara et al, 2014). Grech and colleagues (2013) utilised the tools of SIS to get more reliable population estimates of dugongs in eastern Australia. They fitted 9 dugongs with small satellite devices and recorders that measured their location and features of their environment, such as time and water depth. Previous studies used aerial surveys expecting that habitat type and water tides where the primary factors influencing the location of dugongs (Hagihara et al, 2014). However, Grech and colleagues (2013) discovered, using satellite trackers, that in fact water depth was the best predictor of number and location of dugongs. Figure 3 is an image from Grech and colleagues (2013) study displaying water depth information in two areas of eastern Australia. Grech and colleagues (2014) investigations lead scientists to recommend water depth information could be used to improve population estimates from aerial surveys for dugongs and other aquatic animals. As a consequence, both local wildlife management and aboriginal communities can better locate dugongs with the use of this spatial information (Hagihara et al, 2014).

Image from Hagihara et al,2014. Map of Australia, showing Hervey Bay (●) and Moreton Bay (★), Queensland. Coastal seagrasses occur on the south eastern side of the coast in Hervey Bay and on the Eastern Banks of Moreton Bay (circled). The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA) is delineated with oblique lines

Figure 3. Image from Hagihara et al,2014.
Map of Australia, showing water depth at Hervey Bay (●) and Moreton Bay (★), Queensland.

Clearly, the significance of SIS as an applied tool is that it not only provides new means of acquiring information, but more importantly it can expose relationships and patterns otherwise hidden in numeric tables and data sets (Turner et al, 2003).

In addition, as SIS allows information to be expressed visually it becomes more accessible to those who need to directly apply the information collected by scientists, such as wildlife park managers and local communities (Brodnig & Mayer-Schonberger, 2000).

Futhermore, I have only illustrated one example of how SIS can be applied. The ultimate significance of SIS is its truly interdisciplinary nature. Biological conservation is only one application. Land management, health services, climate modelling, defence and aviation, aid and urban infrastructure management as just some examples of the wide range of SIS applications (Chang & Grech, 2014).


Brodnig, G., & Mayer-Schonberger, V. (2000). Bridging the gap: the role of spatial information technologies in the integration of traditional environmental knowledge and western science. The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 1.

Chang, M. & Grech, A. 2014. Adding value to research, learning, and teaching in biology through spatial information science. Biological Sciences Seminar, Macquarie University, 9th April 2014.

Hagihara, R., Jones, R. E., Grech, A., Lanyon, J. M., Sheppard, J. K., & Marsh, H. (2014). Improving population estimates by quantifying diving and surfacing patterns: A dugong example. Marine Mammal Science, 30(1), 348-366.

Turner, W., Spector, S., Gardiner, N., Fladeland, M., Sterling, E., & Steininger, M. (2003). Remote sensing for biodiversity science and conservation. Trends in ecology & evolution, 18(6), 306-314.



See Alana Grech website:

Atlas of living Australia – an online database of information utilising spatial information science to explore the world of Australia animals and plants.

Want to know more about dugong conservation?




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