Center for Spatial Data Science opens at UChicago

A new center at the University of Chicago will make connections in areas as diverse as health care, real estate and social networks by focusing on space.

The Center for Spatial Data Science is concerned with geography, proximity and other location-based measures that hold great promise for unlocking discoveries from data across many fields. While methods based on time have long dominated statistical analysis, the opening of the center—and arrival of its director Luc Anselin, the Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor in Sociology—will expand the use of spatial data science in research across campus.

“It's very much serendipity. When somebody comes to us with an interesting question or interesting data, we see what we can contribute, and sometimes that leads to new ways of thinking about theory and methods, new software and training,” Anselin said. “With the genuine focus on computation and a renewed interest in formal spatial analysis, this is a great opportunity for us to get a lot of leverage out of what we do.”

The center is housed within the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between the University and Argonne National Laboratory, and the University’s Division of the Social Sciences.

The center launches at a time of expanded focus at UChicago on data science, including the arrival earlier this year of Prof. Michael Franklin, the inaugural Liew Family Chair of Computer Science, and the start of a master’s in computational social science, among other initiatives. The opportunity to teach spatial analytics in a new master’s program, and an overall academic environment that increasingly emphasizes advanced data-driven approaches in multiple disciplines attracted Anselin to the University.

“New technologies are influencing the ways in which we experience and interact with the world around us, and in many cases, these innovations are producing extensive and previously unobtainable datasets,” said David Nirenberg, dean of the Division of the Social Sciences and the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor of Medieval History and Social Thought. “Social scientists are developing methods and means for interpreting these data, and initiatives like this center provide crucial opportunities for social and computer scientists to collaborate in asking and answering big questions of big data.”

Going beyond geographic relationships

Research at the center using spatial analytics can reveal effects and factors that more traditional statistics might miss. For example, housing prices are heavily affected by surrounding properties and amenities, and health disparities can be driven by geographic factors such as access to public transportation and safe parks. Time-based statistics or arbitrary geographic categories such as census tracts can easily overlook these interactions, distorting attempts to measure or predict the impact of policies.

Spatial analysis started in geography, in great part through the pioneering work of Prof. Brian Berry, who directed the then Center for Urban Studies at UChicago in the 1960s and early 1970s. However, the spatial analytical approach quickly spread to other fields such as epidemiology to examine the spread of disease.

Today such methods are applied to any kind of data where “location and interaction matter,” Anselin said, going beyond geographic relationships to social networks, brain scans and other less traditional landscapes.

Anselin’s group, previously at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Arizona State University, has been an academic leader in the expansion of spatial analysis to new fields. Beyond research, the group has made these methods more broadly accessible through the development of computational tools, led by the popular, open-source GeoDa software. With nearly 200,000 users, GeoDa has become a standard tool for both using and teaching spatial analysis.

“We've always emphasized computation and software development as a way to disseminate the techniques,” Anselin said. “GeoDa was developed to expose non-geographers to spatial analytical techniques and make them easy to carry out by having a very user friendly interface.”

Promising collaborations across campus

Since launching at UChicago this summer, the center has quickly established promising collaborations that cut across departmental boundaries. Researchers are exploring how to integrate spatial analysis into child welfare-related projects with Chapin Hall at UChicago. Related work with Nicole Marwell, associate professor at the School of Social Service Administration, will examine the intersection of social science and data science using longitudinal data collected on social service contracts in New York City. 

Potential projects with UChicago Medicine researchers would examine the spatial factors driving repeat hospitalization, or the effect of block parties on violence in surrounding neighborhoods. Possible collaborations are being explored with a number of other scholars, including Franklin; Kate Cagney, professor of sociology and director of the Population Research Center; and James Evans, professor of sociology and director of Knowledge Lab.

The center also is establishing connections with local government, starting with Marynia Kolak, a PhD candidate and research specialist with CSDS, who is doing work with the Chicago Department of Public Health.

“We’re excited about joining an ecosystem of people who are interested in data science and spatial analytics,” said Julia Koschinsky, the center’s research director. “There is an infrastructure that we can plug into that doesn't make us a lone voice in this universe.”