Grads watch world from Rye lab

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By Siri Agrell

Phillip Coppack knows about the fancy coffee shop before it’s built in your neighbourhood.

His computer tells him.

It can also tell Coppack, the chair of Ryerson’s school of applied geography, which way an oil spill will travel based on wind patterns and the slope of the land.

Coppack teaches in Ryerson’s spatial analysis graduate program, a program run jointly with the University of Toronto.  Geographic information systems — the computer systems that allows him to figure these types of things out — is an integral part of the students’ studies.

The computers are housed at seven unassuming stations in a room on the sixth floor of Jorgenson Hall.  They look neither space-age nor futuristic, but their capabilities are out of this world.

They can use satellites orbiting the earth to gather weather information, take detailed pictures from space — Coppack zoomed in on a single headstone in Mount Pleasant cemetery — and can sort information to give the economic and demographic trends of a neighbourhood.

Ryerson paid $100,000 to equip the lab this fall, just in time for the arrival of its first graduate students, but the geography department is responsible for its monthly maintenance costs, which include playing two full-time technicians.

And so far, it appears to be money well spent.  Students are using the computer lab all through the week and some even come in on weekends.

“I may as well bring a bed in here,” said Quyen Vyong, a spatial analysis student who completed her undergraduate geography degree at Ryerson.

Vuong spends more than 30 hours a week in the lab, building specialized maps and studying demographics.

When students are finished, they can look at a map of Toronto and find out the average income for Rosedale or Regent Park.  They can locate the city’s daycare centres and see how close they are to potential cancer-causing industrial agents and chemicals.

One project involved students finding cigarette billboards around Toronto.  They put the locations into a GIS database and instantly saw the advertisements targeted mostly low-income areas with a lot of children.

“There’s lots of opportunity in the environmental side of GIS but there are also commercial possibilities,” said Andy Charles, one of the graduate students.

Coppack says GIS technology is used by everyone from the Canadian coast guard to Loblaws, but acknowledges it’s not always used for the most progressive projects.

“It’s not very noble for Starbucks to use it to place their stores, but Sick Kids Hospital uses it to find out where to target its outreach programs,” he said.  “You take the good with the bad.”

If Coppack and the rest of the geography department’s commitment to the computer lab is any indication — funds from continuing education courses offered by the department pay for the GIS lab’s upkeep — GIS is worth the effort.

“We have people who graduated from Ryerson geography two years ago coming back to learn the new technology,” Coppack said.  “Seven years ago we didn’t even have desktop [computers].  Now we are all working off laptops.”

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