Research News

CIESIN Celebrates 10 Years of Research at the Earth Institute

2008-08-06

For ten years, scientists at Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), part of the Earth Institute, have worked behind the scenes to provide researchers, lawmakers, educators, business leaders and the general public with access to crucial data and information for some of the most important scientific and policy challenges of our time. From its offices at Columbia’s Lamont campus, CIESIN helps advance understanding of human interactions with the environment and provide the interdisciplinary knowledge and tools needed to support sustainable development.

Originally established in Michigan in 1989 as a non-profit consortium of research institutions, CIESIN became a center within the Earth Institute in 1998 to gain greater access to leading policy and user communities and to widen its partnerships with leading research scientists from around the world.  By joining with the Earth Institute, CIESIN expanded its research and educational portfolio and strengthened its role in the international scientific and policy arenas concerned with sustainable development.

In essence, CIESIN uses advanced computers and strong cross-disciplinary partnerships to create new integrated data sets and decision-support tools. “This is not an easy task, of course!” notes director Bob Chen. “The data and information needed for sustainable development cut across not only the social, natural, engineering and health sciences, but also span a wide range of spatial and temporal scales, from local to global and minutes to millennia.”  

CIESIN’s intricate data sets are being relied upon more and more each year.  Through its Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC), CIESIN’s Gridded Population of the World (GPW) dataset is often used to illustrate population exposure to natural disasters such as the recent cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in China to better prepare residents and aid agencies.  In fact, CIESIN was just awarded a five-year contract for more than $20 million from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to continue the operation of SEDAC – further testament to the Center’s position as a national and international leader.

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI), co-authored with Yale’s Center for Law and Environmental Policy, is another example of a highly-respected project with global effects.  Marc Levy, CIESIN’s deputy director, recently traveled to the United Arab Emirates for a meeting organized by the League of Arab States to evaluate approaches to constructing aggregate environmental performance indexes in the region.  “By ranking each country’s environmental performance on a scale of 0 to 100, the EPI fosters accountability both in-country and across borders,” says Levy.  “It also helps to show what type of actions are more effective in improving sustainable practices by providing the ability to compare what other countries in similar geographic regions and economic groupings are doing.” 

At a recent 10-year anniversary celebration, Chen and Levy noted the many cross-linked projects and collaborations with other Earth Institute centers and groups across the University. The latter includes the Columbia University Libraries, which are working with CIESIN to develop a long-term trusted digital data repository for interdisciplinary data. CIESIN is also contributing to the University’s efforts to expand interactions with China and to strengthen its “e-science” infrastructure. 

Over the next decade, Chen says, CIESIN is looking ahead to improve both understanding and management of human-environment interactions. “A key focus will be on climate change and its interactions with many other aspects of the environment and human systems, including health, conflict, hazards, poverty, biodiversity, and demographic change.  CIESIN remains committed to open access to its data and information resources in support of sustainable development and to the use of cutting-edge information technology to enable and facilitate the appropriate use of scientific data and information in research, education and decision-making.”

CIESIN collaborates with many other Earth Institute and non-Earth Institute scientists on interdisciplinary research and data activities.  For further reading and links to additional information, see the following:

  • CIESIN works closely with the Earth Institute’s Center for Hazards and Risk Research (CHRR) to use geospatial analysis to identify global natural disaster risk “hotspots” and improve international assessment and management of disaster risks in both the public and private sectors. 
  • CIESIN computer scientists and data specialists have enabled geochemists from the Earth Institute’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) to better integrate and manage their geochemical and related measurements, and to merge their data with data on the public health effects of arsenic and manganese contamination of ground water.
  • CIESIN is helping the Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages project monitor progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals and is working with the International Research Institute on Climate and Society (IRI) to investigate links between climate change and variability and diseases such as meningitis and malaria in the villages and other regions.  
  • CIESIN collaborated with the World Bank to improve and make accessible a wide range of data on the spatial distribution of poverty to help better understand the factors affecting poverty and constraining poverty reduction.
  • The Human Footprint and Last of the Wild data sets, developed in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society, are featured prominently in National Geographic magazine, maps, and Web site and in a National Geographic special on African biodiversity. 
  • A spin-off of the EPI, the Natural Resource Management Index (NRMI), is produced by CIESIN for the U.S. Millennium Challenge Account to help screen candidate countries for poverty-reduction development assistance. 
  • CIESIN is actively contributing to data management activities of the International Polar Year (IPY) and to the development of the planned Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS).
  • CIESIN staff members are active in a wide range of international scientific activities such as the Population-Environment Research Network (PERN), the ICSU Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA), and the Global Spatial Data Infrastructure Association (GSDI).
  • A recent CIESIN study on climate change and security has been used as an input to a classified National Intelligence Assessment on how climate change could threaten U.S. security in the next 20 years by causing political instability, mass movements of refugees, terrorism, or conflicts over water and other resources (see Earth Institute press release).