The University of Pennsylvania Cartographic Modeling Laboratory (CML)


     The University of Pennsylvania Cartographic Modeling Laboratory (CML) is located on the Penn campus, provides a wide variety of activities and services to the Penn community, and has a detailed history and organizational structure.  Under the leadership of Dr. C. Dana Tomlin, Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, a group of City and Regional Planning doctoral students started the CML in 1990.  Dr. Tomlin is internationally recognized for his work developing the sophisticated algebraic algorithms that underlie today’s geographic information system (GIS) software, used the world over by researchers, government agencies, and industry. 

     Beginning in the late 1990s, the CML was led by Dr. Dennis Culhane, a Professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice known for his studies of homelessness and housing policy.  Under Dr. Culhane, the CML created a large geographic database archive and numerous web-based geographic analysis tools.  These databases and analytic tools continue to be available for use by municipal planners and community development groups and are seen by millions of online visitors each year.  Over this period the CML also played a key role in support of the Penn’s West Philadelphia community initiatives.

     Due to a rapidly growing demand for geographic analyses pertaining to health and medicine, in 2007 CML leadership shifted to Dr. Charles Branas, an Associate Professor of Epidemiology in the School of Medicine.  Dr. Branas has extensive experience in public health research and medical geography having been at Schools of Public Health and a Department of Geography before coming to Penn.  Under Dr. Branas, the CML expanded its scope, becoming involved in many more national and international projects involving health and medicine over this most recent period.

     The CML has thus evolved as a joint venture of the School of Design, the School of Medicine, and the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.  Today, the CML is governed by a Faculty Board consisting of members from each of the three schools historically involved in oversight of the CML.  Dr. Charles Branas (Faculty Board Chair, Associate Professor, School of Medicine), Dr. Dennis Culhane (Professor, School of Social Policy & Practice and School of Medicine), Dr. Dana Tomlin (Professor, School of Design), Dr. Amy Hillier (Assistant Professor, School of Design and School of Social Policy & Practice), and Dr. Doug Wiebe (Assistant Professor, School of Medicine) make up the CML Faculty Board.  These faculty members participate in quarterly Board meetings, weekly staff meetings, and serve as faculty representatives on CML projects, responsible for identifying prospective CML clients and future projects, checking in with the CML Executive Director to insure projects are progressing on schedule and clients are satisfied with the products they receive, and reviewing products before they are delivered to clients.  Every project that the CML agrees to undertake must have at least one member of the Faculty Board formally connected with it for administrative purposes.

     In 2008, the Faculty Board voted to structure the CML as a formal University of Pennsylvania Service Center in accordance with federal guidelines.  As part of this service center structure, the CML appointed an Executive Director, Dr. Tara D. Jackson, to be the “external face of the lab”.  In this capacity, Dr. Jackson is the point of first contact for prospective and existing clients, acts as liaison to the Faculty Board, oversees the financial management of the CML by business administrators, and oversees a Managing Director as well as any Postdoctoral Fellows and Academic Affiliates (other Penn faculty not on the Faculty Board or faculty visiting from other institutions).  In a complementary way, the CML Managing Director acts as the “internal face of the lab”, overseeing day-to-day operations and all nonacademic staff – Senior Project Manager, Database Administrator, Data Analyst and Programmer, Junior Project Manager, and any Lab Associates.  An organizational chart is included here.

     The CML has recently expanded and will now be located on two floors of the Blockley Hall Building within the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.  This space houses the Executive Director, Managing Director, and all other CML staff.  The Faculty Board members and Business Administration staff for the CML  are also located in Blockley Hall as well as elsewhere in their respective Schools at Penn.  The physical environment of the service center within which the CML operates consists of office suites, individual offices, common spaces, workstation cubicles, and separate meeting and presentation rooms (approximately 5,000 square feet) complemented by a locked and individually climate-controlled computer server room, with numerous individual server units and computing hardware and software within the School of Medicine computing environment. This space configuration facilitates close collaboration and sharing of information involving geographic, statistical, programming, and data management operations.

     The CML brings together the Penn research community, government agencies, and community organizations to pool resources and information in addressing a wide range of geographic issues.  Because geographic issues are indeed around us all, the activities of the CML run the gamut, from public health and housing to public safety, politics, education, the environment, and arts and humanities.  The CML collaborates with researchers at nearly all of Penn’s 12 schools, with projects as diverse as obesity prevention, early school success, violence prevention, access to medical care, mural arts, and water quality management.

     The CML specializes in applying geographic information systems (GIS) software to leverage the fundamental principle of geography – that location is important in people’s lives.  With so much information tied to location, the CML uses GIS and its vast data archive to help find patterns that would otherwise not be seen without a map. But map-making is, in many ways, only the “icing on the cake”.  The CML also performs application development, including web-based application development, and in-depth spatial analyses.  These analyses are carried out by programmers who use cartographic modeling, C++, Fortran, Python, and other programming languages.  Cartographic modeling is a computational methodology for the analytical use of GIS that involves an algebra-like language to express the complex geographic relationships that are associated with tasks ranging from location analysis and simulation to plan development and environmental assessment.  Finally, with explicit educational funding the CML also conducts training sessions for different groups on Penn’s campus (such as for the Summer GIS and Public Health Institute offered by the Center for Public Health Initiatives and the Masters in Urban Spatial Analytics training offered by the Penn Institute for Urban Research) as well as local and state community organizations.  The CML thus supports researchers and projects across various organizations and disciplines through its vast data archives and GIS hardware and software investments as well as its mapping, application development, spatial analysis, and training expertise. 

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