2019 Outstanding Contributions in Geoinformatics

Presented to J. Douglas Walker

J. Douglas Walker

J. Douglas Walker
University of Kansas


Citation by Richard W. Carlson, Carnegie Institution for Science

The 2019 recipient of the Outstanding Contributions to Geoinformatics Award of GSA’s Geoinformatics Division is J. Douglas Walker of the University of Kansas.  Doug has played a leading role in the development of various geoscience databases for decades, beginning with his involvement with GIS studies in 1994.  Doug saw early that the rate of publication of geoscience data was increasing faster than the ability of the geoscience community to keep up.  He also saw that there was merit in being able to consider more synoptic datasets than those that could be produced by a single study.  Perhaps more importantly, Doug recognized that a database is only as good as the questions that can be asked of it.  Hundreds of thousands of unsorted rock chemical analyses are more confusing than helpful unless the dataset can be queried to select just those samples that are relevant to the questions being asked.  Doug built the query system for the North American Volcanic Rock (NAVDAT) database that has served as a template for other rock geochemistry databases.  He has gone on from that initial effort to assist in the development of a number of different databases that address datasets as diverse as geochronology, the composition of lunar rocks, structural geology, and even rock microstructures.  Most visible among his many efforts in combining large datasets is his leadership role in compiling the last three versions of the GSA Geologic Time Scale.  Through the coupling of his technical expertise with digital media and scientific understanding of the fields where his database efforts have been directed, Doug has shown the way to functional databases that do much more than simply archive data, but instead allow the user to extract the new discoveries embedded in the data they contain. 


Response by J. Douglas Walker

It is with great honor and humility that I accept the 2019 Outstanding Contributions to Geoinformatics Award from GSA’s Geoinformatics Division.  This is one of the newer divisions of GSA, and it is probably the division with the newest start as a disciplinary interest area.  Writing this response, I looked back on the first geoinformatics paper I wrote, for GSAToday in 1996, on data structure for geologic maps and Geographical Information Systems.  The paper did not use the word “geoinformatics,” that word wasn’t in wide use yet, but it was the foundational topic of the work.  It is now also the name of a National Science Foundation program and it is the primary motivation for the large and visionary NSF EarthCube program.  It feels rewarding to be involved with what is really a new field.

My start in Geoinformatics came with a project I had with Ross Black at the University of Kansas to build a GIS database for the Coso Volcanic field and the surrounding area of eastern California.  This work opened my eyes and mind to the power of data science and very focused and simultaneous visualization of multiple data sources processed in unique ways.  Ross was really the driver to get this work going, and I owe a lot of my subsequent work to his vision and collaboration.  Ross and I soon started to take the laboratory/computer screen-based GIS to the new area of laptops in field mapping with integrated GPS.  This work revolutionized our practices in field geology.  University of Kansas students have been involved with mobile devices and data collection in field camp, on field trips, and in thesis work for over the last 20 years.  All this early work was nurtured with the help of Frank Monastero and his office for geothermal research. 

My more detailed work in geoinformatics came, as Rick noted in his citation, with a new emphasis on geochemical and subsequently geochronological databases.  In this effort, I was spurred on by Rick and Ross, Allen Glazner, and Lang Farmer to start the NAVDAT (The Western North American Volcanic and Intrusive Rock Database) to understand the connection between tectonics and igneous activity.  This successful effort led to collaborations with Kerstin Lehnert and Al Hoffman, as well as Rick, to form the EarthChem alliance meant to be a One-Stop-Shop for geochemical data on rocks.  This grew into an NSF-funded project that has been going strong for the last 15 years.  I am still attempting to expand the reach of geoinformatics by working on a new project, StraboSpot, to reimagine the way we collect and share field data.  This work is an outgrowth of an NSF EarthCube sponsored workshop and allowed me to establish a close working relationship with Basil Tikoff and Julie Newman, another enjoyable and fulfilling collaboration.

There are many folks to thank for their help beyond those mentioned above.  So many, that it is beyond the scope of this response.  Two individuals stand out in particular that I would like to recognize formally.  The first is Lee Allison.  He was critical to the development of my work in Geoinformatics, and along with Rick, got me to run my first workshop on Cyberinfrastructure in 2003.  The second is Jason Ash, a developer and collaborator I have worked with for the last 15 years.  A lot of my success owes to Jason and his keen knowledge and insights into data structures and how to serve them.