For the last 10 years Amy Rose, a researcher at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), has captured the evolving trends of human activity across the globe. As a population research scientist working with the lab’s Geographic Information Science and Technology group and the Urban Dynamics Institute (UDI), Rose helps to characterize the development of human settlements and generate insights on human activity.
The growth and movement of human populations are rapidly transforming the global landscape with profound effects for urban ecosystems. As people move in response to environmental, political, and socioeconomic forces, new challenges emerge for urban residents and infrastructure.
“We want to articulate the human footprint on earth in a relevant and meaningful way. Ultimately, we want to know how humans impact and are impacted by urban environments,” Rose said.
Rose joined the lab in 2007 after beginning her career in transportation and logistics. Population studies were an exciting change of pace for the geographer at heart. Geographic Information Science (GIS) was burgeoning, and ORNL was a pioneer in the movement, she recalled.
“GIS was gaining momentum, and it was refreshing to see ORNL engaged in trying to understand population distribution and dynamics—where people are, how they move, who they are—and really pushing the limit not only on modeling all of this but also scaling it for the entire world,” she said.
“When I first started working here, it was like taking a different vacation every day,” she recounted. “We would look at a different part of the world each day, and it reinforced my love of geography, because every day we were learning something new about a place and its inhabitants. It was rewarding to be able to experience our research in that way.”
Rose received a doctorate in geography from the University of Tennessee in 2015. Her early efforts at ORNL were focused on codevelopment of LandScan Global, the most authoritative global population distribution data set, used to estimate populations at risk and to assess the human impact of events like disease outbreaks and natural disasters globally. She has since supported subsequent LandScan development efforts, serving as principal investigator for LandScan USA and codeveloper of LandScan HD and LandCast. Each iteration offers extended capabilities for national and global applications.
The data accumulated via LandScan research have aided in the fight against infectious diseases like polio and malaria in developing countries. LandScan’s resources have also been called upon in time of major disasters, like the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
“It is data-rich work, but the human connection is what drives our passion for mapping populations,” Rose said. “Ultimately, we need to know where people are in order to send relief workers, vaccines, and other forms of aid to refugee camps, remote villages, and scattered settlements around the world.”
That passion and expertise have influenced Rose’s work with the UDI, which takes a data-driven approach to tackling the challenges associated with urban growth. Rose has led the institute’s Population and Land Use theme since 2015.
Technological advancements, new imaging techniques, and a greater availability of data within the last five years have made the job of mapping the world’s shifting population possible, but in some ways also more difficult.
The data challenge—too little or too much—is one of the biggest hurdles for global population studies, Rose explained. On one hand, so much new information constantly becomes available at such a rapid pace that it is hard for researchers, and computers, to keep up. On the other, the world itself is changing so rapidly, with such unique and variable urban populations, that “updated” information is continually outdated. In some parts of the world, especially in developing countries, wild fluctuations in human activity are common.
Rose’s team works to capture the way political uprisings, war, disease outbreaks, urban growth and urban decline dramatically dislocate, relocate, and redistribute large groups of people, sometimes at a moment’s notice. “There is really no other way to account for these changes than to see them visually,” she said.
Mindful of her colleagues, she noted the true strength of her research is not the technology or the data, but the people involved in the effort.
“I am fortunate to work with an impressive group of people at ORNL and through the UDI who really understand data—how to use it, where to find it—and who excel at unearthing new information and discovering novel ways of utilizing existing data,” Rose said.
ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the DOE Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.—by Ashley Huff