SNRE doctoral student wins Google research award

Kerry Ard
Kerry Ard

A doctoral student at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment received a research prize from Google Inc. for her work in displaying geographic data as part of her dissertation project.

Google selected Kerry Ard as one of two student winners; students from 20 countries were eligible to participate. It was Google's first KML In Research Competition, which it unveiled at a conference last fall at U-M. The contest promotes the creation of KML content and use of KML to communicate scientific and academic material.(For more information, please visit

For her research example, Ard used Google Earth to visualize pollution changes over time in the Detroit area. That research stems from a Kresge Foundation-funded grant to investigate pollution surrounding schools in Michigan. SNRE Professor Paul Mohai and Research Investigator Byoung-Suk Kweon received the Kresge funding last year.

"One of our goals is to work closely with community organizations to address their concerns," Ard said. "To help to communicate our findings, I was using Google Earth to visualize pollution changes over time in the Detroit area."

In addition to receiving a Garmin handheld GPS and Apple iPod touch, Ard's work is being showcased on Google's web site. "Google is constantly looking for new ways to spur innovation and creativity in science and engineering," said contest coordinator Ryan Falor. "This contest rewards the best visualizations of scientific research in Google Earth using KML."

Sandra Arlinghaus, a member of Ard's doctoral committee, introduced Ard to the application and suggested its use on the Kresge project. Ard will present her KML-inspired work April 22 at the GooglEarthDay conference, which presents recent applications of Google Earth. The conference takes place in the Samuel T. Dana Building and is organized by Arlinghaus, an adjunct professor of mathematical geography and population-environment dynamics at SNRE.

Ard's Google Earth project uses the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Risk Screening Environmental Indicators data. This data uses information submitted by facilities that emit toxic pollutants into the air, such as chemicals distributors, manufacturers, mining industries, utility operations, hazardous waste treatment and disposal plants.

The toxicity of more than 600 individual chemicals, amounts released and the path the chemical takes as it is disbursed into the environment (determined by weather patterns) are modeled and a unitless score created. This "toxic score" can be compared across areas and chemicals, allowing a researcher to see which areas have higher amounts of toxic chemicals in their air.

The publicly available version of these data is provided on a facility-by-facility basis. However, Ard's project also used data not available publicly, and which was purchased from the EPA by SNRE and the Universities of Massachusetts and Southern California. The Ford Foundation has supported the work of these universities as a research consortium.

Ard overlaid the purchased data with maps of Wayne County, Mich., and converted it to KML using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software, uploaded it to Google Earth and utilized Google's program to animate and make it more user-friendly. The project animates the changes in the amount of chemicals for every 1 km-square mile in Wayne County from 1988-2004.

KML is a file format used to display geographic data in an Earth browser, such as Google Earth, Google Maps and Google Maps for mobile. A KML file is processed in much the same way that HTML (and XML) files are processed by web browsers. Like HTML, KML has a tag-based structure with names and attributes used for specific display purposes. Thus, Google Earth and Maps act as browsers for KML files.

Google announced the contest last fall in Ann Arbor at the Scientific Applications for Google Earth Conference. U-M co-hosted the two-day event, which brought together researchers and students from across the country to discuss the scientific uses of virtual globes and how that technology is enabling newer and richer data interaction.

The KML in Research contest was open to students and professionals. Entries were judged by a panel of experts based on overall functionality in Google Earth 4.3; visual appeal; ease of use and understanding; educational value; and efficiency of bandwidth use and efficiency of file.

Ard is working on a student-initiated degree, combining U-M'sí‚   doctoral program in sociology with one in Environmental Policy and Behavior from SNRE. She is in the process of submitting her dissertation proposal; her doctoral program adviser is Mohai.í‚   Ard earned her master of science degree in Environmental Policy and Behavior from SNRE.

The School of Natural Resources and Environment's overarching objective is to contribute to the protection of the earth's resources and the achievement of a sustainable society. Through research, teaching, and outreach, faculty, staff, and students are devoted to generating knowledge and developing policies, techniques and skills to help practitioners manage and conserve natural and environmental resources to meet the full range of human needs on a sustainable basis.

Google's innovative search technologies connect millions of people around the world with information every day. Founded in 1998 by Stanford Ph.D. students Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google today is a top web property in all major global markets. Google's targeted advertising program provides businesses of all sizes with measurable results, while enhancing the overall web experience for users. Google is headquartered in Silicon Valley with offices throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia. For more information, please visit

Related links:
2008 Google conference at U-M:

KML Research Competition site

The April 22 GooglEarthDay Conference at SNRE

Kerry Ard's web site:

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