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Triangulation and topology from Canada to China

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John Murphy profiles a pioneer of geographical information systems

Canada is a big country, so it should come as little surprise that this is where Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have been developed and advanced. Professor Chris Gold, recently appointed to an EU Marie Curie Chair at Glamorgan University in Wales, started developing such systems to plot geological data while working in Canada. He came across a plotting method called Voronoi Diagrams and, for the past 20 years or so, has been developing them into data structures with countless applications outside geology.

He was originally English but his studies, research, and teaching on the subject of GIS has taken him to three continents so far: from the UK to Canada, and then via Hong Kong, back to the UK. He has been plugging away at Voronoi Diagrams and data structures for GIS for 30 years or so, producing highly general results that are seen in applications far more diverse than he could ever have imagined when he began.

Andrew Frank, Professor of Geo-information at the Technical University of Vienna, said: 'Anybody who continues to work on such an important topic for such a long time is inevitably very successful. He has continued to focus on one particular area, and seeing how it applies to many different things has had wonderful effects. Voronoi diagrams are extremely important in GIS systems, and there are many applications, many more than he originally looked at. He is definitely one of the leaders in the Voronoi field. There is no need for me to do any original work in this field because there is already someone doing excellent work and we can rely on him. He has been the person that over the years has stayed with the topic and always contributed new and novel parts to it both in the computational geometry field, GIS and in pure statistics. He has brought computational geometry to GIS, and has brought Voronoi diagrams as a computational engine to application areas. It is one thing for a researcher to have a wonderful idea, but it is another to stay on the topic for many years and suggest improvements, and new application areas, which have made an important contribution.'

Despite his travels, and long term residence in Canada, Frank said that Gold has remained a typical Englishman abroad, enjoying the ex-patriot lifestyle. He said: 'He was completely at ease in Hong Kong. When I visited him there, he took me to a very nice former British Army Club. He also knew his way around some very strange restaurants, which I would not have gone into unaccompanied.

'He is a very typical Brit, not overbearing, jolly in a restricted way, very serious but not as serious as he would wish sometimes. He has a sense of humour, but it is the humour of a mathematician. You have to be quite sharp to get it.

'He can go away from technical matters and talk about other things, tell stories about different places that he has lived and languages that he has tried. He always seemed to have been in places where they do not speak English as a mother tongue.'

Gold was born in Leeds, in the north of England. He moved south as a young child and went to a boarding school in Caterham on a scholarship when he was 11 after his father died. He was always scientifically minded and had wanted to follow his father into surveying, because he never wanted to be confined to an office. He did well at school, even winning a poetry competition for science students.

He became a Queen's Scout and, through the Scouting movement, got involved in an exchange scheme that took him to North America. He discovered that getting into university at the time was much easier in Canada than it was in the UK, and so he started applying to every organisation that gave undergraduate scholarships to study abroad. After 40 letters, he found the Goldsmiths Company which offered Commonwealth scholarships. In 1966, he was accepted at McGill University in Montreal, studying geology initially, and then agriculture for a master's degree in 1969.

He paid his way through college by working as a prospector in the north of Canada during the summer. He had many adventures involving avalanches, plane crashes, and wrestling with grizzly bears. He did not get rich, but he became highly skilled in using dynamite.

His first proper job was for the Geological Survey of Canada in Hudson Bay for one year. His next was in Alberta before deciding to go back to university to get a PhD from the University of Alberta. Computers were just starting to become useful so he decided to make geology and computer science his subjects. He completed his PhD in 1978 but had a struggle getting his professors to take his ideas seriously because at the time the idea of mixing mathematics, computer science and geology was a little bit heretical.

He said: 'I have always been playing piggy-in-the-middle between the computer-science people and the applications people. I started drawing contour maps, before the days of 3D plotting. My PhD topic was stratigraphy of glacial deposits, using drill-hole data to make contour maps.'

This was his first exposure to what were to become known as Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The first GIS systems were being developed by Roger Tomlinson - known as the Father of GIS - to map the wheat crop in Canada.

Gold was one of the first to work on triangulation models. He always believed that visualisation of data was extremely important to prevent misinterpretation of results.

After finishing his PhD, he worked for five years for the Alberta Government in its water exploration division. Again, he was mapping glacial deposit data, and became briefly famous for discovering a huge underground river in northern Alberta.

He said: 'I found that the GIS business was going ahead without me. I was writing one paper a year, but that was not getting me very far. I always wanted to be an academic. I had four children by this time, so I needed to have a job. So we moved to Nova Scotia, where I taught in the College of Geographic Sciences for a couple of years. (1985-87). Then I moved to the geography department of Memorial University in Newfoundland (1987-90), which was interesting because you could watch icebergs floating past.'

After three years, Gold was invited to take up a research chair at Laval University in Quebec City. It was a bit of a shock having to teach in French, not his best subject at school, but he got by. His chair was funded for 10 years jointly by the government and the forestry industry, with a brief to bring forestry into the 20th century. He was one of three researchers who set up centres of excellence in GIS throughout Canada.

By 2000, his funding was coming to an end and his children had grown up and moved out of home. He had always had strong links with China and he had visited the country several times, making friends with many Chinese academics. He was invited to go to Hong Kong Polytechnic University to take up a professorship in the surveying department.

He said: 'I think they were interested in my track record on research in GIS and, secondly, they knew I was a friend of China, because I had done a lot of collaboration with mainland China. So they knew I was not going to turn and run when I got there.'

He really enjoyed the lifestyle of Hong Kong and took the opportunity to travel through China. He said: 'Some people find the place hard to live in, because of the crowds and so on, but we loved Hong Kong and would have stayed there. When I went the retirement age was 60, and I was 60 in 2004. But I was told it would not be a problem: I just needed the signature of the president to keep going. But the Asian downturn caused cutbacks in education and things got tough. When it got closer to my 60th birthday, it became clear that nobody was going to get extensions, no matter how clever you are.'

About a year before he was due to retire, he gave a keynote speech at GIS Research UK, and he took the opportunity to advertise that he was soon to be available. As a result, he was approached by some contacts at the University of Glamorgan who invited him apply for a post. Professor George Taylor, the head of Computing at Glamorgan pointed out that the European Union was sponsoring a new scheme called Marie Curie Chairs, which were supposed to be 'reverse brain-drain' positions that encouraged researchers who had left Europe to come back. So he filled in the 450-page form with a research proposal which included travelling around Europe giving workshops on his GIS research. To his surprise they agreed, giving Gold his 'dream job' of researching and proselytising on special data structures for GIS, as a member of one of the largest GIS research groups in the UK.

Gold is still plugging away at his life's work on Voronoi diagrams. He explains it thus: 'I have always been fascinated by the connectiveness of things, or topology in the mathematical sense. Voronoi said that space can be divided up into polygons which are closest to a particular point. I saw that this was a way to go with a lot of adjacency questions. This became my theme-song and, rather than pick up individual research projects here and there, I said here is a tool that is not being used very much, let's push it for all its worth, and see how it applies to forestry, geology, agriculture, oceanography, or anything else. I suppose it's the old story that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.

'Some of the fields were applications, but the other side was: how are we going to stuff this into a computer? That's where the data structures work comes in.

'One of the reasons I am happy to be at Glamorgan now is that it is giving me the opportunity to write my text book. There are common concepts and my objective in life now is to bring these things together and say that in the last 20 years of computer science there has been some real progress; it's time we looked at this to solve geology problems or whatever. Originally this was 2D and static, but a few years ago I took up the challenge of the real world which is 3D and changes.'

Gold is happy at Glamorgan, despite the somewhat cooler climate than he got used to in Hong Kong and less exotic culture. However with some of his four children living in Canada, the wide open spaces may beckon him there in the future, once he has got a bit more of the travel bug out of his system.

CURRICULUM VITAE

Education

1966 McGill University, Montreal. BSc Geology

1969 McGill University, Montreal, MSc Agriculture

1978 University of Alberta PhD, Geology

Employment

1980-85 Government of Alberta, Research scientist

1985-87 Lecturer College of Geographic Sciences Nova Scotia

1987-90 Lecturer, geography department of Memorial University in Newfoundland

1990-2000 Full Professor, Laval University, Quebec City

2000-2004 Professor, Surveying Department, Hong Kong Polytechnic University

2004-date Marie Curie Professor, Department of Computing, University of Glamorgan