Charting the earth’s health

Ron Eastman of Waltham wrote one of the most widely distributed software packages used to study and track the planet's natural resources.

Ron Eastman of Waltham wrote one of the most widely distributed software packages used to study and track the planet's natural resources. (Susan Chaityn Lebovits for the Boston Globe)

From the Charles River to the Amazon, Ron Eastman has been able to connect environmental researchers with unique data.

The 57-year-old Waltham resident is the author of IDRISI, one of the world’s most widely distributed software packages for studying and tracking the earth’s natural resources.

Whether it’s predicting where a wildfire is likely to occur in California, or projecting the effects that rising sea levels will have on coastal rice-producing areas in Vietnam, the software enables researchers to study the past and plan for the future. “The uses are limitless,” explains Eastman. “It is of value to climatologists, ecologists, foresters, anybody who works with the environment.”

Eastman is a professor of geography and the director of Clark Labs for Cartographic Technology and Geographic Analysis at Clark University in Worcester.

He began working at the college as a visiting professor in 1981, and started his company, IDRISI, in 1987, with $3,000 in savings. The name IDRISI was chosen in honor of Abu Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi, a cartographer and geographer of major significance during the medieval period. Eastman now has a staff of 31 – 10 are full-time employees, and the rest are undergraduate and PhD students.

Eastman and his co-workers develop information system software, called GIS, that captures, stores, analyzes, and manages geographical data. The software produces results that differ from standard computer-generated maps because they’re composed of multiple layers that can be clicked on and off to focus on various aspects of the subject, such as elevation data, roadway information, even locations that are susceptible to fire.

Information garnered can be used for emergency response, fire management, and natural-disaster planning, as well as preserving animal habitat and looking at trends in weather and crop production. The software analyzes the trends through what is called “image time series,” a fairly new method where various types of satellite images are taken daily and entered into a database.

“When Hurricane Katrina hit, a task force immediately tried to map out where the areas of damage occurred, some of which was done through computer modeling,” said Eastman.

Four years ago, Eastman was approached by Co nservation International, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that seeks to protect the earth’s biodiversity, to see if his company could develop a software tool to help predict land-cover change and how it impacts habitat and biodiversity. Conservation International is primarily focused on areas like South America, where there is much deforestation taking place.

The biggest analogous change in Massachusetts, Eastman said, is losing agriculture to residential land, primarily large-scale trophy homes.

While there are a number of other companies that produce GIS software, Eastman said that his is the only nonprofit. For organizations like Conservation International, that’s important, Eastman said, because the company is willing to take on projects for their scientific value, and without guaranteed profit.

Eastman’s software is updated every 18 months and currently used in more than 175 countries.

Eastman was also asked to develop a system to monitor and analyze tropical biodiversity. The project, funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, involves developing an archive of satellite imagery. Eastman said the job was very tedious, as they had to compile information into a single database; develop the logic to analyze the information; and develop a software product for ecologists to use.

Probably the most dramatic example of change, said Eastman, is in an area off Greenland, which has had the most intense warming in the last 25 years. Eastman predicts that the horn of Africa will soon have a drought, and that southern Africa will have flooding in January or February.

Eastman was just awarded a grant from both the Moore Foundation and the Google Foundation -the philanthropic arm of Google – to develop early warning systems for food security applications. “They are very much interested in climate change, food security, poverty, and infectious diseases, so they became interested in what we’re doing,” said Eastman.

A native of Canada, Eastman attended Bishop’s University in Quebec, where he majored in psychology. After graduation, Eastman followed his wife to England while she studied at the Institute of Archeology. In need of a job, Eastman answered an ad he saw on the street looking for college students for an undisclosed position that paid 90 pence an hour, which, Eastman said, was big money at the time.

He was told to report to the RiverWalk House, a government office on the Thames. There, he met six other students who told him that Idi Amin had just exiled the Asians out of Uganda, and the planes would be landing in minutes. “We developed a documentation system for the refugees,” said Eastman.

After the third day, he was offered a job inside one of the refugee camps as a resettlement officer. He became responsible for 3,000 people, connecting them with local housing agencies to find living arrangements.

When the position ended, a year later, Eastman considered going back to school for social work. “That’s when my wife looked at me and said, ‘You’re an idiot. Look around you. Every single wall is covered in a map.’ It had never even occurred to me that there were people who worked with maps for a living.”

He attended the geography program at King’s College in London, then received his PhD in geography with a specialization in cartography from Boston University. During his last year at BU, he became a visiting professor at Clark University.

Stefano Crema, a native of Brazil, has been working with Eastman for more than a decade, beginning as a graduate student studying geographical information science and international development, and is now full-time staff. “He’s one of the best teachers that I’ve ever had,” said Crema. “He knows his subject, is incredibly curious, and always has something positive to say to each student.”

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