The GIS unit develops and applies fundamental methods and techniques in Geographic Information Science. Our research focuses on environmental applications of GIS, digital cartography, and mobile systems. Our methodological toolset draws from an interdisciplinary range of research fields, including spatial analysis and statistics, algorithms development, and computer science techniques such as data mining and agent-based modeling. Our methods have in common that they seek structure in spatio-temporal data, thereby extract geographic information from that raw data, and ultimately aim at generating knowledge that may lead to a better understanding of geographic patterns and processes.

Research projects in the GIS unit receive funding from

  • the Swiss National Science Foundation
  • the European Commission
  • the European COST program
  • the federal CTI technology transfer program
  • as well as charitable foundations

Research in our unit is pursued in two main strands (further expanded on below)

  • digital cartography and mobile systems
  • environmental geoinformatics

Mobility and cultural evolution

We study how culture evolves in space and time, focusing on the evolution of language. We explore how languages spread, reconstruct past human interaction and reveal the influence of geography on cultural evolution. 

Expansion, migration, and diffusion     

Mobility and cultural evolution

Over the past 10,000 years, some language families have spread over enormous areas: Indo-European in Europe and Asia, Bantu in sub-Saharan Africa, Sino-Tibetan in Asia or Austronesian in Oceania. Phylogeography, a sophisticated statistical method, promises to reconstruct the spread of language families and find their homeland. But does phylogeography work?

Our recent publication shows that phylogeography fails to recover migration, where languages leave one place for another. However, it works well when languages gradually expand their territory, for example, to cultivate more crops and sustain a larger population.




Mobility and cultural evolution

When speakers of different languages interact, they are likely to exchange properties. The English word language, for example, was borrowed from French. We develop statistical tools to find traces of cultural contact in language evolution.
Recently, we published sBayes, a Bayesian spatial clustering algorithm to find hidden spatial clusters in space and identify areas of language contact. 



The influence of geography on evolution

Mobility and cultural evolution

Geography influences the distribution and the characteristics of languages. Spatially isolated languages, for example, tend to be more complex than centrally located languages with many neighbours.

In a recent publication, we identified a deep-time correlation between the genetics of a population and the grammar of their language, suggesting that grammar might be a cultural indicator of genetic history. Initially, we feared that the relationship might be an artefact of the influence of space, specifically the spatial neighbourhood of the populations. With the help of spatial statistics, we could show that spatial interaction fails to explain the correlation, confirming that the relationship between grammar and genes goes way back in time


Digital Cartography and Mobile Systems

GIS are evolving all the time, but maps and map-like visualizations are still the dominant form of communicating geographic information to users of GIS, even in the days of online mapping services and mobile, ubiquitous computing, and the years to come. Work in this group therefore focuses on two main issues.

First, we are interested in developing methods to automatically generate maps at the scale and with the content that is appropriate to the user’s task. This calls for research in automated map generalization and multiple representation databases, where we have a long-standing reputation that also resulted in industry products. It also calls for research in cartographic pattern recognition and so-called data enrichment, as geospatial data are often ill-equipped with the rich semantics that is needed to drive complex processes such as map generalization.

As a second focus of our research, we seek to exploit the opportunities of mobile and ubiquitous computing for GIS and cartography. We have developed mobile information systems for protected areas such as national and regional parks, and we have experimented with geography-oriented m-learning (mobile learning). Since our keen interest is in generating useful maps, scaling is also an issue in mobile systems, and hence we develop methods for real-time map generalization and service-oriented architectures for generalization in web and wireless mapping.

Current projects

  • URPP DynAge
  • MOBITEC-Stroke
    Recovery of mobility function and life-space mobility after ischemic stroke
    Schweizerischer Nationalfonds

Completed projects

Environmental Geoinformatics

Environmental applications of GIS have a long history and form a key focus of the GIS unit. In particular, we have been involved in planning and implementing GIS strategies and facilities for several protected areas, such as the Swiss National Park and Naturlandschaft Sihlwald. Protected areas form an important interface between society and nature, and therefore offer interesting opportunities for environmental education and awareness building among the general public. To the specialized researcher, protected areas are hot spots of research activities. Current research explores the concept of ecosystem services provided by protected areas.

The analysis of the spatio-temporal footprint of moving objects forms an important focus of the Environmental Geoinformatics group. In the last decade, advances in tracking technologies resulted in geographic information representing the movement of individuals at previously unseen spatial and temporal granularities. Movement analysis is important in wide range of application fields, including behavioral ecology, transportation and mobility research, surveillance and security, and even sports analysis. Movement data offers new insights into dynamic geographic processes but also challenges the traditionally rather static spatial analysis toolbox. The Environmental Geoinformatics research group develops and applies spatio-temporal analysis methods for a better understanding of such movement processes. The GIS group chairs the COST Action MOVE, a European research cooperation initiative, aiming at coordinating and promoting spatially informed research on movement analysis

Current projects

  • Out of Asia
    Linguistic Diversity and Population History 
    Schweizerischer Nationalfonds
  • NCCR Evolving Language
    Work Package Phylo for Phase 1
    Institut für Vergleichende Sprachwissenschaft 

Completed projects

  • GIS Forest Reserve Sihlwald (GIS/NLS)
  • Context-Aware Simulation of trajectories of Moving Objects (CASIMO)
  • Context-Aware Movement Analysis (CAMA)
  • Use of Machine Learning in the Analysis of Tracking Data
  • Ecosystem Services in Protected Areas
  • MOVE: Knowledge Discovery from Moving Objects (COST Action IC0903)
  • SPREAD: Forest Fire Spread Prevention and Mitigation
  • Virtual worlds - real decisions? The Alps in a Modeller's Nutshell
  • Knowledge Based Dynamic Landscape Analysis and Simulation for Alpine Environments
  • WebPark - Geographically relevant information for mobile users in protected areas