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A Life Well Mapped

Mark Becker leads geo-caching activity.

“It is not the length of life, but the depth.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882)



Addressing today’s environmental challenges from local to global scales and educating students of all ages about using maps and spatial data to further sustainable development were the passions of Mark Becker, associate director for geospatial applications of the Earth Institute’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). From organizing field trips in local watersheds to developing interactive mapping tools for students and decision makers, Mark believed in the power of geospatial data and analysis to motivate our stewardship of the environment and guide development of sustainable approaches that balance human and environmental needs.

Visualization from the CHANGE Mapper mapping tool.
This image from the Climate and Health Analysis for Global Education Viewer (CHANGE Viewer) uses 3D NASA World Wind technology to visualize climate change impacts on human health. Mark’s team at CIESIN developed the educational mapping tool with the Institute for the Application of Geospatial Technology (IAGT).

Although all of us who knew Mark are still grieving from his untimely death in a multiple-vehicle accident last week, we also realize that Mark was living his life to the maximum, doing exactly what he loved most: using his unique geographic skills and experience to teach, communicate, and link science with society. During his 15 years at CIESIN, he offered a variety of courses on spatial analysis methods and data, inspired and mentored many undergraduate and graduate students, and developed user-friendly Internet-based teaching tools to help others do the same. He played key roles in numerous cross-disciplinary projects led by Columbia scientists and other colleagues in the New York region and around the world, ranging from the assessment of climate change impacts in the urban northeast to mapping of heavy metal contamination in wells in Bangladesh to testing methods for earthquake vulnerability assessment using satellite data. He mentored a strong team of geospatial analysts at CIESIN engaged in cross-disciplinary research, applications, education, and training.

Mark took to heart the opportunity to work in the Earth Institute’s unique interdisciplinary environment, bridging gaps across disciplines and schools, between research, education, and real-world “practice,” and across scales from local to global. He taught some of the first courses in Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation on the use of spatial analysis in urban planning–until that school brought in their own full-time faculty. He then went on to develop courses in the Mailman School of Public Health and more recently in Columbia College’s Sustainable Development Program, where he taught a popular two-semester sequence of courses on GIS for Sustainable Development. He contributed his spatial analysis skills to a study of the impact of the World Trade Center collapses on birth outcomes led by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. His expertise in geographic information systems (GIS) and online mapping helped to improve monitoring and evaluation at more than 800 health clinics in Africa operated by Columbia’s ICAP program. He was co-investigator on a recently-awarded five-year study on developing high performance green infrastructure systems funded by the National Science Foundation, led by Prof. Patricia Culligan of the Fu Foundation School of Engineering & Applied Science.

The image above shows the status of assessments conducted by staff and volunteers for the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England (IPANE), 2008. IPANE was a project of the NBII-NIN program, for which Mark was a principal investigator. He expanded the role of GIS technologies in the program through the development of data collection guidelines, program tracking mechanisms, and online geospatial mapping applications.

Mark focused much of his energy on the environment of the northeast United States. For many years he managed the Northeast Information Node of the National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII-NIN), which included development of an interactive mapping tool for the Hudson Valley and an information network for Jamaica Bay. More recently, he partnered with colleagues from Columbia, Stevens Institute of Technology, Drexel University, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst on a number of projects such as flood mapping in the lower Hudson Valley and an assessment of the impacts of Superstorm Sandy. He also worked with a range of geospatial experts, stakeholders, and educational institutions in the region, including urban and regional planners in New York and New Jersey, the Environmental Consortium of Hudson Valley Colleges and Universities, Bard College’s Center for Environmental Policy, and Lehman College’s Geographic Information Science program. These regional activities meshed with his long-standing work as an environmental advocate in northern New Jersey, where Mark served as one of three appointed public board members of the Meadowlands Conservation Trust and as co-founder of the Bergen Save the Watershed Action Network (SWAN) with Lori Charkey, his partner of 30 years.

Over the past decade, Mark was also able to expand his geographic scope to the global scale. In 2010 he became a member of the board of the Global Spatial Data Infrastructure Association, supporting international efforts to expand the utilization of, and investment in, geospatial data and technology. He led CIESIN’s cooperative efforts with the United Nations Cartographic Division and represented CIESIN in various UN and other international initiatives. He conducted training sessions in Africa, China, and Bangladesh and provided advice to the government of Sierra Leone on the development of their geospatial data infrastructure. This global perspective was reflected in his work to develop the Climate and Health ANalysis for Global Education Viewer (CHANGE Viewer), an interactive 3D geo-visualization tool for exploring climate/health issues, developed with support from NASA.

Mark approached all of these activities, whether small or large scale, with enthusiasm, confidence, and humor. He believed in strong teamwork, careful planning, and the power of persistence. Most of all, he built a legacy of people with the skills and dedication to carry on in his absence. Though we will miss him sorely, the life he mapped out will continue to provide inspiration and direction for all of us.

To read more tributes to Mark or to leave a comment, go here.

This blog was updated March 27 to reflect the addition of the following information: An article about Mark is here. To make a donation in Mark’s memory, go to Mark Becker Scholarship Fund (donation site; please specify “Mark Becker” in comment field).




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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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Hans Bosch
10 years ago

Mark I will miss your calm and friendly approach to solving problems at CIESIN. Mostly I will miss paddling with you on the lakes, supporting Bergen Swan. Rest in Peace my friend until the return of our Lord. -Hans

Haddijatou Jallow
10 years ago

The Executive Chairperson, Board and Staff of the Environment Protection Agency Sierra Leone extend their sincere condolences to Lori and CIESIN for this great loss. We had Mark very briefly at the EPA in Sierra Leone to assist us set up our GIS. The work he did and his persona left an indelible mark in our minds. How we would have loved to have him one more time at the Agency but the Good Lord has more grandeur plans for him. Our thoughts and prayers to his family and colleagues.