Spatial Discovery

Spatial Discovery

A private grant was awarded to the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) to study the challenges and strategies that libraries and researchers face in trying to discover research data on diverse platforms and in a variety of environments. The research was carried out in a collaboration between the UCSB Library and the Center for Spatial Studies. This Spatial Discovery project (1) developed and tested a technical protocol enabling researchers to easily identify spatial data located across disparate web-accessible databases, repositories, and catalogs; and (2) promoted the evolution of the spatial university through expanded awareness and adoption of spatial data and analysis in research and teaching.

In the first phase of this project, a Spatial Discovery Specialist Meeting was held in Santa Barbara in June 2015. A report of this meeting has been published, detailing key methods and issues related to spatial discovery. A second meeting, Spatial Discovery Specialist Meeting II, was convened in Santa Barbara in May 2017. Preliminary results of the project were shared with meeting participants. A final meeting, Spatial Discovery Specialist Meeting III, was convened in May 2019. It marked the culmination of research and prototyping efforts to make research data discoverable by location.

The first phase of the project produced an interdisciplinary open data site showcasing campus research. The second phase experimented with spatial discovery of non-spatial data, producing spatializations of campus research; these included a self-organizing map of UCSB theses and dissertations and topic maps of Earth Research Institute (ERI) documents.

Period: 2015–2020

Co-PI’s: UCSB Library and Werner Kuhn (Center for Spatial Studies)

Researchers: Sara Lafia

Past Contributors: Denise Stephens (UCSB’s University Librarian until June 2017), André BruggmannGeorgios TechnitisAntonio Medrano, and Savannah Cooley


  • Lafia, S., Kuhn, W., Caylor, K., and Hemphill, L. (2021). Mapping Research Topics at Multiple Levels of Detail. Patterns, 100210. doi:10.1016/j.patter.2021.100210.
  • Lafia, S. (2020). Designing for serendipity: Research data curation in topic spaces (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara).
  • Lafia, S., Kuhn, K., & Caylor, K. (2020). Mapping research topics at multiple levels of detail. Manuscript submitted for publication, EarthArXiv.
  • Lafia, S., Last, C., & Kuhn, W. (2019). Enabling the discovery of thematically related research objects with systematic spatializations. In 14th International Conference on Spatial Information Theory (COSIT 2019). Schloss Dagstuhl-Leibniz-Zentrum fuer Informatik, E-Scholarship.
  • Lafia, S., Turner, A., & Kuhn, W. (2018). Improving discovery of open civic data. In 10th International Conference on Geographic Information Science (GIScience 2018). Schloss Dagstuhl-Leibniz-Zentrum fuer Informatik, E-Scholarship.
  • Lafia, S., & Kuhn, W. (2018). Spatial discovery of linked research datasets and documents at a spatially enabled research library. Journal of Map & Geography Libraries 14(1): 21–39, E-Scholarship.
  • Lafia, S. (2017). Spatial discovery and the research library: Linking research datasets and documents (Master’s thesis, University of California, Santa Barbara), E-Scholarship.
  • Lafia, S., Jablonski, J., Kuhn, W., Cooley, S., & Medrano, F. A. (2016). Spatial discovery and the research library. Transactions in GIS 20(3): 399–412, E-Scholarship.
  • Cooley, S., Lafia, S., Medrano, A., Stephens, D., & Kuhn, W. (2015). Spatial discovery expert meeting final report., E-Scholarship.

In the Media:

  • Lafia, S., and Kuhn, W. (2019, Summer). Enabling the spatial discovery of research data in libraries. US National Report (US National Committee for the International Cartographic Association)
  • Lafia, S. & Kuhn, W. (2017, Summer). Opening access to university scholarship through spatial discovery. ArcUser.
  • Lafia, S. & Kuhn, W. (2017, Spring). Spatial discovery at UCSB. spatial@ucsb.local2017 Poster.
  • Lafia, S. (2017, Spring). Spatial discovery: Linking geographic footprints to topic spaces. UCSB Grad Slam Semifinals.


Jack and Laura Dangermond Chair, 2013–2020
Professor Emeritus, Department of Geography
Faculty Research Fellow, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor