Alan MacEachren was Director of the GeoVISTA Center from its formation in 1998 through 2020. GeoVISTA evolved over that time from a Center focused on geovisualization to a broad-based interdisciplinary geographical information science center conducting and coordinating innovative research in GIScience, covering a broad range of domains from spatial cognition, through formal geo-information representation, to spatial analysis, cartography and visual analytics.
MacEachren’s own research roots are in cartography and spatial cognition. His research interests over time covered a wide spectrum of GIScience topics. These include: geovisual analytics, geovisualization and exploratory spatial data analysis, geosemantics and geographical information retrieval, and place and big data. Applications domains to which his research connects include public health, crisis management, and environmental science. As Emeritus, he continues to pursue research, with a particular emphasis on cartographic/visualization topics.
Since retiring and moving to Emeritus status, MacEachren has balanced research interests with his long-time avocation of birding, completing a birding quest in 2021 detailed in A Geo-Big Year: Pandemic Retirement is for the Birds, Osprey View Press, 2022.
Building from a background in cartography and spatial cognition, MacEachren's work during the 1990s focused on a range of issues associated with geographic representation and geovisualization. Within these domains, a long standing interest was the interaction between formalized visual and digital representations inherent in maps and geographic information systems and human mental representation of space and space-time. In How Maps Work: Representation, Visualization and Design he developed a cognitive-semiotic theoretical perspective from which to address these and related issues. Much of MacEachren's work in this domain deals with dynamic forms of representation. These include exploratory spatial data analysis tools and map animation for understanding geographic processes. Much of this research has been linked to applications of mapping, geovisualization and ESDA in public health.
Another research thread was integration of geographic visualization with other knowledge construction methods, natural interfaces to GIS, geo-virtual environments, and geocollaboration (design and use of technologies to enable groups to work productively with geospatial information). Much of this research has been grounded in applications within environmental science and crisis management. Some of this research has emphasized designing analytical tools and systems, some has focused on cognitive systems engineering approaches to understanding user needs and work practices and adapting tools to meet those needs, and some has focused on the underlying cognitive and perceptual issues that are critical to building visual displays and interfaces what work.
Starting in the mid-2000s, a primary focus in MacEachren's research has been on basic and applied research in visual analytics, defined as the science of analytical reasoning facilitated by interactive visual interfaces. This work draws upon and extends past work but puts a particular focus on understanding reasoning with complex information and related processes of information foraging and sensemaking with heterogeneous information. The latter topic has brought MacEachren's interests full circle back to issues of spatial cognition, with a focus on understanding how humans conceptualize space, place, and movement linguistically and on visual-computational interfaces for leveraging spatial information contained in text documents.
Until retirement, MacEachren was a Fellow in the Penn State Institute for Computational and Data Science and a Faculty Affiliate of the Center for Social Data Analytics. The latter is an outgrowth of an NSF IGERT in Big Data Social Science.
MacEachren was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2013. Recent awards recognizing his research include:
- 2019 Association of American Geographers Wilbanks Award for Transformational Research in Geography
- 2021 Carl Mannerfelt Gold Medal from the International Cartographic Association
- 2022 UCGIS Research Award from University Consortium for Geographic Information Science
- 2022 CaGIS Distinguished Career Award from the Cartography and Geographic Information Society