Regents' Professor views economics through geography lens

Luc Anselin

Editor's Note: This professor profile is part of a series that looks at the achievements of seven outstanding faculty members who were named ASU Regents' Professors in 2011.

Students at the GeoDa Center for Geospatial Analysis and Computation joke that Luc Anselin thinks in matrix algebra and then translates equations into English.

“Luc’s love for the mathematical and statistical foundations of spatial econometrics is contagious,” said Julia Koschinsky, the research director at the GeoDa center.

It is one of Anselin’s gifts to intuitively communicate mathematics and statistics through courses, publications and software products; students and stakeholders who thought they had math phobias suddenly find spatial analysis accessible and captivating. In one of Anselin’s classes on spatial analysis that covered matrix algebra, a student who was watching an unrelated YouTube video during class argued that he couldn’t see the relevance of matrix algebra for anything practical. Anselin convinced the student otherwise by explaining matrix multiplication and using the example of the mathematical tables of pixels that make up video images.

When Anselin was a graduate student in the late 1970s, spatial econometrics and analysis were at the margins of the discipline of economics. There was a lot of skepticism regarding the argument that spatial effects needed to be modeled with explicitly spatial methods. And there was a lot of pressure to instead analyze spatial data with existing econometric methods. Because spatial econometrics had not yet reached mainstream economics and econometrics, hardly any software existed to apply these methods.

Between the methodological marginalization of spatial econometrics and the absence of software to apply spatial methods, it took pioneers to move both the methods and software from the margins to the mainstream of economics and econometrics. Anselin is one of those pioneers who helped make this transition happen over the past 30 years.

Today, spatial analysis and spatial econometrics are among the hottest fields of interdisciplinary study at the intersection of geography, statistics and economics. Anselin’s more than 150 articles, several books and edited volumes have contributed to bringing spatial econometrics into the mainstream. His 1988 book “Spatial Econometrics, Methods and Models” has become a classic in the field.

Arizona State University’s recognition of Anselin as a Regents’ Professor tops a long list of prestigious awards, including memberships in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and awards such as the William Alonso Memorial Prize, Walter Isard Award, and election to the Regional Science Association International. Anselin arrived at ASU in 2007, as director of the School of Geographical Sciences, and led the initiative in 2009 that integrated ASU’s planning and geography programs to create the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

“With his experience in both fields – geographical sciences and urban planning – Anselin was just the right person to develop innovative synergies between the two degree programs and to foster collaborative research initiatives,” said David Pijawka, an urban planning professor and associate director of the school.

In 2010 Anselin was appointed as ASU’s first Walter Isard Chair. Walter Isard was Anselin’s mentor in his master’s and doctoral studies at Cornell University.

“As a scholar, Isard was a leader and innovator and as such this named chair in his honor is most appropriate for Anselin, who is a leader at ASU," said Elizabeth D. Capaldi, provost and executive vice president of ASU.  
"Anselin reflects the same commitment to advance new ideas across intellectual boundaries and encourage new perspectives on problems of our urban and rural environments.”

Anselin also founded and directs ASU’s GeoDa Center. The interdisciplinary focus at the center encompasses computer science, GIS, spatial statistics and software engineering, and gives students valuable skills in programming languages, such as Python. More than 66,000 analysts across the globe have downloaded OpenGeoDa – the center’s flagship software product – and the numbers keep growing. Analysts from disciplines as diverse as archaeology, criminology, epidemiology, economics, zoology and many other fields are using the software to solve a myriad of research problems.

“This is one of the things that makes the work with Luc and colleagues inspiring,” Koschinsky said. “Students, post-doctoral scholars and faculty from all over the U.S. and world can indulge their intellectual passions within the university and then translate them into real-world impacts.”

Barbara Trapido-Lurie
School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning