Big data: cartography the pulsations of a territory


2019 Fellow Award of the Regional Science Association International (RSAI), Isabelle Thomas reflects on her unconventional journey.

What fascinates me? Using geo-localised data to understand the space in which we live. I like to observe the regularities and especially the spatial irregularities and explain them – where and why there? – and to understand and optimise the spatial organisation of human activities. Space and its structuring fascinate me both in town and in the countryside, but also in the urban peripheries. The issues are different but equally important. Finding tools to measure and optimise them motivates me.’ Associated with the Center for Operations Research and Econometrics (CORE) of the Louvain Institute of Data Analysis and Modeling in economics and statistics (LIDAM), Prof. Thomas, 2019 Fellow Award of the Regional Science Association International (RSAI), is grateful for the recognition.

For this geographer curious about territorial complexity, big data produced by all the sensors and apps that surround us are a new opportunity to measure the complexity of the geographical reality. ‘I immerse myself in these new data with enthusiasm but also with caution: they certainly enrich our knowledge and observations on aspects that we didn’t observe at all before ... Today, however, we can easily divert them from their initial goal and map the pulse of a territory, minute by minute, similar to measuring interactions between people (via tweets or telephone communications for example). This provides a better understanding that can lead to a more adequate spatial planning policy. But it also presupposes a theoretical grid (models and theories) because without this grid we’ll simply show that people sleep at night and move during the day or that trucks are on the road.

An atypical career

She had wanted to be a teacher of Germanic languages but changed her mind at the last minute. After studying geography, she began a UCLouvain PhD funded by the FNRS; her thesis focused on identifying optimal locations for post offices by using operational research models. Next, she undertook an FNRS postdoc, then completed five-year stint on the Brussels Gendarmerie General Staff – indeed, for lack of an academic position, she didn’t hesitate to become a civilian scientific collaborator in an environment that at the time was still completely military and male. ‘I had the opportunity to analyse the locations of road accidents in Belgium,’ she explains, ‘to better understand their concentrations and put into practice what I’d studied in my course, like where to put police checkpoints to reduce the number of accidents. I also learned to anticipate the demands of decision-makers and translate scientific results into operational conclusions. Today these things are essential to designing scientific projects but also to my educational approach. Subsequently, I was very lucky to obtain a permanent FRS-FNRS position at UCLouvain.’

An obviously driven individual, she completed what at the time was called a thèse d’agrégation – a second thesis based on ten scientific articles. Its subject was the link between the locations of human activities and transport networks. 

She continues, ‘Regional science symposia allow me to meet economists and planners, theorists and people in the field. Geography is by definition a science at the crossroads of disciplines, between “human sciences” and “hard sciences”. I was very fortunate to benefit from a wide variety of research projects that allowed me to focus on a broad range of societal issues in urban, rural, or peri-urban areas. For example, the advantages and risks of commuting by bicycle, prices and housing conditions in Belgium, telephone exchanges, et cetera. I was especially lucky to interact with researchers open to interdisciplinary dialogue: I was able to navigate the fringe of other areas via research contracts and conferences, leading me to publish with economists, engineers, physicists, doctors. What an opportunity! Even if it's not easy because each discipline has its codes, jargon, way of thinking, writing and publishing. The point is to have a unifying subject and colleagues driven by the same desire to understand each other and go further together.

Chosen by her peers

Since 1954, the Regional Science Association International (RSAI) has linked national and supranational regional science associations. Today it brings together more than 4,500 researchers and decision-makers interested in the regional impacts of processes that are often broader (national or global) and economic, environmental or social in nature. An initiative of several renowned scientific journals, RSAI organises many seminars and conferences. Each year, it honours one or more researchers who have distinguished themselves in their careers by a strong scientific commitment to regional sciences. Since 2002, 88 researchers have been recognised. Prof. Thomas is the third French-speaking woman and the eighth woman overall to receive a Fellow Award.

This isn’t a prize you apply for’, she says. ‘You’re chosen by your peers.’ Her scientific output, investment in ERSA (RSAI’s European branch), curiosity and atypical career path undoubtedly influenced RSAI’s decision.

For Prof. Thomas, Belgium is and will remain an ideal study setting for which big data reveal, if not confirm, explicit and implicit borders that reiterate the country’s complexity. Even if big data is in vogue, she insists that we can’t let the data speak for themselves. ‘I just came from a conference where I presented a paper entitled “Data bulimia, theory anorexia in quantitative geography?”. The provocative title was an attempt to emphasise that without mastering data and theories we end up with spatial untruths.

The recognition of her scientific excellence comes at time when societal changes and environmental challenges are proving that her field of research has never been more important.

Marie Dumas

About ERSA
THOMAS I., ADAM A., VERHETSEL A. (2017) Migration and commuting interaction fields: A new geography with a community detection algorithm? e-Belgeo, 2017: 4
ADAM A., DELVENNE JC, THOMAS I. (2017), Cartographies des champs d’interaction dans et autour de Bruxelles :  migrations, navettes et téléphonie mobile.  Brussels Studies, n° 118

Isabelle Thomas  


Published on October 24, 2019