Most passenger seat navigators would agree that interpreting the winding streets of a map is hard enough without having to fold the paper back into its original position at the end of the trip. Dr. Michael Goodchild, a professor of geography at UCSB, is helping to make the folding of maps a frustration of the past.

Goodchild has worked on geographical information systems (GIS) since 1970. The field of GIS facilitates the move of map technology from paper to computers, which can now be used to store and analyze information traditionally found on maps. Goodchild focuses on doing research for computer programs that graphically display the topography and cities of the world in great detail.

“I do the research that makes these [computer programs] possible. One of my particular interests is in accuracy. I’m very interested in how to deal with the fact that these things aren’t perfectly accurate,” Goodchild said. “[GIS] is the real world and it’s computers. It’s about exploring the world and finding out about different parts of the world but doing it through a computer. I can get involved in all the technical details and how the technology works.”

On Sept. 3, Goodchild received the gold Founder’s Medal from the Royal Geographic Society for lifetime academic achievement in his field. Founded in 1832, the Royal Geographic Society is the oldest geographical society in the United Kingdom. Keith Clarke, chair of the Geography Dept., said it is one of the most distinguished geographic awards and comparable to the Nobel Prize in other disciplines.

“Most of the other people to win this award, especially the older ones going back 100 years, were explorers,” Clarke said. “Mike is a fanatical hiker and caver, so I think he’s a particularly good choice, because he still has this link to the old tradition of exploration.”

Notable past honorees of the society include John Charles Fremont, who received the award in 1850 for his exploration of the American West – including California – and Reinhold Messner, who received the Patron’s Medal in 2001 for being the first to climb to the top of Mount Everest without oxygen. During the past two decades, the society has begun to give awards based on academic achievement in the field as well as exploration.

“The first thing I did [when I found out] was go to the website [at], and I looked at who had won it before. It’s really daunting because it’s a list of who has won it in the last 175 years, and it’s phenomenal. It’s half of the world’s great explorers. So, I’m thinking, ‘What have I explored?'” Goodchild said.

In addition to being a geographic researcher and professor, Goodchild exercises his interest in exploration and mapping by exploring caves and hiking in his free time. In addition to discovering several new cave passages in the Canadian Rockies and Kentucky, he has also lived in a cave for a week as part of a TV special.

“It was fun because we were filming far back in the cave so we couldn’t go in and out. Days get longer. We’d be living 25 to 26-hour days and feeling really slow and sleepy. The first thing I noticed [when leaving the cave] was the difference of color. The caves are brown, so outside everything looks really green and blue. It’s dazzling after my eyes had adjusted to lower levels of light,” Goodchild said.