About Us


CIESIN’s former director Dr. Robert Chen describes the POPGRID Data Collaborative

The Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) conducts cutting-edge geospatially enabled research and develops interdisciplinary data and systems to advance understanding of human-environment interactions and support public policy and private decision making. We produce, manage and disseminate data, and develop mapping tools and services that combine and visualize data in new ways. CIESIN’s multidisciplinary staff includes PhD social scientists (geography, public health, demography and political science) and information scientists; master’s level social and environmental scientists; experts in GIS, data management and data policy; systems engineers; and applications developers.


CIESIN was founded in 1989 as a non-profit consortium of universities and research institutions that included the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU), the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan (ERIM), the University of Maryland, and Brooklyn Polytechnic. CIESIN’s early efforts to make environmental and socioeconomic data more accessible for decision making and the public took advantage of the rapid development of the Internet, providing some of the first Web-based mapping tools and queryable relational databases as well as unique data resources such as Gridded Population of the World (GPW) and the China Dimensions Data Collection. In 1995, CIESIN received the Computerworld Smithsonian Award in the category of Environment, Energy, and Agriculture for its data networking and cataloging efforts.

In 1998, after a competitive search for a new home, CIESIN joined Columbia Univesity’s newly established Earth Institute.  As part of the Earth Institute, CIESIN successfully competed to further develop and maintain the NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC), which CIESIN has now operated for more than 25 years. CIESIN was able to develop many new initiatives and projects, often in collaboration with other Columbia faculty and staff, building on its unique capabilities in interdisciplinary research and practice, geospatial data and technologies, and data science and stewardship. CIESIN continues to implement innovative approaches to data creation, access, visualization, and analysis across distributed data systems and diverse application areas. Many CIESIN staff members have adjunct faculty appointments in different Columbia schools, giving courses on a range of interdisciplinary topics and data science methods.

In 2021, CIESIN became part of the Columbia Climate School, bringing its unique capabilities to bear on pressing climate issues where understanding human exposure, vulnerability, and risk is increasingly vital. Although climate change is often seen as a global challenge, its impacts and drivers – together with society’s adaptation and mitigation efforts – require place- and time-specific data for decision making and action. Within the Climate School, CIESIN is working to scale up its impact through collaborative research, education, and practice, to address critical needs related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, to expand its public-private partnerships and stakeholder engagements, to improve its sustainability and stewardship, and to support and accelerate progress towards the Climate School’s goals through advanced data science approaches and evidence-based decision making.

CIESIN’s long standing mission remains as salient today as it did when CIESIN joined Columbia more than 25 years ago, namely to provide access to and enhance the use of information worldwide, advancing understanding of human interactions in the environment and serving the needs of science and public and private decision making.

CIESIN staff teaching


CIESIN is organized into four main groups, coordinated by the Office of the Director. 

CIESIN's Science Applications Division advances interdisciplinary research and applications on human-environment interactions, bringing to bear state-of-the-art scientific data and knowledge on pressing sustainable development challenges. The division leads research projects and conducts data analysis in support of CIESIN’s larger mission. In consultation with the scientific and user communities, Science Applications staff identify priority data and information product needs, including integrated data sets from Earth and social science, new interactive data products, and new projects activities. A number of staff are instructors in undergraduate and graduate programs at Columbia University on topics such as population and sustainable development, the development of composite sustainability indicators, and climate mobility. The Division includes PhD subject matter experts in demography, geography, public health and political sciences, as well as data analysts and modelers who work across the natural, social, and health sciences.

The Geospatial Applications Division serves as the focal point for the management, integration, analysis, and dissemination of geospatial data, knowledge, and technologies. The Division has a particular focus on the development and maintenance of Web-based mapping applications; building global- and regional-scale spatial data products and assisting the Science Applications Division with spatial analysis and data visualization. It provides geospatial education programs to the academic, non-profit, and governmental community, and division staff teach undergraduate and graduate students. The Division is home to experts in geographic information science as well as experienced geospatial data analysts and managers. 

CIESIN's Information Technology Division encompasses a range of advanced information technology and data science capabilities central to CIESIN's role in advancing research and supporting practical applications and operational decision support needs. The Division brings together system engineering, development, and operations staff with substantial experience in designing and implementing secure, operational information systems that transform diverse data inputs into useful integrated data, visualizations, analytic products, and open services and tools. The Division also includes internationally recognized experts in scientific data stewardship and standards. Capabilities include virtualization and cloud computing, cyber security, geospatial big data processing, and data systems and application development. 

CIESIN's Data and Information Services Group sits within the Division, leading CIESIN's scientific data stewardship efforts including metadata and archiving capabilities and user support. Functional areas of proficiency include digital archiving, metadata standards, databases, data delivery, and quality assurance and control  systems and development; and customer relations management, including usability, outreach and live user support. Digital archiving addresses the array of challenges associated with preserving data and information stored on digital media, as well as supporting cloud infrastructure environments.

CIESIN’s Finance and Administration Office provides CIESIN with the capacity to support multiple sponsored projects, including research grants, contracts, and other types of agreements from diverse public and private sector funding sources. The Office coordinates and oversees all compliance, reporting, procurement, financial management, proposal, human resource, and other administrative responsibilities, working closely with sponsors and the relevant University offices as appropriate.

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Data Science

Groundswell Part 2: Acting on Internal Climate Migration

CIESIN is internationally recognized for its geospatial data development and analysis, a core part of the growing field of data science.  In the 1990s CIESIN pioneered the development of gridded socioeconomic data products to facilitate data integration across the Earth and social sciences. Its flagship data product, the Gridded Population of the World (GPW), is now in its fourth release, with a fifth release planned for 2024. GPW serves as a foundation for modeled population surfaces such as Meta’s High Resolution Settlement Layer (HRSL) and the European Commission/JRC’s Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL). It has also served as an inspiration for a series of globally gridded products, including the Human Footprint, Global Subnational Infant Mortality Rates, Food Insecurity Hotspots, and the Global Gridded Relative Deprivation Index, as well as the U.S. Social Vulnerability Index Grids.

CIESIN has applied its population products to provide important insights on topics as diverse as managing mosquito-borne disease, predicting arsenic in groundwater, and targeting aid to disaster victims worldwide. Under CIESIN leadership, GPW served as the baseline population distribution for projections of population distribution and migration under future climate change scenarios for the widely cited Groundswell report by the World Bank. 

New technologies spur us to new achievements in data science. Most recently, machine learning approaches applied to new sources of remote sensing data are helping to transform our ability to map human settlements and urban development around the world. Improved population data products can enhance our understanding of myriad issues both chronic and acute, for example recent data sets on extreme urban heat exposure, population exposure to sea level rise, among others, informing new and enhanced applications to address and ameliorate pressing issues affecting humans and the environment.

CIESIN is a leader in citizen science and participatory GIS. Through its leadership of several CODATA Task Groups, CIESIN has conducted research on crowd-sourced data, citizen science contributions to data development for the Sustainable Development Goals, and community data generation. Now, in partnership with IDEAMaps, CIESIN is contributing to efforts to better map informal settlements in low and middle income countries. 

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Data Policy

CIESIN has led efforts in global data policy and open science through leadership in CODATA, the World Data System (WDS), and the Group on Earth Observations (GEO). Internally, CIESIN approaches have had a demonstration effect through efforts such as acknowledging data publication in academic promotion, proper citation of data, the use of digital object identifiers (DOIs), and establishing norms around open licensing (all CiESIN products are available under CC-BY licenses). In the open science domain, CIESIN has been active in NASA efforts such as the Transform to Open Science (TOPS). 

CIESIN’s Open Data Policy makes data open by default, with only narrow exemptions for genuine security, privacy, or legal concerns; its Data and Information Management Policy provides the context for developing procedures related to the management of data and information resources at CIESIN; and its  Preservation of Digital Resources Policy focuses on the long-term preservation of digital assets archived at CIESIN.

The NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC), managed by CIESIN, is a founding member of the WDS and is CoreTrustSeal certified as a trustworthy digital data repository. Through its engagement with WDS and CoreTrustSeal, and with funding from the USAID-NASA SERVIR, CIESIN has conducted training for repositories in low income countries on data center management and CoreTrustSeal certification.

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CIESIN has a number of major partnerships and programs in collaboration with national and international partners. CIESIN operates one of the Data Distribution Centers of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and remains active in diverse data organizations such as the International Science Council (ISC) World Data System (WDS) and Committee on Data (CODATA), the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP). CIESIN was a founding member of  Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), and has retained its status as a nongovernmental organization (NGO) recognized by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). CIESIN also maintains strong partnerships with diverse public and private organizations, such as GRID3 Inc., ImageCat Inc., ISciences LLC, Lehman College, Meta, StormCenter Communications Inc., Tetra Tech, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. CIESIN hosts the Population-Environment Research Network (PERN) of the IUSSP and Future Earth, and serves as the secretariat for  the POPGRID Data Collaborative, a public-private partnership of academic, public sector, and private sector organizations focused on population and settlement mapping. CIESIN led the Climate School’s Climate Mobility Network (CMN).

Capabilities Statement

Download this PDF to learn more about CIESIN’s capabilities.

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