Tribute to Professor Peter Francis Fisher

Posted by pt91 at Jun 09, 2014 09:40 AM |

It is with great sadness and regret that we announce the death of Professor Peter Fisher who held a personal chair in the Department of Geography, University of Leicester.

Pete’s career was truly exceptional for many reasons not least because he was one of the people at the helm of what became known as Geographical Information Science (GIS) as it emerged out of a diverse range of disciplines such as computational and automated cartography in the early 1990s. Pete was the editor of the disciplinary journal, the International Journal of Geographical Information Systems and then Science from 1994 to 2007 (volumes 8 to 21) as GIS established itself within the wider arena of information sciences.

For geographers maps have always held a certain fascination and to many of us they have an almost compelling, obsessive quality. For Pete this was never more true. The ubiquity of digital maps today – from Google Maps on the web, mashed up maps of GPS-tagged microblogs to smartphone apps – was consistently both a source of comfort and unease to Pete. Comfort because he loved all maps, paper maps, digital maps, globes, 3D relief maps, historical maps, naïve maps, pocket maps, and because their existence and wider use was a perverse source of reassurance. Unease, because he simply could not tolerate bad maps: maps of any kind that ignored basic cartographic principles, that were representationally incorrect, that sought to highlight or obfuscate particular features, that used inappropriate colour schemes… that were simply wrong!

Pete’s career path to Professor of Geographic Information Science was not untypical for someone of his generation who found themselves working in GIS. He read Environmental Sciences at the University of Lancaster, graduating in 1977, he then took an MSc in Pedology and Soil Survey at the University of Reading and completed his PhD on ‘A study of the Plateau Gravels of the western part of the London Basin’ at Kingston Polytechnic in 1982. After some temporary lecturing and research positions, he took up a lectureship in the Geography Department at Kingston Polytechnic (now Kingston University) in 1983. Pete moved to Kent State University in the USA in 1987 rising to Associate Professor before moving to the University of Leicester in 1991, initially as a Lecturer. Pete climbed steadily up the promotions ladder and was awarded a personal chair in Geographical Information in 1998. In 2005 he moved to City University as a Research Professor before returning to Leicester in 2008.

Pete Fisher’s research is best known for his extensive work on uncertainty, especially fuzzy sets. This arose from his initial work in the late 1980s on expert systems and artificial intelligence that sought to automate human processes in the identification and mapping of landscape features. What Pete realised was that strict rules, as might be applied in a computer system to automate mapping, do not really work when seeking to replicate the many nuanced parallel judgements a human might make when mapping the same features. He became interested in the logic of fuzzy sets as a means for capturing and describing the fact that landscape features could be classified in different ways depending on a range of other factors. Pete’s realisation of the extent to which fuzzy sets (what have become known as type-1 fuzzy sets) could be applied to describe the uncertainty of many kinds of geographical problems is shown in the titles of his publications in 1991: The evaluation of fuzzy membership of land cover classes in the sub‑urban zone[1], An investigation of the meaning of near and close on a university campus[2] and First experiments in viewshed uncertainty: the accuracy of the viewshed area[3]. His research continued to extend the application of fuzzy logic to various geographic objects and phenomena: fuzzy objects, fuzzy mountains (and peaks, pits and troughs), fuzzy wildness, fuzzy landforms and his most recent work was developing fuzzy concepts of place and fuzzy geodemographics. However, Pete was engaged academically in many areas of geographical science (a fuzzy joke could be that he had membership, m -> [0,1], to more than one set of research topics). He significantly extended current thinking around the nature of uncertainty associated with geographic phenomena, developing a typology of uncertainty that included vagueness, ambiguity and discord and extending fuzzy sets to consider type-2 fuzzy sets, second order vagueness and type-n fuzzy sets. As well as developing research in spatial data quality, virtual reality and the visualisation of geographic information, Pete would also write in other topic areas that were of interest or sometimes concern to him, including the impacts of CCTV and Geo-slavery, a critique of dangers of the ubiquity of GPS / locational information on human rights.

Pete was much more than your average academic. He and his wife Jill had an extended professional family as over the years what was sometimes referred to as Fisher Towers was home to many visiting academics, young and not so young researchers, PhD students and their partners. Pete became a de facto 2nd father and mentor to many a young researcher serving both as a source of inspiration and of aspiration, we all wanted to be as consummate an academic as Pete was. Pete was also an inspirational teacher who really valued teaching and students. He taught extensively at all levels, ranging from the MSc in GIS to undergraduates and in recent years he requested that he teach the large first year classes introducing students to GIS.

Pete was a very caring and giving colleague to work with – he nurtured, shared and supported – and he was genuinely concerned about doing the right thing in his teaching and his research. He would, as appropriate, hold anyone to account. In many ways this incorruptible morality reflected his Quakerism, it was not unknown to for Pete to encourage consensus based decision making. He also had a long lasting commitment to the peace and green movements. He was fun, rude, honest and loving – a great person to have as a mentor, a colleague and a friend. For those that had the pleasure to work with Pete life was never the same afterwards, and it will not be the same now he has gone. We miss him.

Pete is survived by his wife Jill and their three children, Beth, Kate and Ian.

[1] P.F.Fisher and S.Pathirana, 1991. The evaluation of fuzzy membership of land cover classes in the sub‑urban zone.   Remote Sensing of Environment 34, 121-132.

[2] P.F.Fisher and T.Orf, 1991. An investigation of the meaning of near and close on a university campus.  Computers, Environment and Urban Systems 15, 23-35.

[3] P.F.Fisher, 1991.  First experiments in viewshed uncertainty: the accuracy of the viewshed area.   Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing, 57 (10), 1321-1327.

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