Teaching about Watersheds and River Systems with ArcGIS Online

Teaching about watersheds and river systems has long been a major theme of physical geography, earth science, and environmental science instruction.  ArcGIS Online now provides capabilities for educators and students to create watersheds, trace downstream, and create viewsheds, all of which can serve as an effective means to foster understanding of watersheds and river systems, how they are connected geographically and temporally, and why they are important.

Boulder, Colorado, like many mountain-front communities, is prone to periodic devastating floods.  To supplement a lesson that I wrote about floods in Boulder, I used the watershed tool in ArcGIS Online to create the watershed that is drained in Boulder Creek through the mouth of Boulder Canyon.  The area is 130.12 square miles, giving a clear reason why any major rapid snowmelt or any major rain event anywhere in that large area creates flood hazards for the city of Boulder.

Watershed upstream from Boulder Colorado

Watershed upstream from Boulder Colorado.

Where does that water flow once it reaches Boulder?  To find out, I used the new Trace Downstream tool with a 15 mile limit.  The result makes it clear that the areas east and northeast of the city also bear the effects of potential floodwaters.

Trace 15 miles downstream from the mouth of Boulder Canyon, Colorado

Trace 15 miles downstream from the mouth of Boulder Canyon, Colorado.

Using the same tool, I ran another Trace Downstream analysis and extended the distance to 3,000 miles.  The result, shown below, fits in well with the lesson but also in any lesson that asks students, “where does a cup of water flowing from my location flow through before it reaches the ocean?”

Trace from Boulder Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico

Trace from Boulder Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico.

Finally, to get a sense for how the terrain in Boulder is mountainous to the west of the mouth of the canyon but flattens to the Great Plains to the east, I used the new Create Viewsheds tool from a point on top of Green Mountain, above the famous Boulder Flatiron rock formations.  The viewshed, as the name implies, indicates the land viewable from a specific point, and in my case, I specified nine miles for the extent. The result of viewshed analysis can foster understanding of the terrain and how the terrain impacts streamflow and flooding.

9 mile Viewshed from Green Mountain

Nine-mile Viewshed from Green Mountain.

These activities require an ArcGIS Online organizational subscription and to generate the analysis layers such as the ones I did above, you need to have publishing rights in that organization.  With your organizational subscription, examine the map I created above, and try these tools yourself for your own area!

You’ll be amazed at how easy it is, and yet how powerful, because these tools can foster understanding of how streams, watersheds, and terrain are connected spatially and temporally.

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Fun with GIS 169: A New Dimension

Maps in ArcGIS Online just took on a whole new dimension. “Web scenes” can display in 3D in certain desktop browsers. This bit of map magic relies on WebGL, so users of recent versions of Firefox, Chrome, and Safari will be happy; see ArcGIS Online Help for more info, as even recent browsers may need a configuration tweak.

World population atop the oceans basemap, in an ArcGIS Online web scene.

Building, saving, and sharing maps in a web browser has been a tremendous boon for education, but reactions when I showed an equal area world map told how dramatic the distortion is in Web Mercator displays to which we have grown somewhat accustomed. The arrival of good global displays and high speed navigation is breathtaking. The ability to add in many of the same layers we had used in 2D means a much more realistic vision of small-scale (large area) content.

Oblique view of the Grand Canyon, looking WNW. Note compass in lower left, horizon in back.

There is a tremendous amount of new capacity in the December 2014 ArcGIS Online release. But, for me, nothing will match the educational impact of being able to view the globe in a browser, and create/ save/ share presentations as easily as in 2D. Many of us will be madly revising lessons for months to take advantage of this new capacity. It’s a whole new world!

Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Teaching GIS in a Computer Science Course, Part 2

In a recent post, I introduced how GIS can be successfully integrated into a computer science course.  While my syllabus was only for an extended single class period, these ideas can be expanded into several weeks of content and can also be used to build a GIS-focused computer science course.  After I used the ArcGIS presentation capabilities to introduce GIS, spatial analysis, and discussed programming languages and workforce skills with the students, we began exploring the main Esri ArcGIS for Developers site.  We then investigated the developers’ site ArcGIS API for JavaScript.  This is a wonderful site for instructional use–as a source of specific tasks to be assigned, for whole-class work and instruction, and for small groups to work on.  One of my favorite things about the site is the “explore in the sandbox” capability.  As the name implies, this allows for students (or anyone) to adjust the code and see how that code affects the map.  Not only does this mean instant gratification for the students coding in class, but because the code is displayed side-by-side with the map, they can quickly see how the code works and how web mapping is driven by code.  The image below, for example, shows the map after the basemap was changed to “OSM” (OpenStreetMap) and the zoom level was changed to 14.  While we investigated the Python for ArcGIS Community resources, we discussed recent GIS Python books here and here as well, and talked about the importance of connecting with the coding community, locally and globally. I encouraged them to attend one of the local Developers’ MeetUps hosted by Esri.

We also explored the the ArcGIS API for JavaScript samples page and the JavaScript Quickstart on GitHub.  Again, we adjusted code to accomplish things such as adding graphics to maps, shown here.  We then explored the ArcGIS Runtime SDK (Software Development Kit) for Java.  A logical next step would be to lead students into the Web AppBuilder for ArcGIS.   This new resource provides a foundation for building intuitive, focused web applications in ArcGIS that run anywhere, on any device, without writing a single line of code.   However, by using the site and the sample code resources above, students learn about coding and are on their way of writing their own.  And since so many of these apps are meant to be run on mobile devices, students are drawn to it in part because they are required to make heavy use of their smartphones in class!

I finished by having a discussion with the students on my colleague Andy Gup’s relevant and timely 10 tips for new web developers, and my GIS reflections on the 10 skills the future workforce will need.

I challenge all of you in the GIS community to look for opportunities to build bridges with the computer science community.  The opportunities for programming within the field of GIS are rapidly expanding and through them, students could make a far-reaching contribution not just to the field of GIS, but to society as a whole.

ArcGIS API for JavaScript Sandbox

ArcGIS API for JavaScript Sandbox.

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Teaching GIS in a Computer Science Course, Part 1

I was recently asked to teach a class about GIS as part of a computer science course.   I would like to share this with the community, and open up the discussion to the broader issue of the linkages between GIS and computer science.

I challenge all of you in the GIS community to look for opportunities to build bridges with the computer science community.  As part of your outreach, you could demonstrate that all GIS software has been developed through coding and testing, show through the Esri developer sites how code makes web GIS work, show real job ads indicating specific programming skills required, and offer resources for further exploration.

I began the class by stating that the opportunities for programming within the field of GIS have never been greater than today, because the need has never been more acute.  I followed this by mentioning everyday problems that are solved because someone in GIS has learned to effectively code to solve that problem.   Next, I addressed the following elements:

  • What are geotechnologies?  GIS, web mapping, GPS, and remote sensing.
  • Why are geotechnologies important to society?
  • Mapping and spatial analysis in GIS.
  • Programming languages important in GIS.
  • Workforce skills you should consider developing to be successful in GIS and computer science.

To address these elements, I used several ArcGIS Online presentations that I have shared in this gallery as an introduction for what GIS  is, why it matters, and its connections to computer science.  I love using the presentation mode in ArcGIS Online because I am using GIS to teach about GIS. Furthermore, I requested to be in a computer lab so we could do hands-on work mapping some data because I feel it is critical to be active learners in GIS.  The mapping included activities such as bail bonds and car washes in Oklahoma City, to foster discussion about spatial patterns, but also on databases and geocoding.  I believe that the ability to construct and use a simple database is essential.  We then used proximity and hotspot and other analysis tools on these geocoded businesses.  Along the way, we discussed such themes as being critical of data, including mapped data, managing error and uncertainty, being careful about where files are stored, what is online versus on the local computer, being careful about how you construct your database.

We then discussed the languages and platforms most often used in Esri mapping technology.   When it comes to anyone learning programming, especially for the web and GIS, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript are the three essentials.  I showed the most common developer APIs (Application Programming Interface) and SDKs (Software Development Kit), such as JavaScript, and for both Android and iOS.  We discussed what GitHub is and why we use it in GIS, the Git repository web-based hosting service that offers distributed version control and source code management functionality for software development, particularly useful for a rapidly-evolving technology such as GIS.  We discussed our most common JavaScript Github repositories, such as Esri Leaflet, used to build web mapping applications, supporting HTML5 and CSS3, and Bootstrap-map-js, a lightweight JS/CSS extension for building responsive mapping apps with ArcGIS and Bootstrap 3, and the Terraformer conversion library, a geometric toolkit for dealing with geometry, geography, formats, and building geodatabases.

In my next essay in this blog, I will discuss the activities I created, with the advice of our Esri development team, for the second part of this class.

ArcGIS for Developers site

ArcGIS for Developers site.

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Where does Thanksgiving Dinner come from?

Our colleague Linda Zellmer, government and data services librarian at Western Illinois University Libraries, has once again created a series of maps indicating where foods traditionally eaten on Thanksgiving Day in the USA are grown, raised, and produced.  The maps and this poster can be used at any time during the academic year and from primary school to university level to examine the geography behind a familiar phenomenon.

This year she also created a series of ArcGIS Online maps that can be used to explore the spatial relationships and data interactively.  The foods that can be examined include turkey, cranberries, squash, green beans, and many more.  Using ArcGIS Online’s visualization, classification, filtering, and analysis functions, students can investigate states meeting specific criteria, such as those that grow many green beans but not so many carrots.  They can think about the forces in physical and cultural geography that might affect the raising and processing of these products.

To dig deeper into what GIS is and how it can be used, consider having your students read this newspaper article about the project as well.

On a related note, see the Esri story map featuring where 4 specific Thanksgiving foods are grown as a set of dot density maps.

Thanksgiving Day foods ArcGIS Online maps

Thanksgiving Day foods ArcGIS Online maps. Why does Wisconsin do well at growing so many green beans?

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Share Your View!

Esri has launched a “Share Your View!” crowd-sourcing initiative.  You are invited to participate!  The theme, “Share Your View!”, focuses on a seemingly local experience – the view from your window (or door).  However, by placing these locations on the map, the application puts things in a broader perspective — presenting a tapestry of views from all over the world.  Visit the live web map to submit your view and see entries that others have submitted.

What can you do with “Share Your View”?   You can use it as a starting point for discussing geotechnologies, crowdsourcing, citizen science, story mapping, and location privacy.  By examining the submitted photographs, you can compare vegetation, building types, land use, language, weather, climate, presence or absence of water, population density, and other aspects of the physical and cultural geography from a wide variety of locations around the world that your students observe in this map and photographs.

In what other ways can you use this resource for teaching and learning?

Share Your View crowdsourcing app and map

Share Your View crowdsourcing app and map.  This the lovely view of the Colorado Rocky Mountains from my office at Esri Denver.

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GIS and Educational REsearch: The Goldilocks Zone of School District Size

Does the size of a school district matter? Specifically, does the size of the school district (as measured by the Average Daily Attendance – ADA) affect school academic performance? In California, elementary serving school districts range from an ADA of just over 5 (Panoche Elementary School District – located in San Benito County about 13 miles south of Hollister) to well over half a million (Los Angeles Unified School District).

Because municipalities arguably contribute resources to educational achievement, accounting for the location of schools in municipalities is essential in assessing school performance. However, school district and municipal boundaries do not often coincide in California, resulting in a “crazy quilt” of overlapping jurisdiction lines. ArcGIS was crucial in constructing the dataset used in this study because schools needed to be geocoded and then located both within their school district and within their municipality.

Regression analysis – a statistical technique that allows one to test various hypothesized causal relationships – was used to determine the strength and significance of the ADA of the school district in explaining the API of the school. The analysis controlled for a large number of other variables related to school outcomes, like parents’ educational attainment, demographic variables, district spending per ADA, population density, enrollment growth in the school, and enrollment growth in the district. The study also accounted for whether the school was a charter school. As suggested by previous literature, many of these variables accounted for a significant part of school API.

Looking at the effect that ADA has on API, however, provided some new insight. To capture potential scale effects, two terms associated with ADA were used in the regression analysis – ADA and ADA squared; the effect of ADA was modeled as if it were a quadratic equation – a form that allows the effect of the impact to change direction – for example, to first rise and then fall. The estimated coefficients of the quadratic equation give an “ADA Impact Factor” as represented in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1 Estimated ADA Impact Factor

The estimated ADA Impact Factor suggests that an ADA of approximately 71,200 is the optimal school district size. The regression allows one to estimate the “API bump” that a school district imparts to its schools by virtue of being closer to the right size. One hundred of the eight hundred elementary serving districts had an ADA Impact Factor greater than or equal to 15.

The “Goldilocks Zone” of school district size is not just a statistical curiosity. It correlates with significant fiscal and governance features. School districts with a high ADA Impact Factor are predominantly unified school districts. School districts with a low ADA Impact Factor are predominantly elementary school districts. The average spending per ADA of high ADA Impact Factor districts was more than 6% lower than the average spending per ADA of low ADA Impact Factor districts. This suggests that the unified school district may have advantages in both fiscal terms and in terms of school quality. Indeed, it suggests that there are economies of scope – efficiencies associated with producing many kinds of education as unified school districts do.

Fig. 2 is a choropleth map of elementary serving school districts by their API Impact Factor

- J. M. Pogodzinski, Guest Contributor
Department of Economics
San Jose State University

1. Elementary serving districts are either elementary school districts or unified school districts.
2. First, some adjustments were made to the data. I excluded the Los Angeles Unified School District from the statewide sample because LA was an extreme outlier in ADA, and its inclusion materially affected the results. Second, I excluded a few very small districts because their expenditures per ADA were more than three standard deviations above the mean. These appear to be very small districts that have high fixed costs, so their spending patterns are abnormal.

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A GPS Track on a Running Track: Reflections on GPS Accuracy

Recently, while at the Applied Geography Conference in Atlanta, I decided to test the spatial accuracy of my smartphone’s GPS in a challenging environment–a rooftop running track.  Although on a roof, the track was surrounded by buildings far taller, and in downtown Atlanta, to boot, a location with many other buildings impeding signals from GPS, wi-fi hotspots, and cell phone towers.  Another challenge was that each lap on the track was only 0.10 miles, and therefore, I would not travel very far across the Earth’s surface.

After an hour of walking, and collecting the track on my smartphone with a fitness app (Runkeeper), I uploaded my track as a GPX file and created a web map of it in ArcGIS Online.  As I expected, the track’s position was compromised by the tall buildings–I only had a view of about half the sky during my time on the roof.  As you can measure for yourself on the map linked above, the track lines formed a band about 15 meters wide, but interestingly, were more spatially precise along the eastern side of the track, where the signal was better, as you can see in my video that I recorded at the same time.

Also, as I have encountered numerous times in the past, a line about 100 meters long stretches to the north.  Rest assured that I did not leap off  the building, but rather, the first point that the GPS app laid down as I opened the doors to walk outside was about a block away.  Then, as I remained outside, the points became more accurate.  When you collect data with students, the more time you have on the point you are collecting, typically the more accurate that point is spatially.

ArcGIS Online map of my rooftop walk

ArcGIS Online map of my rooftop walk.

Another interesting aspect of this study is that if the basemap is changed to satellite imagery, it appears that the track overlaps the tall building to the west.  Try it!  However, a closer investigation reveals that this is a result of the orthocorrection that was done to the imagery; the buildings do not appear from “straight overhead”, but rather, “fall away” to the east.  Turn this into another teachable moment:  Images, like maps, are not perfect. However, both are very useful and we can learn to manage error and imperfection through critical thinking and through the use of geotechnologies.

To dig deeper into issues of GPS track accuracy, see my related post on errors and teachable moments in collecting data, and on comparing the accuracy of GPS receivers and smartphones and mapping field collected data in ArcGIS Online here and here.

Despite these challenges, overall, I was quite pleased with my track’s spatial accuracy, even more so considering that I had the phone in my pocket most of the time I was walking.

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Fun with GIS 168: The Only Constant

In November 1989, the Berlin Wall was coming down. The world was changing, dramatically, and quickly. A decade into teaching high school social studies, I told my students “Remember this. You will be able to tell your kids ‘I remember when…’ And get used to change. Be ready to adapt.” Later, a colleague reported hearing at a teacher conference “I wish things hadn’t changed. I had all my lectures in place. Now I have to have all new material, and nobody has written the new books yet.”

Twenty-five years later, the pace of change has only quickened, whether in politics, society, or technology. An employment analyst recently noted (I’m paraphrasing here) “What young people today need is not so much a specific bank of skills. They need the ability, and the drive, to learn new things constantly. New information, skills, and technologies. Constantly.”

This is true even with GIS. New tools, capacities, and data appear with dizzying speed. Each new technology opens new doors. GIS has leapt from mainframe to workstation to laptop, tablet, and smartphone. The ecosystem of tools is vastly more powerful now together than the sum of its isolated parts. The user who can integrate knowledge and cross-fertilize capacities, the better to address questions, is leaps ahead.

I still hear educators “missing the days, even just a few years ago, when things were simpler, and there weren’t so many tools and options. It’s hard now to know what to teach.” I disagree. One teaches students — and oneself — about the world, problem-solving, learning. Whether about the Berlin Wall, privacy, big data, or buttons on a smartphone app, the mission is “learning.” Learning to learn, learning to adapt, to the constantly changing world.

Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Primary School Spatial Thinking and GIS Activities

We receive many inquiries about how GIS and spatial thinking can be used with primary (elementary) aged students.  In honor of GIS Day and Geography Awareness Week being upon us, I thought it would be the perfect time to highlight a few ideas and resources that you could use to develop and apply spatial thinking skills.

We have always advocated (1) that the most appropriate tool be used for the objective at hand; and (2) spatial thinking skills are developed through a variety of means, methods, settings, and media.  These include the appropriate use of ArcGIS Online, for example, to examine world biomes, the locations and growth of cities, land use and demography of their local community, population change by country, the frequency and distribution of earthquakes and other natural hazards, the shape and size of watersheds, and so on.  A selective use of the ArcGIS Online presentation mode, for example, to foster students as “map detectives” can be used effectively, as I have done with this “Name That Place” presentation and with another entitled “Weird Earth.”

However, fostering spatial thinking at young ages in particular needs to use all five senses, and needs to include outdoor experiences.  Using globes, mapping trees on campus, watching videos about scale coupled with measuring objects around school and the perimeter of the school building are just a few activities that can be effectively used.  I am a firm believer in fostering spatial thinking using tactile-based activities such as this lesson I developed that asks students to create a thematic map on a translucent sheet of paper based on ArcGIS Online imagery, described here and in video form here.   Another tried-and-true lesson is to ask students to draw a map of their classroom, and, depending on the students’ age, incorporating map scale.  Another simple but powerful activity I have used during hundreds of school visits over the past 20 years is to ask the students to draw an outline of the school building, as it would look from above, orienting it according to cardinal directions, and labeling the different sections of the building and school grounds.  Then, I ask students to check their maps against the imagery in ArcGIS Online and discuss differences and similarities and the reasons for them.

Creating a thematic map from a satellite image

Creating a thematic map from a satellite image.

Our colleagues in education and industry continue to create a rich body of resources.  For example, Barbaree Duke created a series of language-arts based activities, some of which can be used in primary school.  The 20 Minute GIS for Young Explorers curriculum from GISetc spans multiple disciplines and though rich in content, each can truly be taught in 20 minutes.

Finally, exploring history, geography, art, science, mathematics, and other disciplines can be easily done through studying the gallery of storymaps or … having the students make their own storymap.  Other ideas exist on the GIS Day website.  I’ve run out of space.  What are your ideas for fostering spatial thinking at young ages?

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