Investigating land use change over time with the USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer

Investigating land use change over time has always been a mainstay of geography and environmental education and research.  Recently, several new ways of accessing more than 175,000 historical USGS topographic maps through ArcGIS Online make land use change even more accessible to students, educators, and researchers.  In this essay, I will focus on the USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer, and in future essays, discuss some of the other ways that you can easily access these maps in ArcGIS Online.  As a former USGS geographer, I consider the arrival of these maps in ArcGIS Online as one of the most exciting announcements of the past decade.

The USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer is a customized application that runs in a web browser that shows the dates and scales of the available USGS topographic maps for any area of the USA below a chosen area of interest.  Simply by selecting individual maps using this application, changes in coastlines, river flow resulting from the construction of reservoirs, urbanization, and much more can be examined.  In the example below, I explore one of the most rapidly urbanizing areas of the country, Plano, Texas, comparing the current topographic base map to the 1960 USGS topographic map.  As is evident, many additional maps of the area at different scales and dates are available.

USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer

USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer.

Give it a try!  How can you use this in your instruction and teaching?

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7 Ways to Map Your Field Data

Mapping field data can serve as project-based learning environments that promote environmental, social, and technological fluency, as I wrote about in Earthzine, and as others such as Richard Louv have written about much more eloquently than I.  What are seven easy ways in which you can map field-collected data?  I have recorded a three-part video series (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) wherein I describe all seven ways.

These ways include (1) via files and spreadsheets that are stored locally on your computer, (2) via files and spreadsheets that are stored online, (3) via shared web forms, (4) via smartphone apps, including the Collector for ArcGIS app, (5) via editing of ArcGIS Online map notes, (6) via uploading of your geospatial data to ArcGIS Online, and (7) via editable feature services. which enables true citizen science mapping in the sense that you can “crowdsource your fieldwork” as my colleague Charlie Fitzpatrick has written about.

As I hope these videos demonstrate, it is very easy not only to bring in your field-collected data into ArcGIS Online, but to map and analyze it there.  But I can’t give all of the details away:  Watch the videos to find out!

7 Ways to Map Your Field Data, including Crowdsourcing Your Fieldwork

Seven Ways to Map Your Field Data, including Crowdsourcing Your Fieldwork.

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Staying connected and the Esri EdUC

A reminder that Esri education hosts a GIS Higher Education Facebook Group for students and faculty at:  

We’re nearly at 3,000 members!  Discussions range from software use and coding to event details and best practices in using GIS in instruction.

For other GIS education social media options, explore:

Also note that the upcoming Esri Education GIS Conference can be followed on Twitter: or Facebook: 

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Self-Organized Sessions at Education GIS Conference

If you attended last year’s Esri Education GIS Conference, you recall that we introduced “unconference” sessions.  So many attendees approved that we’re including a track of self-organized sessions again this year. Our goal is to let participants have a say in the conference program.

The self-organized sessions will take place Tuesday afternoon, July 15, in the Marriott Hotel, Marina Salon F.  Drop by between 11:30 am – 1:00 pm to propose a discussion topic of your choice.  At 1:00 pm we’ll select topics and assign meeting spaces for the sessions.

The first self-organized sessions will run 1:30 to 2:45 pm. All discussions will take place in one big room, with each discussion having its own roundtable.  At 2:45 pm we’ll invite each discussion leader to report out to the entire group.

The second round of sessions will run 3:15 to 4:30 pm, followed again by reports. Reports could take the form of a lightning talk or a post here on the conference Facebook page

What discussion topic might you propose?

  • One of the themes of the Plenary Sessions (K-12 Education Policy, the Future of Higher Education, or Sustaining Learning Spaces);
  • Esri’s new ConnectED initiative;
  • Our new “ArcGIS Online for Higher Education Coaching Points” wiki;
  • Or any other GIS Education topic you have in mind!

Please plan to join us Tuesday afternoon!

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The Top Five Skills You Need for a Successful Career in GIS

What are the five most important skills that a successful professional in GIS should have? I have recorded a three-part video series (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) wherein I address this important issue.

I begin the video series by presenting two ways of thinking about GIS in your career:  (1) As a toolset that you use in your career as a biologist, public safety officer, marketing analyst, or in another career where GIS is listed only as a required or advised set of skills;  and (2) As a GIS manager, technician, analyst, or another career where GIS or a variant is a part of the title and primary job duties.

I see GIS as a three-legged stool, one that incorporates content knowledge, skills, and the geographic perspective.  In other words, the skills alone will not guarantee success, but are a fundamental part of it.  Equally important is the content knowledge–whether in GIScience, meteorology, energy, water resources, planning, or another field.  Finally, don’t be discouraged by my mention of the geographic perspective if you feel inadequate here.  It is one of the most interesting parts of the stool, and one that might take years to develop.  Indeed, as most things in GIS, it is a lifelong endeavor, which leads me to my #1 top skill:  I can’t give it away:  Watch the video to find out!

The Top 5 Skills you need for a successful career in GIS

The Top 5 Skills you need for a successful career in GIS.

I realize that many “Top” lists are subjective, mine included.  Yet I purposely used this format for this list precisely so that the can be debated, argued, and modified.  I invite you to do so by posting your reflections and comments.

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Analyzing population data through web map buffers

Would you like to teach about population and GIS simultaneously with an easy-to-use live web mapping tool?  This can be easily done using the Esri developer site that returns block points and summary of population within a buffer in a location chosen by you, the user of the map.  After selecting a point, the map displays centroids in each of the census blocks within a one mile buffer around that point.

How can this map tool be used in education?  First, you can use it to teach the concept of spatial proximity.  Second, you can also use it to teach census geography, including census blocks, the difference between households and housing units, and the difference between blocks versus census tracts.  Third, you can use it to teach about population density and how settlement patterns vary between urban and rural areas, and the effect of physical geography such as rivers and relief.  The map begins in Lawrence, Kansas, but you can query other areas in the USA, as long as you keep the map at a large scale.

Population Buffer Map Tool

Population Buffer Map Tool.

Give it a try!

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Investigating Demographics through Population Pyramids in Live Web Maps

For decades, examining population pyramids has been an essential part of geography.  And for good reason:  In a small amount of space, they illustrate the distribution of age groups in a country, region, census enumeration district, or other geographic area. Through studying them, one quickly gets some sense of the demographic characteristics of an area.  Population pyramids are a part of the “geoenrichment” capabilities in ArcGIS Online, so named because with a touch or two of the mouse, you have instant access to additional your demographic and lifestyle data that describe income, consumer behavior, market potential, and more.  One easy way to get a sense for the possibilities available with ArcGIS Online for demographic study through population pyramids is through this demonstration web mapping resource.

Accessing the demonstration resource places you in Los Angeles County, but you can zoom and pan to other areas in the USA.  In each case, the pyramid for the one mile buffer around your chosen point is shown, with comparison to the population pyramid for the entire county containing that point.  The map must be at a medium to large scale.  The pyramid for certain areas departs significantly from the characteristics for the county as a whole, as in the case below for an area in Orange County, California. What clues on the map indicate why the pyramid is so lopsided?

Population Pyramid for an area near two universities in Irvine, California

Population Pyramid for an area near two universities in Irvine, California.

Investigate areas containing college campuses, military bases, prisons, summer homes, retirement communities, and other features.  As students begin to think spatially using these tools, ask them to pose hypotheses about the age structure of the population, and then test those hypotheses.  Discuss the effect that scale has on age data.  Discuss the impact that variables such as immigration, migration, economic conditions, local land use, and perception of place have on age structure.  Discuss the past and future age structure of chosen areas.  The possibilities are endless with this single web mapping tool.  When you use geoenrichment in your own account, note that it does consume credits, but not in this demonstration tool.  When you’re ready for more, investigate the other geoenrichment capabilities in ArcGIS Online.

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Fun with GIS 160: A Billion

On May 27, the White House announced Esri’s contribution to ConnectED: ArcGIS Online Organization subscriptions for any K12 school in the US. Kids in any US school can make maps and analyze data using powerful, professional, web-based GIS, anytime and anywhere connected, on computer, tablet, or smartphone. Since the announcement, three main messages have reached me. First, “You actually expect this to have any impact?” Second, “Sign me up!” Third, “Really? A billion?”

Absolutely, we expect an impact. From Esri president Jack Dangermond on down, my colleagues at Esri are excited about how kids have already used ArcGIS Online, as seen at the 2013 Esri Conference and schools across the country. When educators and education influencers see how powerful it is for kids doing projects, it has an impact.

Hence the “Sign me up!” message. Schools have already requested, received, and started working with ArcGIS Online Orgs. More important, GIS users and education leaders in every state have said “I’m telling my friends, AND my local schools!” The GIS Certification Institute in particular is encouraging GISPs to be GeoMentors for local schools. Educators can build capacity with ArcGIS Online easily, and students even more so. It is important not to set sights too high too quickly, nor stay too low too long (see model), but good teachers know this.

A word about “projects.” Education Week just published its annual high school graduation analysis, looking at rates across USA. [Note: Chris Swanson, VP of the organization that publishes Education Week, will give the initial keynote at Esri's 2014 Education GIS Conference.] Graduation rates are improving, but a huge issue remains; this year’s theme is “Motivation Matters.” But teachers everywhere report that using GIS helps kids engage more deeply in school, especially in projects. Projects are like “educational Velcro.” Wrestling with complex topics, using varied data, in custom situations which are often deeply personal, students work on innumerable little puzzles — countless little hooks. GIS is STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), and more — communication, collaboration, creativity, and countless topics. When kids use GIS to explore problems, they often show up in the room before school, reappear during lunch, and sometimes must be shooed out the door after the last bell. I’ve seen it in every kind of school, with kids of all backgrounds, including technophobes, kids with various learning challenges, social butterflies, invisibles, and even those expected to have been mired in “senior slump.”

So, we hope every school uses ArcGIS Online. But … “a billion? Really?” When asked, I have replied “You tell me, what’s the dollar value of enticing kids to stay in school? helping them build skills they will carry for a lifetime? helping them see and think geographically and influence their friends and family to do the same? helping them make sound decisions on the basis of a holistic view of a unique and complex situation? supporting the work of millions of kids as they move into countless careers? And then what’s the value of a community that does not get built in a disaster-prone area? or a police force allocating critical resources where they are needed most? or epidemiologists who can recognize transmission patterns sooner and ward off a pandemic? or businesses who understand optimizing routes? or a billion other situations large and small across the land and over the years?”

Esri’s mission is to help people solve problems by understanding complex situations. We face enormous challenges, as communities, as a nation, as a planet, and only education can solve them. We all need to do our part.

Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Communicating GIS in Informal Settings

Most everyone I know in the geospatial field feels passionate about their work, and many seek ways to spread awareness about GIS beyond the geospatial community.  So it was with enthusiasm that I agreed to participate recently with the organizers of the History Colorado museum’s “COmingle” event.  With the “CO” referring to Colorado, and the “mingle” referring to its after-hours “fun evening with friends or a date” focus, COmingle is an “offbeat mix of games, trivia, demonstrations, exhibit adventures, performances, and hands-on activities”, with food and “a whole lot of Colorado spirit.” The activity I decided to host there was “Geography Quiz Night”, because I had the perfect venue on which to do it–a giant basketball court-sized terrazzo map of the state of Colorado.  I dubbed it “G Harmony,” or “Geography harmony.” I wanted the quiz to be active, so for each of the 10 questions in each quiz, I asked the participants to stand on the location of the state to indicate what they thought was the correct answer.  I handed out prizes to the individuals or teams with the most correct, least correct, or more creative answers so everyone could win a prize.  The prizes were a combination of books, gift cards, and posters from me (Esri) and the History Colorado museum.

Joseph Kerski conducting Colorado quiz on map of the state.

Joseph Kerski, center, walking “toward Colorado Springs”, conducting Colorado quiz on map of the state.

I conducted two quizzes during the evening, and my questions included, “Which county has the largest agricultural output?”, “Where is the lowest point in the state?”, “Where was the coldest temperature ever recorded in the state?”, “What tiny town saw its high school boys basketball team beat all odds to become state champions in 1929 and 1930?”, “Where is the 3rd largest city in Colorado?, and “Where is State Highway 1?” As I was giving the questions, I talked about mapping and GIS.  Challenge yourself with the complete list of my questions here. I had announced this event to the Colorado GIS community and education community, and so it proved to be a nice relaxed setting to meet new colleagues, in addition to others from outside geography and GIS, including innovative programmers from Oh Heck Yeah! who created a kinesthetic computer game people played there. What might you do to reach out and bring your community together to spread geography and GIS in innovative and fun ways?

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