Monthly Archives: February 2010

Lessons Learned In Bringing GPS Coordinates and Field Data to GIS

I just wrote a new lesson to bring field data along with their latitude and longitude coordinates from a GPS into a GIS environment by creating a spreadsheet. The lesson also shows how video, photographs, websites, text, and other objects can be hyperlinked to each desired point.

Yet as I was writing the lesson, and teaching these skills in a recent professional development workshop for teachers, I could not help but notice that the lesson illustrates far more than the technical skills of bringing data from one format to another. First, it illustrates the worlds that can literally open up when spreadsheet data is mapped. Patterns may or may not emerge. The lack of spatial patterns says just as much about whatever is being mapped than a clear spatial pattern. Yet either way, it becomes clear that a map communicates more and richer content than a spreadsheet.

Second, this lesson illustrates one method of bringing field data and GPS-gathered coordinates into a GIS. Other methods exist, including manually creating other types of spreadsheet files (such as DBF) or text files (such as CSV or TXT), as well as automatically uploading the data and coordinates via a cable.

This brings up the third point that the lesson illustrates. Sometimes the data files will include something that prevents them from being “map-able.” This is analogous to the occasional problem I still have writing CD-ROMs—sometimes, the process just doesn’t work, and I have to try again. There are common items to check when your data is not “map-able.” Spaces in the field names, spaces in the file name, the latitude-longitude coordinates truncated, a letter “O” instead of a zero, a comma instead of a period, extra rows in the table, and the data not starting in column 1 are a few things to check. It can take a few extra minutes, but these moments actually can serve a purpose—they teach students to be problem solvers, which is exactly what they will have to do to be successful in the workplace.

Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager

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Sketch-A-Map in the Classroom-Part 3: Math in English Class?

I love surprising my students with facts and trivia that will make curricular elements stick with them. Previously, I discussed using place as proof and analyzing water resources. What about breaking the stereotype that if you’re good at English then you can’t do math! The students I tutor in Algebra are always surprised that I can indeed “do math.”

A great way to incorporate a little math is a journey book or story. A great example is Journey to Jo’burg by Beverly Naidoo. A 13-year old boy and his sister must make a journey 300 kilometers from their small village to Johannesburg, South Africa to get medical help. How far is that…really? For you sharp GIS folks, it’s a quick little buffer activity in ArcGIS or AEJEE. You could use ArcGIS Explorer and measure that distance; however, if you only have the internet available to your classroom, our trusty tool Sketch-A-Map can give us some assistance here. As the teacher you will have to do some homework here to discover real distance. In the case of our story, Pietersburg, South Africa is approximately 300 kilometers from Johannesburg.

With the street map in view, students can draw a line on the map of that distance and more lines to discover where the children’s small village is. For some perspective, then we could zoom over to the USA and draw a similar line from Washington, D.C. to Newark, NJ. It’s about the same distance. Most students would realize quickly, “Hey! That’s pretty far!” Most of my students wouldn’t have considered such a journey!

Now that we can see that journey on the map, let’s appreciate what Tiro and Naledi in the story did to get help. Time to do a little math!

1 mile = 1.609344 kilometers. How many miles is 300 kilometers? What city is that distance from your town?

A person could walk about 2.5 miles per hour. If you made the journey, how long would it take you to get there?

If you’re just a little creative, you can continue to cover your required content and give students important connections to their curriculum! As an added bonus, the math teacher will be happy too!

- Barbaree A. Duke, Language Arts Educator

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Fun with GIS #38: GIS Models Mean Major 'M'

“STEM education” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) is a huge concern of managers of STEM-related businesses, and thus for politicians and educators. One of the groups who need to engage the power of GIS for education is math teachers. Some math teachers have not yet found their subject appropriately presented, especially at the higher ranges of “school math.” The capacity to do hard-core analysis and modeling, however, should interest even the most skeptical of teachers.

At the ESRI Federal User Conference last week, I saw a splendid short demo of the capacity for GIS to do modeling. The analyst wanted to determine the areas around a lake that would be most likely to hold nests of the endangered Bald Eagle. Three factors had to be considered, each in a different way, but also in a manner that was not a simple binary (yes/no) condition. By setting up a model employing “fuzzy logic”, a clear solution was determined.

Video online! Go to the 20:40 mark of the “Editing” etc. demo and watch the next 4:45.

This short demo shows a simple but effective model thru which to predict the “most likely places.” Such models can be quite intricate, involving detailed analyses which require not just in-depth scientific knowledge but also sophisticated grasp of statistical concepts and practices. Instead of just analyzing the likelihood of marbles to bounce into a particular spot or the chance of a red face card, with GIS and an integrated approach to learning, students can engage their mathematical muscles on real-world problems which have concrete impact.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, ESRI Schools Program

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Help Grow and Develop as a GIS Knowledge Community and Resource

A familiar refrain is that the most important component of GIS is not hardware, software, data, or procedures, but rather, the people who make up the community. The importance of the community in the field of GIS seems to grow each year.

I remember poring through the World Book encyclopedia in my school library while growing up. Back then, some of us imagined a future where thousands of computerized encyclopedias could be at our fingertips, especially after seeing the Star Trek episode showing a future library filled with nothing but computer disks! I wonder, though, how many of us imagined that we would be able to socially network using computers? Today, Web 2.0 tools are making it easier for GIS users to share data and curricula, and now, allow for the creation of a knowledge base. A new resource,, allows GIS users in academia, government, industry, and nonprofit organizations to post information, and benefit from the knowledge available from others in the community. can be useful for education in several ways, including:

  • As a resource for students and professors in Geography and GIS to find key terms and learn about GIS concepts.
  • By creating new pages and editing the content that already exists, can serve as an evolving resource to meet the needs of the user community.
  • Use the discussion pages to talk about ways to improve existing pages or to spark new ideas for new pages. Each wiki page has a discussion page that can be edited by clicking on the “discussion” tab located along the top.
  • Images can be uploaded and added to wiki pages to add to existing information or to help illustrate a concept within a wiki page you are creating.
  • Add terms to the GIS Glossary or expand existing terms.

Create an account and start using to help you advance your knowledge or contribute and collaborate to help advance someone else’s knowledge of GIS!

-Collin W., Administrator, ESRI Support Services, and Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager.

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More free high-resolution imagery available through ArcGIS Online

The World Imagery Service has been updated with 1m resolution for over 2,000 cities around the world, 1m resolution for Great Britain, and 1m or greater resolution for the United States and is now available at no cost for educational use. The World Imagery Service can be used in ArcGIS Desktop, ArcGIS Explorer, ArcGIS Server, or the ArcGIS Web Mapping APIs to provide a high-quality basemap layer.

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Sketch-A-Map in the Classroom Part 2: Social Studies and English are Friends

This is a continuation of a discussion on a simple but powerful, free online resource, Sketch-A-Map. In my previous discussion, I shared one possible use in English Language Arts (ELA) class.

Cross-curricular collaboration is a powerful tool as well. Students see connections to their studies and see teamwork modeled for them among the teachers. Middle school students say, “You mean you talk to Mrs. Smith…about school stuff!?!” Collaborative work is a part of our professional world. It makes sense to show our students some best practices. Not to mention, as my mother always said, “It’s nice to share with others.” While my students in English class were working on a writing assignment that was part research, part creative on Indian culture, my team Social Studies Teacher wants to show the impact of the Ganges River, one of the most polluted rivers. How important is water in this region?

A quick zoom over to India and a look at the world topo maps, students can explain why this river is significant, not only for its religious importance. What other water sources are available to this region? If you were creating cities, where would you place them based on the landscape? Now, change the base map to streets and compare where the real cities are. How well did you place cities? Could some cities’ water resources be strained? Why?

Once we examine these items in Sketch-A-Map, we have opened our students’ curious minds to “why”! Now we can make an easy transition to GIS analysis to examine world population and trends in cities to offer proof for our hypotheses. Not only do my students know where India, the Ganges River and major cities are located, but they also have some grounded knowledge of their significance…information that they are less-likely to forget when assessed. Give students the connections they need to imprint content and increase their analytical skills!

- Barbaree A. Duke, Language Arts Educator

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Career & Technical Education Month: GIS and Public Safety

The Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) has proclaimed February as Career & Technical Education Month. The association and its constituents are dedicated to developing an educated, prepared, adaptable, and competitive workforce in a rich blend of workforce pathways best represented by the Career Clusters Framework. Laced inside these individual clusters are geographical thinking, GIS, and geospatial technology and their application in the everyday world.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll highlight some of these career cluster and geotechnology intersections.

Generally, our lives and the world around us are predictable. However, we also live in a world of change, the unexpected, and, at times, danger. A brilliant blue sky becomes a thunderous storm with serious flooding. The ground below our feet quakes toppling buildings. A tiny spark turns into a huge wildland fire engulfing forests and homes. A tanker car derails putting deadly fumes into the atmosphere. And, difficult to believe, some people inflict disaster on others on small and large scales. While our first line of protection in these instances is ourselves or our friends and family, at times we need help from others—persons involved with public safety, such as firefighters, emergency managers, law enforcement officials, or persons in related fields.

Public safety occupations have at their core a mission of dealing with situations where life, property, and/or the environment are at risk. The tasks persons in these positions tackle involve many skills, including geographical thinking and the use of GIS and other geotechnologies. Surprised?

When we see a helicopter dropping a load of flame retardant on a spreading brush fire, or watch fire equipment racing off to a location, or hear evacuation alerts because of toxics in the air miles away, we probably don’t think about it but underneath these actions is geographical thinking. For instance:

    Where do you decide to drop the retardant? How might the choice be affected by the path of the fire, terrain, presence of fuels (things that will burn) and weather?

    Where’s the fire? Where’s the fire station? What’s the best route to the incident at this time of day? Once there, where are the fire hydrants? What’s burning, where and what else is in the vicinity?

    Which way is the wind blowing and how fast? What is the rate the toxics will scatter and drop to the ground? What lies in the path of the noxious plume? Who should we evacuate and to where?

Public safety is not only about responding to emergencies. What if you could prevent a calamity from happening? This means being able to assess various threats, anticipate problems, prepare for natural and human catastrophes and how to handle them. Being able to literally map out and analyze this range of tasks is a key to public safety because geography is part of all of them. Geographic thinking is a critical skill regardless of the specific public safety occupation.

While we all carry maps around in our heads and have paper ones, public safety officials make use of high-tech tools and approaches. GIS and other geospatial technologies are providing firefighters, emergency managers, safety inspectors, and a host of other positions with the abilities to answer questions noted above and many more.

Learn more:
* Career Corner TV video profiles > Helicopter Pilot
* ESRI Map Book Gallery > Search = Public Safety, etc.
* ESRI Public Safety Program
* ESRI Homeland Security Program
* ESRI Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice Program

Stay tuned for the next installment.

The Career Clusters icons are being used with permission of the States’ Career Clusters Initiative, 2010,

- George Dailey, ESRI Education Program Manager

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Fun with GIS #37: Weather and Geography Education

I was in northern Virginia for a storm this past weekend described by local and national weather-casters as “epic,” “Snow-pocalypse,” or “Snowmageddon.” As a native Minnesotan, I knew the steps necessary to prepare myself. As a geographer, I was delighted to see the degree to which maps were a part of the public awareness campaign. Everyone, from the educators I was working with to politicians to “regular citizens,” was paying heed to the maps, in anticipation of snowfall amounts exceeding 24 inches in the Washington DC area. Everyone referenced the maps in discussing the preparation necessary.

Weather events can be dangerous, especially when people try to lead normal lives under abnormal circumstances. The proliferation of computer applications, up-to-the-minute web maps, animated displays, and broadcast streams focused on weather all help demonstrate the power of maps for understanding everyday phenomena and variations from one’s vision of “normal.” The lives lost and hardships experienced during these events make me want to re-double the attention to geography education. Congress concluded their events early this week, in order to let members get away before the storm; clearly, they understand that it can be perilous to ignore geographic information.

The NOAA storm summary for this past event includes a list of snow totals from across the region. Scanning down, those with good mental maps of the area can interpret the data and build a picture. Those without a good mental map must look for a familiar name, and get a much less powerful view of the data. Seeing even just the raw numbers on a map makes a huge difference. Having the data interpolated to form a general pattern would be even more powerful.

NOAA/NWS page showing snowfall data

Stay safe this winter. Long-term climate change, shorter term El Nino events, and random combinations mean conditions will shift, relative to what people “know” about the weather. And keep pointing out to educators, administrators, and policy makers the staggering degree to which geography matters.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, ESRI Schools Program

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Web GIS: Then and Now

This new decade seems a fitting time to reflect upon the past and anticipate the future. Few other things in GIS have changed as much over the past decade than Web GIS. During the first year in which I used the World Wide Web (1993), one of the things that most captured my attention was the Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center’s (PARC) Map Viewer. It retrieved interactive information on the Web, rather than simply providing access to static files. I remember what a marvel it was to zoom, select layers, and even change the map projections all through a web browser, displayed on my screen, a large 12-color Tektronix terminal connected to a Unix minicomputer. My web browser, Mosaic, sent an HTTP request to the Web server at Xerox, which generated new map and sent it back to my browser.

Since then, Web GIS has greatly expanded in the themes it covers, the scales it offers, and the tools it provides. In education, Web GIS can be used effectively in instruction, administration, and policy. In GIS instruction, students use Web GIS to investigate invasive species (such as the origin and spread of zebra mussels with the National Atlas, on http;//, precipitation patterns (via the Geospatial One Stop on, or below, the median age of their community versus those of a college town or a retirement community (via creating choropleth maps on ESRI’s Mapping For Everyone, on

In Computer Science and GIScience programs, students can create maps in ArcGIS Desktop and serve them using ArcGIS Server, or they can create web pages showing mashups created from easily-accessible APIs such as JavaScript, Flex, or Silverlight. In administration, Web GIS can support campus needs in infrastructure, campus safety, recruitment, and more, serving staff, faculty, and students. In policy, Web GIS can be used as a decision support system to gather stakeholder input and to show results of where funds and programs are targeted.

I invite you to explore the endless possibilities of Web GIS in education.

Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager

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Exploring Demographics with “Make A Map” from Mapping for Everyone

The Kansas City metropolitan area is considered to be the “Heart of America”, the city of fountains, bar-b-que, and boulevards! With a population of over two million people, this “Paris of the Plains” crosses the state line, extending nearly 8,000 square miles in Kansas and Missouri.

Who are the people of Kansas City, you ask? Using the new “Make A Map” tool, in just a few seconds we can discover valuable demographic data – even compare to other metropolitan areas. The data layers include: population density, population change, median household income, median home value, unemployment rate (July 2009), and median age. Beyond exploring data, this tool will also allow you to share the map you create – embedding the link in your webpage or email!

Using the “Make a Map” tool, last weekend local Girl Scouts (ages 10-17) created their own demographic maps of Kansas City to better understand their own community. The girls used maps they created to investigate the truth in their assumptions about where wealth and population growth existed most prominently in the city. The “ah-ha”s and “oh”s clearly signaled that this approach to meaning-making is valuable to a wide range of learners. The girls also created short demographic profiles of their city (based on criteria the group decided was important) and then applied this same set of criteria to other US cities, just to compare and contrast Kansas City. Some easy-to-explore questions with “Make A Map”, include:

* Where is wealth concentrated?
* What are parts of the city have grown or even declined in population?
* How does the population’s age vary across the city?
* How does population density vary geographically?
* How does one or more of these data layers correlate across geography? For example, does “median household income” appear to correlate with “median home value”?

“Make-A-Map” at the Mapping for Everyone website.

-Tom Baker, ESRI Education Manager

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