Monthly Archives: May 2010

Explore the Forests of the Southern USA with Web GIS Tools from the World Resources Institute

Through’s interactive Web GIS tools, you and your students can learn about trends and threats to forests, including suburbanization, fire, pests, and climate change. In collaboration with Creative Change Educational Solutions, the World Resources Institute has created a set of teacher guides to help integrate the Web GIS resources into biology, geography, earth science, and environmental science courses. Explore the distribution, variety, and status of the southern forests via the Map Gallery, which features maps on tree communities, protected areas, ownership, timber production, and via the Web GIS resources. The Web GIS tools include Bing Maps for base layers as well as layers generated in ArcGIS served with ArcGIS Server, covering the area from Virginia to Texas. Thematic layers include protection, fragmentation, drivers of change, and example solutions for sustainable forests. All maps can be exported and shared.

Examining forests challenges preconceived notions: Is fire always “bad”? What are its benefits in terms of forest health? Examining forests challenges assumptions about change: Yes, many areas have converted from forest to agriculture, but some areas have reverted from agriculture back to forest. What is the biggest threat to the extent and health of forests, in the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries, and today? Is it suburbanization, logging, fire, pests, pathogens, climate change, agriculture, hurricanes, or something else? How have southern forests and land cover changed over the decades, by region, and also within individual counties, and why? What is the future of these forests and how can people affect this future in positive ways? One of my favorite components of this Web GIS is the ability to compare current satellite imagery with that from 1975, 1990, and 2000, and to examine single pieces of land at a large scale over time. A KML containing the data layers can be downloaded from the site and used in a virtual globe such as ArcGIS Explorer.

I invite you to use this resource to teach and learn about forests, change, and much more.

Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager

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The Grand Challenges of GIS in Instruction

Last week I wrote about what several geographers consider to be the “grand challenges of Geographic Information Sciences.” But to grapple with these grand challenges, we need to have people moving into the field of GIScience in the first place. To do that, we must engage students in thinking about their community, region, country, and world in a geospatial context, beginning at young ages. How can we help students to see that every major current issue—from natural hazards, biodiversity, agriculture, energy, water quality and availability, human health, social justice, politics, migration, climate, crime, and many more—are inextricably linked to geographic processes that occur over space and time? Using GIS is one powerful way of seeing these patterns, processes, and connections.

Students using GIS apply scientific inquiry—ask a question, gather data, understand data, analyze data, draw conclusions, and develop a fuller understanding about a particular issue. One of my favorite aspects of using GIS in instruction is that it helps to understand change. Changes from human and natural causes occur all around us, and if students analyze why and how things change, then they can begin thinking on a deeper level: Should the Earth be changing in these ways? Is there anything that I could or should be doing about it? This captures not only the heart of spatial thinking, inquiry and problem-based learning, but also empowers students as they become decision-makers to make a difference in this changing world of ours. GIS has ties to many disciplines, but a natural home for GIS in education is in geography, which has not seen consistent and high support over the past century in American education. How can we change this?

I stated above that we must engage students in thinking spatially. But before that can happen, we must engage students, period. Too often, students are bored, viewing education as something that ends as soon as they graduate, instead of being a lifelong learning experience. We must allow them the freedom, support, and tools so that they can discover and pursue their interests. This may be the grandest challenge of all.

All of the topics raised here can be debated and expanded. I look forward to your thoughts.

- Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager.

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Fun with GIS #48: GIS, STEM, and the Future

Last week, I participated in a meeting of businesses looking at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) education. It’s not simply a STEM-savvy workforce that businesses seek, but a STEM-literate
populace: citizens who see or can build meaning in the array of numbers in the news, embrace and extend technology, live and vote with an understanding of scientific thinking, and have a disposition for breaking problems into relevant components and designing strategies with which to address them.

Geographic information systems (GIS) technology is a perfect fit for STEM. GIS users display, sift, disaggregate, integrate, and analyze information in infinite combinations. The vast sweep of industries using GIS (see, and the broad spectrum of applications within any individual industry (see, show that adults in all walks of life rely on GIS to understand the world and make informed decisions, about the nature of places (from cellular to galactic scale) and effective use of resources (money, tools, time, people).

How can we help students, schools, and communities in these troubled times? Engage GIS, as early, often, and powerfully as possible. Students who build their own data tables about family members can fathom the power of data and distinguish proper from inappropriate. Kids who map the room from an overhead view can build similar displays of their larger world, find meaning in symbols, and grasp displays that extend the world beyond their personal experience. By anchoring learning in the familiar then launching into the foreign, we help students establish a flexible framework for knowledge, engage the boundless inquisitiveness and creativity of youth, and foster a disposition for seeking appropriate information. From mapping ant colonies in the school playground to earthquakes around the world, or the flow of bodies in a school building to traffic in a city, or temperature patterns around the school grounds to global climate patterns, the stretch is small, but vital.

And, wherever I go across the US, employers say to me “Test scores and diplomas are fine, but what I really need is people who can find and integrate information, analyze data, and make informed decisions; collaborate and work independently; and learn, adapt, solve problems, and communicate effectively. Show me kids like that and they’ve got a job. We can’t find enough inside our state, so we’re stealing them from other states.”

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, ESRI Schools Program

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Fun with GIS #47: GeoTech in the Community

I spent last week on vacation in a small town along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Along with assorted outdoor activities, I assisted our friends from GIS ETC and Holbrook Travel in conducting some GIS and GPS instruction. The townsfolk recognize that their future is tied intimately to their extraordinary natural heritage. In order to preserve and manage their precious lands and waters, they need to map it … all of it … the trails and roads, the buildings and networks, the natural and manmade waters, the lands both developed and not, and the creatures great and small, including both local and migratory … everything. It’s a daunting task, and the technical infrastructure is modest, but the spirit is strong. In a region of under 1000 people, more than 50 have the vision of why they need this and how to do it. They are collaborating, across organizations, across data interests, and across ages, with both young and old learning geospatial tech.

The town is a microcosm, a lesson for us all. In the face of accelerating and compounding environmental and economic challenges, communities everywhere need to map their character. Regardless of the local economic base, communities need to document what exists in order to make good decisions about scarce resources. This simple process is the common life ring that communities everywhere need in these increasingly troubled times. By documenting what’s where, and sharing tasks and resources between stakeholders, seeking common ground while acknowledging differences, communities can make more informed decisions affecting their collective future.

Children are, of course, a part of this, and need to play a part within it. In fact, if allowed, they can be a tremendous resource, facilitating the process while also building their own knowledge bank and personal future. Their natural inquisitiveness, creativity, and capacity for learning are enormous assets, and communities that engage these effectively will be far better off than those who see youth simply as extraneous, or worse.

In this little Costa Rican town, there is a new level of excitement and mission after just one week. They know that they hold the key to their future, and they recognize that time is short. Middle-aged workers who had never touched a computer and bright young children full of life are embarking on a mission, together, to document, preserve, manage, and build their present and future, with geospatial technology.

It was one of my most inspiring vacations ever.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, ESRI Schools Program

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The Grand Challenges of Geographic Information Science

At this year’s annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Dr. Dawn Wright (Oregon State University) and Dr. Chaowei Yang (George Mason University) organized a session to address: “What are the grand challenges of Geographic Information Science?” Their definition of grand challenges were “questions and directives that: (1) are extremely hard to do, yet are do-able; (2) produce outcomes potentially affecting millions, if not hundreds of millions of people; (3) require multiple research projects across many subdisciplines in order to be satisfactorily addressed; (4) consist of well-defined metrics such that, through creativity and commitment, can be realistically met and [there is understanding when the] end has been reached; (5) capture the popular imagination, and thus political support.”

Running through the session was the theme of the digital earth—to make accessible a wealth of geospatial data and tools that enables people to make everyday decisions more efficiently and wisely based on the spatial perspective. The now-familiar concept of citizens as sensors was mentioned frequently. That the EPA discussed having citizens monitor air and water quality is another indication that citizen science will be increasingly relied upon as part of the geo-monitoring system for the planet. That has enormous implications for standards, quality, and the metadata and databases that will need to be in place for it to be effectively used.

Dr. Peggy Agouris’ report about the recent NSF-sponsored workshop on geospatial and geotemporal informatics was encouraging. The workshop identified new challenges in information extraction and modeling, stated that data collection was still important and needed to be supported in industry, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies, and identified support for cross-discipline discovery using spatiotemporal information.

Tim Nyerges (University of Washington and University Consortium of GIS) reminded us of Keith Clarke’s UCGIS grand challenges from 2006: What is the cost to the nation of geospatial information that is inaccurate, over-accurate, or out-of-date? What role can geospatial technologies play in eliminating geographic illiteracy? In what ways have we yet to exploit the superiority of digital maps over paper maps? Can we complete a digital earth by 2009? (!) By how much can effective use of geospatial information improve human safety and welfare while reducing the associated costs? How can we best articulate GIScience as a core of interdisciplinary science, supporting information integration across multiple disciplines in large research projects? Tim also spoke about developing an assembly of geospatial technical and social components and activities that implement a regional network for disaster preparedness and response for the nation. This seems especially urgent in light of the Gulf oil spill!

Next week, I will put forward some “grand challenges” for GIS in education, and I welcome your thoughts.

Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager

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Investigating the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Using GIS

Like other disasters, human and natural, the current horrendous situation with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a dynamic event, changing rapidly over space and time. Because of this, it can be effectively investigated within a GIS. GIS provides context and content, helping students understand the location and extent of the disaster through taking measurements, overlaying other map layers, and examining scale. Moreover, GIS allows students to understand how physical and human systems are interrelated, such as winds and cleanup efforts, oil and fisheries, and much more. Far from static tools, desktop and web-based GIS tools can be used together with imagery and maps that are updated daily—even by ordinary citizens.

First, download the oil and gas drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico offshore from Texas from the state’s General Land Office and bring it into ArcGIS. The density of these platforms is truly astounding:

A set of data available on ArcGIS Online includes forecasted movement of the plume, a 3-D ArcGIS set of data, ASTER and Landsat imagery, environmental impacts, critical habitat, and more, on:

ESRI created and posted an interactive map that allows the viewing of location-based feeds, including news and videos, and also allows users to add their own content, on:

The ability to add content is provided by ArcGIS Server 10 beta hosted in the Amazon Web Service infrastructure.

Dig deeper and use some remotely sensed MODIS imagery:

For daily images see:

These pages provide GIS compatible imagery. Select “more info,” select the granule of interest from the list at the bottom of the page. Click on the link to get an uncorrected 5-minute swath image, down to 250 meter resolution. Make sure you also download the world file so the image will be georegistered within your GIS. You can also download a KML and use it in ArcGIS Explorer.

For example, a 250m MODIS image is available on:

I encourage you to use GIS in your analysis of the Gulf oil spill to try to make sense of this disaster.

Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager

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