Monthly Archives: March 2011

Fun with GIS #79: WebGIS = Launchpad for Critical Thinking

In education, one goal should be paramount: critical thinking. Hands up, anyone who thinks kids (and adults) don’t need it! But they also need opportunities to build and exercise these skills. GIS is exceptionally good at fostering this, as users are constantly evaluating “What is my question? From the galaxies of data available, which items are relevant and of sufficient quality to present a holistic picture? What analyses will help me uncover or construct usable information? What are alternative interpretations from this information? What is my best action on the basis of this knowledge?”

Some might find such mental exercise a tough challenge, or the technology of desktop GIS intimidating. But web-based GIS now presents exciting and exploding opportunity. The EdCommunity Web Mapping page launches viewers into a series of powerful options using Esri technology, for all grade levels and subjects.

Some of the applications are usable on all browsers (even mobile units lacking plug-ins), while others depend on browsers having the free Adobe Flash or free Microsoft Silverlight plug-in. Some allow users to construct data that can be shared with others. Many of the tools are usable even by young students, while some rely on grasp of background knowledge. But all allow users to explore, contemplate questions, make decisions about appropriate data to consider, integrate various elements, build knowledge about the world from global to local scale, and constantly flex decision-making skills.

For educators seeking stability amid the current tempest, building critical thinking is a bedrock goal. For STEM educators seeking to provide relevance, career vision, and endless chance for problem solving, explore the universe of web GIS. The skills developed here build beautifully toward the countless GIS-using careers available already and expanding tomorrow.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, Esri Schools Program

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Community Conversations and Personal Learning Networks

Many people working in the cross-disciplinary field of GIS education may have few co-workers in their organization that they can learn from, brainstorm ideas, or even just “talk shop”. They may be looking for ways that they can keep up with the latest trends, opinions, and best practices. A great way to do this is through social media, which allow you to become connected with others who share your interests, resulting in the building of a community around those interests.

The key to community building is to make direct, personal connections with those that have shared interests. Traditionally, this was done by attending formal meetings and conferences. However, social media, such as Twitter, have allowed quantum leaps to be made in finding and making these connections. With searching and filtering, it is easy to quickly find people who share your professional interests. Once you have found even a few people, by looking at who they follow, you can rapidly build a tightly focused list of people that share your interests. Not only that, but you will be able to read their posts in real time, which is an amazing way to keep abreast of the latest topics and events. What many people may not realize is that one of the real powers of Twitter is not the 140 character posts themselves, but the links that people share through their tweets. When you follow a number of people with similar interests, you have access to their collective intellectual activity, where they share information that might be hard for you to find on your own, such as a blog post they found, or a press release, or a new article on something you may find useful.

While sharing links via Twitter is a powerful source of information that you might not otherwise find, engaging in actual conversations with those you follow is a powerful way to create personal connections that you might not otherwise have. Twitter, and other social media (including writing comments on blogs), can provide immediate and informal access to people that you might not otherwise be able to meet. The real benefits of social media come when you begin to share your own thoughts, and begin having conversations with others. You may then find that some of these people will be attending events that you are also going to. This can lead to the odd but amazing feeling you experience when you finally meet face to face with someone you have been following and interacting with virtually for months or even years. While it may seem that social media might compete with, or even replace, face-to-face interactions, the actual effect is to make those interactions more likely, more frequent, and richer. Membership in associations and attending regional meetings and national or international conferences become more rewarding when you know you will find people there you already “know” online. By leveraging the power of social media, you can create one (or several) personalized communities around any interest. This can be an effective way to become more connected to others in your field, which can improve your job performance and lead to a more enriching professional experience.

Useful links:

Guest contributor,
Dr.Don Boyes, Senior Lecturer, University of Toronto
Note: This blog post is co-published at

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Fun with GIS #78: Querying Data with ArcGIS Explorer Online

GIS is a power tool for STEM education. Being able to run endless queries of limitless data is just one capacity that makes it so. You can practice this in a browser using ArcGIS Online and the revised rich applications and data waiting there. This blog uses ArcGIS Explorer Online, a mapping tool for Windows or Macintosh, which requires the free Microsoft Silverlight plugin. (Prefer to see the 11:00 movie version of this blog? Head to the EdTeam YouTube Channel.)

1. After ensuring the Silverlight plugin is installed, go to ArcGIS Online and in the search box type “Usa demographics for schools” (or just click here). Look for the version by “cfitzpatrick” and, under the “open” menu, choose “Open in Explorer Online.”

2. Click the “Map Contents” button to see the 10 layers available. Click the “Map Legend” button to see what is currently being displayed. Zoom in from state data to county data around the Chicago area.

3. Click on Chicago to see the identify window showing data for the displayed layer (Population Density), then close the window. Turn off all layers except “Population change” and click on Chicago again. Note how the data and displayed layer are tied together. Close the identify window.

4. Click the “Queries” button, and hit the “+” at the bottom to create a new query. In the “Select a layer to query” window, under “USA Population Change 2000-2010″, choose “Counties,” and click OK.

5. In the “New Query” window, set the name as “PopChgCnty_2000-2010″. Under the “Data” tab, look at the fields available. Under the “Display Fields” tab, unclick “Land area in Square Miles”. Under the “Query” tab, choose a field of “2000-2010 Population: Annual Growth Rate”, choose an operator of “Greater than,” type “0″ in value, click the box for “Prompt for value”, and in “Prompt” type “Type a number -6 to 9.” Click “Add” to make this the first part of the query. Add a second query element by keeping the field at “2000-2010 Population: Annual Growth Rate”, choose an operator of “Less than,” type “0″ in value, click the box for “Prompt for value”, and in “Prompt” type “Type a number -6 to 9.” Click “Add” to make the second part of the query, and notice that “And” has been inserted. The query will seek two elements — a high number and a low number that the user can define. Click “OK.”

6. Try several ranges: -6 to -2; -6 to -1; 5 to 9; 7 to 9. For each, explore the results, then choose “Re-execute.” (Note: The query will only display the first 500 results it encounters.)

7. Try a new query about counties using the layer “Percent of Population Older than 65.” Set factors where “State Abbreviation Equals FL” and “2010 % Population 65+ Years Old is “Greater than”, type “0″, choose “Prompt for Value”, and enter “Number 0 – 50″ as a prompt. Click OK.

8. Try several values: 0, 20, and 30. Notice how each focuses just on Florida, and then picks counties that meet the numeric query.

The analytical capacity of full desktop GIS is well beyond these examples, but these basic queries show the kind of powerful “what if” scenarios that GIS users can engage with full tools. Coupled with options for classification and symbolization, this querying capacity represents part of the heart of GIS, and shows why GIS is a power tool for STEM and beyond.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, Esri Schools Program

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Analyzing Food Expenditures at Home vs. Away from Home

Think about two ways you can consume food – at home or away from home. Think about how often you eat at home versus away from home. Food purchased in grocery stores and eaten “at home” is generally less expensive than food purchased and eaten in restaurant. Do you think that the ratio of food expenditure at home vs. away from home varies by country? If so, how and why would it vary? Do you think there is a geographic pattern of the ratio within the USA, by region or even by neighborhood?

A new lesson in the ArcLessons library invites you to think spatially using common experiences of food purchasing and consumption, to analyze the relationship of food purchasing versus median age and household income, and to learn how to use ArcGIS Online as an analytical tool.

The lesson uses a standard web browser to access the food expenditure map on ArcGIS Online. The food data represent just two of the hundreds of variables available in the Esri Consumer Spending database. Esri combined the 2005-2006 Consumer Expenditure Surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to estimate these spending patterns.

I wrote the lesson around 10 focal points, including “scale matters,” national patterns, urban vs. rural, patterns within cities, famous foods and cities, university towns, retirement communities, areas with low population density, median age, and median household income. To compare these last two variables to food expenditures requires the addition of two additional layers, which is easily done in ArcGIS Online. The ability in ArcGIS Online of comparing different variables across space is a valuable educational tool.

The web GIS map displays a ratio of the average annual household expenditure on “food at home” to “food away from home.” Areas in red represent areas where households spend noticeably more at home, while blue area households spend noticeably more away from home. Households in an “average” area tend to spend $1.38 on food at home for every $1.00 on food away from home. This ratio of 1.38 does not mean that food at home is more expensive; it means that more money is spent for home consumption of food than money is spent away from home. In other words, most people eat at home more frequently than they eat away from home. Where the ratio approaches 1:1 represents areas where an equal amount of money is spent on food at home versus away from home. Red areas are above this average, blue areas are below this average, and yellow areas are near the average.

Why do many metropolitan areas contain neighborhood where the ratio is high, surrounded by a suburban ring where the ratio is low, surrounded by rural areas where the ratio is high again? Why do rural areas in Nevada and Utah seem to have a lower ratio than rural areas elsewhere?

What spatial patterns of food expenditures can you discover using this Web GIS resource? What implications do these patterns have?

-Joseph J. Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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First 2011 Webinar: 10 Tips for Easy Web Mapping in the Classroom Tomorrow [ #edtech #sschat ]

10 Tips for Easy Web Mapping in the Classroom Tomorrow

Date and Time: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 9pm EDT/8pm CDT (1 hour).

Webinar presented by: Esri Education Team, Esri and the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE). NCGE will host the webinar.

Register today at NCGE for the this joint Esri-NCGE webinar at

Cost: Free

About: Learn about the basics in web mapping technology and easy-to-implement strategies for the geography & science classrooms. Critical websites and power tips will be provided to teachers new to geospatial tools – designed specifically for use “tomorrow”. We’ll even show you how to create your own map-enabled presentations, suitable for use in any academic subject area.

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Fun with GIS #77: ArcGIS Online and Japan's Quakes

Tragedy has hit, and we need a map. The ArcGIS Online Javascript-based map viewer has also changed behaviors; new features include important upgrades. Using the terrible tragedy of Japan’s quakes, let’s look at the tool tweaks. Prefer to see the 6:20 movie version of this blog? Head to the EdTeam YouTube Channel.

1. Go to and choose “Make a Map.” The map viewer opens and looks more or less similar. So far so good.

2. In the “Add” menu, choose “Add Layers” and type “recent earthquakes.” Choose “US Recent Earthquakes” by “bszukalski” and hit “Add.” In a moment, yellow and blue boxes appear. At the bottom of the Table of Contents, click “Done Adding Layers”, which send you into the Contents list.

3. Head west in the map by pushing it to the right, going across the International Dateline (Hey, that’s new!) until you reach Japan. The terrible mass of quakes has caused awful chaos, but especially one quake. Zoom in to the region of the quakes.

4. Focus on one quake and click on it. Hey, nothing happens! Need to get the “Identify” tool, which used to be right next to the “Basemap” menu. Hey, where did “Identify” go? In this new look, you must first enable the “Identify” tool, and then you get to configure behavior. Here’s how:

5. In the contents list, click the title “US Recent Earthquakes”, and a new item pops down. Click “Recent Earthquakes” to see if it happens again. Nope. Legend, yes. (Hey, that’s new.) But I still want to Identify. Click the right-side cascade triangle and choose “Enable popup”. (Hey, that’s new.) Click on a quake in the map, and now you get a popup. But it’s too “busy”, so let’s fix this.

6. In the right-side cascade triangle, choose “Configure popup”. (Hey, that’s new.) Change the popup title to “Recent Qks: {eqid}”. Skip down to click the button for “Configure Attributes”. Set the check boxes so only rows 3-4-5-6-7-8 (date, depth, ID, lat, long, magnitude) are checked. In the resulting attribute window, click “Depth” and click the down button to move it to the bottom of the list. At the bottom of the column, click “Save Pop-up.” Click another quake, and notice how clean the results window is now.

7. Without a query tool, it’s hard to find the big quake. But its coordinates were 38.32 north, 142.37 east. In the “Find” box just above the map, type “38.32,142.37″ (without quotes) and hit Enter. You may zoom in too far, so use the zoom tool at left to zoom out until you can see the ocean and at least two other quakes. Click on the big quake to see the depth and magnitude. Now we want to label the big one.

8. Back up in Step#2, I glossed over something. When you click the “Add” button, there’s a new option. Choose “Create editable layer”. (Hey, that’s new.) For now, leave the title and template as “Map Notes”, click “Create”, and a new set of tools appears in the Table of Contents. (Hey, this is WAY new!) Click the Cross and click once in the center of the big quake. Up comes a new window in which to enter a bunch of attributes. Just rename it “BIG QUAKE” and click the “Change Symbol” button. (Later, on your own, you can return and add features.) Click the red bull’s eye target icon and click “Done”, then “Close”, and “x” close the editing window in the Contents column. Zoom out to see the mass of quakes again.

9. In the map’s upper right corner, click the tiny arrow to open the inset map. Sign in to your ArcGIS Online account and save your map.

Japan has suffered a terrible blow, and continues to suffer significant aftershocks. Using the very straight-forward tools of the ArcGIS Online Map Viewer, students and teachers can do some powerful map construction, getting up-to-the-minute data, with just a browser and an internet connection, even on an iPad or smartphone.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, Esri Schools Program

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Web & Mobile Tools for Teaching About the Earthquake in Japan [#eqjp]

A growing list of web & mobile tools for teaching about the earthquake in Japan and elsewhere follow.

A social Media map of news surrounding the earthquake in Japan is available. You can also have students explore the historical earthquakes in the area with the Timeline tool.

Dozens of lesson plans are also available in the ArcLessons database at the Esri Education Community.

USGS latest earthquakes data from Japan and elsewhere:

You can save these data and use in a GIS and compare it against plate boundaries and population to help students understand this tragedy.

Or you can go to and search “latest earthquakes” or “recent earthquakes near Japan”. Add this data to the ArcGIS Online base map and analyze the earthquakes online with a web browser, add data to this map. Screenshot below.

Also try the free QuakeFeed app on your smartphone:
“Six different basemaps provided by ESRI. Past 7 days of earthquakes with magnitude > 2.5, displayed on a map or in list. Variety of filter / sort options. Location aware – find quakes that are closest to you. Beautiful UI – check out our screenshots! Twitter, Facebook, and email integration.”

- Esri Education Team

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Mapping St Patrick’s Day with GIS

An easy yet powerful activity is to map place names using a GIS. This can include mapping place names of a particular theme, ethnicity, or even containing a student’s name. In an earlier blog entry, I mapped place names containing the words “love”, “heart”, and “rose” for Valentine’s Day. I am now curious about the distribution of names having to with St Patrick’s Day. I ran five queries against the Geographic Names Information System, using the words Dublin, green, Ireland, Patrick, and shamrock. I exported each file as a comma separated value (CSV) file in decimal degree format. I brought each file into ArcGIS Explorer using Add Content.

According to the US Census Bureau, Irish was the USA’s second most reported ancestry, at over 36 million, and only Germany, Italy, the UK, and Mexico have accounted for more immigrants to the USA since 1820. Massachusetts is the state with the highest percentage of people claiming Irish descent, and a map from 1872 following the first 50 years of Irish immigration shows the highest concentration of people born in Ireland stretching from Massachusetts to Iowa. Would these patterns be evident in place names?

Places are named for a variety of reasons, and while names may provide no indication of the people who settled them, they are interesting to study geographically. Of the names I selected, as expected, “green” was the most popular by far, with 1,796 places, followed by Dublin with 49, Shamrock with 43, Patrick at 34, and Ireland by 30 place names. Saint Patrick is a place name in three states–Minnesota, Missouri, and Ohio.
Mapping these place names reveals, as expected, a concentration in the more populous eastern half of the country. However, this pattern does not necessarily follow that of the 1870 settlement. Two unexpected clusters appear, one in west central Florida, near Tampa-St Petersburg, and another from Washington DC to Philadelphia.

Out west, Phoenix and Salt Lake City had higher-than-average numbers of place names containing the above terms.

Other fields in the data are interesting to study. Green Acres, Louisiana, is the lowest green, at 3 feet below sea level, while Fiddlers Green in Carson City, Nevada, sits at 6,227 feet high. Patrick Place, Utah, is the highest Patrick at 5,804 feet in elevation, while South Patrick, Florida, lies at just 10 feet above sea level.
I invite you to explore the possibilities of analyzing names through the use of a GIS.

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Fun with GIS #76: If EAST Were Everywhere

If kids in Arkansas ran our schools, EAST would head in all directions. “EAST” (originally “Environmental And Spatial Technologies”) is an educational project in about 180 schools in Arkansas, plus another handful beyond. It’s a high-tech, service-oriented, student-driven, interdisciplinary, project-based learning operation. It’s where school and life merge. It’s STEM plus social studies, CTE plus English/arts, service plus gym, all rolled into one, on steroids. And at EAST Conference last week, students from grades 4-12 showed what they can do when permitted to grab the reins. (See also the 2010 column, “Fun With GIS #40: GIS and EdReform.”)

Every year, looking at their projects, and watching the students during conference, I see how much kids want to learn, be involved in the community, be helpful, and make the world a better place. Students are charged with conceiving, designing, conducting, trouble-shooting, and assessing projects of significance, and presenting their work to the world. Juggling a buffet of technology, they need to figure out what questions to ask in order to learn what they need, and do what they must to accomplish their task. The adults are “facilitators”, in title and behavior; they monitor and ask questions, offer counsel and point out opportunities, but let each student “drive his or her own bus.” Kids get the chance to try, stumble, grapple, explore new routes, research and study online, seek help from other students over the Internet or even -gasp!- adults out in the real world, problem-solve, create, and innovate. Since all work aims to benefit others – in the school, the community, or halfway around the world – students push hard to succeed and help out.

Many students work with GIS … full ArcInfo 10 and extensions. They don’t know they “can’t do it;” they just learn it. They build and gather data, wrestle with the complexity of the world, manage a blizzard of toolbars and buttons with aplomb, and focus constantly on what will help them move down the road toward their goal. They learn uncommon volumes of life lessons which, independent research has shown, helps them both feel responsible for their own learning and seek extraordinarily to enhance it. In GIS projects, their methods can be haphazard, their strategies a bit unorthodox, their processes circuitous, and “operational efficiency” erratic, but they pursue their goals with unbridled zest and passion, building banks of related knowledge even at a young age.

I judged projects cataloguing local land use change, improving school bus routes, and constructing trail maps for the public. I listened to students new to GIS puzzle thru spatial queries to determine voting patterns when a local millage vote failed. I saw parcel maps highlighting irregularities in local funding. Students spoke of staying hours late to collaborate with peers from other classes, grades, and schools, or work solo in the wee hours before school. And I talked with EAST alums, including young men and women who had earned full-ride scholarships to college on the basis of their demonstrated competency, and heard them describe with maturity their studies, work, and life plans.

With a few minutes to speak at opening assembly, I told the 2000 students that I had spent the previous weekend listening to the nation’s governors struggling with how to “fix education” in their states. But these youth knew the answer. At the final banquet, Arkansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Tom Kimbrell asked the crowd “How many of you would like to see your other classes operate like EAST does?” The thunderous reply declared in no uncertain terms, that if students from Arkansas ran US schools, the light from EAST would shine out in all directions, developing strong kids, building communities, serving the country, and making the world a better place.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, Esri Schools Program

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