Monthly Archives: August 2011

Up, Up, and Away with Web GIS

California Ballooning
Many great new features have been added to the mapping tools (ArcGIS Explorer Online and the map viewer) found at over the summer.  For example, we can now easily map tracklogs created by GPS units and smartphones, save, and share.

 On a recent summer trip, I was fortunate to ride in a hot balloon in northern California.  The first thing I did?  I turned on my smartphone GPS application of course!  I used Motion-X GPS to capture my position in a tracklog.  Motion-X GPS is a great smartphone application but any similar app will do. Throughout the balloon ride the smartphone was tracking my position and when we landed, I stopped the recording and emailed myself a copy of my route in a GPX format.

At my desk, I used a browser to go to the map viewer.  Pressing the “Add” button and selecting “Add Layer from File” is all I needed to do.  I located the GPX file that I saved to my computer and voila!

What a great way for students to share summer trips!  Even fall trips to the zoo, public gardens, parks, or nature centers would make for a great map-based story.  Or used as-is, this trip makes for an interesting way to start  exploring northern California’s agriculture.  We floated over tomatoes, sunflowers, soy, and more.  Try leveraging high-resolution imagery as a basemap beneath the balloon’s path.

At the bottom of this post, you’ll find a link to the original GPX file of my balloon ride. Try recreating and improving upon my map. Notice there’s even an elevation field in the GPX file which could be a very nice addition to the map. Post links to your trip and story maps below!

- Tom Baker, Esri Education Programs Manager

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Fun with GIS #89: Teachable Moments

The once-howling wind abates as Hurricane Irene passes DC and heads to New England. For days, I and millions of others watched this storm grow, mature, and move. I suffered not at all from the storm, but others have paid dearly.

Educators talk frequently of “a teachable moment” — the chance to tie lessons to events that learners will remember, or to convert an otherwise unremarkable happening into a powerful lifelong lesson. This past week has offered two such lessons: a 5.8 earthquake in normally stable Virginia and a hurricane ripping through the Caribbean and along the US Atlantic coast.

Esri’s “Disaster Response” page includes a “Global Incident Viewer” built in Javascript so it can be viewed on any web browser, including tablets and smartphones. It’s an easy way to find and explore incidents from the last few days. But serious study calls for a customized analysis, which takes a little more work. Fortunately, it’s easy with ArcGIS Online. Here’s a current view of Irene, using the MapViewer.

From several options for weather elements, I chose “Near Real-Time Observations NOAA nowCOAST WMS“. I customized further by shifting the basemap and choosing to display just satellite imagery with the radar mosaic, wind indicators, and pressure. Were I still teaching class, I would have integrated population density, transportation networks, human and natural landscape factors, to think about the impact of the event.

These powerful upgrades in easy mapping help educators and learners better understand our world. The physical and social science aspects related to any given event or condition must be investigated and grasped if we are to meet the substantial challenges of the day. Educators wondering how to engage students more fully must use such teachable moments and these powerful tools. Asking students to dive deeply into these events, not just to “skim for the sound bite” but to plumb the depths of content, will build learners with a disposition to wonder, investigate, and integrate … lifelong learners who convert data into information, combine disparate chunks into knowledge, and act with wisdom.

In this era of high-stakes tests, and teacher salaries tied to student scores, and “cheating scandals” rocking our faith in the system, the answer for educators (and policy leaders driving the system) is to focus on helping students see how the many layers of our world, from scales local to global, relate to each of them. Just as they identify with “six degrees of separation,” so too will they find more meaning, and deeper understanding of and commitment to our world, when they see, explore, and grasp the patterns and relationships so visible through maps.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, Esri Schools Program

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New Series of GPS-to-GIS Videos

I have created a new series of videos on the Esri Education Team’s YouTube Channel and on my geography channel that describes the process of gathering field data with GPS and mapping and analyzing it with GIS in educational contexts. The videos feature explanations and demonstrations not only on the technical procedures involved with gathering data on locations and characteristics of data and then analyzing its spatial patterns, but also the pedagogical advantages to using these technologies within the context of spatial thinking in instruction. In short, they focus not only the “hows”, but also the “whys”.

Topics covered are suitable for all levels of education, formal and informal, in multiple disciplines ranging from environmental studies to geography, history, mathematics, and earth and biological sciences. The videos span multiple tools, from the Minnesota DNR Garmin program to ArcGIS desktop, ArcGIS Explorer, ArcGIS Online, and ArcGIS Explorer Online. The videos span multiple methodologies and discuss the merits of each. For example, one discussion illustrates the advantages of keying in field data and coordinates versus cabling the information to a computer, and the advantages of linking maps to multimedia taken from a standard camera versus that taken from a smartphone. Embedded throughout the series are issues of data and project management, scale, accuracy, precision, metadata, and appropriateness. At present, the videos include the following 25 titles with more to be added in the future:

  1. Introduction and goals of the video series.
  2. Considerations before embarking on a field data collection project.
  3. Collecting positions and attributes in the field with GPS and other devices.
  4. Considerations during and after conducting field investigations.
  5. Advantages to using a combination of GPS and GIS in the educational curriculum.
  6. Reflections on which tools and methods are most appropriate for use in specific educational settings.
  7. Cabling location and attribute data to a computer using the Minnesota DNR Garmin application; software considerations.
  8. Cabling location and attribute data to a computer using the Minnesota DNR Garmin application; hardware considerations.
  9. The difference between GPS tracks and waypoints.
  10. Accessing and using GPS-gathered waypoints and tracks.
  11. Mapping and analyzing field data with ArcGIS Online.
  12. Mapping and analyzing field data with ArcGIS Explorer Online
  13. Mapping and analyzing field data with ArcGIS Explorer virtual globe.
  14. Mapping and analyzing field data with ArcGIS Explorer virtual globe, part 2: Completed project: A Mojave Desert Joshua Tree example.
  15. Mapping and analyzing field data with ArcGIS desktop (version 10).
  16. Mapping and analyzing field data with ArcGIS desktop (version 10), part 2: Symbolizing and linking to multimedia.
  17. Using a smartphone for location, photographs, and video in gathering and mapping data.
  18. Using a smartphone for location, photographs, and video in gathering and mapping data, part 2: How to email photographs and videos from the field via a smartphone to a GIS to map and analyze it spatially.
  19. Using a smartphone for location, photographs, and video in gathering and mapping data, part 3: How to automatically geotag photographs and videos from the field via a smartphone to a GIS to map and analyze it spatially.
  20. Using a smartphone for location, photographs, and video in gathering and mapping data, part 4: Discussion and demonstration of how to automatically geotag photographs and videos from the field via a smartphone and a GeoRSS feed to map and analyze it spatially in a GIS.
  21. The positional accuracy of a smartphone versus a GPS receiver. Results of experiments comparing the positional accuracy of these two devices.
  22. Drawing with GPS, Mapping with GIS. Introduces and demonstrates how and why to draw letters and shapes with your GPS and mapping them with GIS.
  23. Dragging and dropping GPX files into ArcGIS Online locally.
  24. Dragging and dropping GPS files into ArcGIS Online internationally.
  25. Dragging and dropping text files with latitude-longitude coordinates into ArcGIS Online.


How might you be able to use these videos, and more importantly, these methodologies, in your instruction?

- Joseph Kerski, Education Manager

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Learning to Learn From Data

In a thought-provoking article, Kim Kastens states that “learning to learn from data” is a necessary part of everyone’s education, but not a typical part of everyone’s education. Making it a typical part is a significant challenge. Kastens describes the difference between learning to look up information on a graph and seeing and interpreting patterns in data. How can we help students see patterns and trends that data represent?

One way to see patterns in data is through the use of Geographic Information Systems. GIS was created to be a tool with which to investigate data. Isn’t it easier to see the relationship of birth rate to life expectancy, or tsunami damage based on proximity to coasts, with a map rather than only a data table? GIS gives the instructor and student the ability to see the relationship between the map and the underlying database. Instructors using GIS focus on problem-solving, inquiry-driven pedagogical techniques that use real-world data to analyze spatial patterns on scales from local to global. They focus on classroom, community, and careers, promoting scholarship, citizenship, and artisanship.

Dr Kastens’ article discusses the use of student-collected data. Students can collect their own data on tree height and species, pH in streams, or other phenomena using probes, GPS, or smartphones. They can input that data into a GIS for analysis as easy as dragging-and-dropping their files into ArcGIS Online. GIS allows for graphing, summarizing, and answering questions such as “What is the average soil moisture on the south-facing versus the north-facing slopes?” “What is the average height of pine versus spruce trees?” “How many earthquakes occurred in 2011 within 100 km of subducting plate boundaries?”

Kastens invites students to dig into data and think critically about where it comes from. GIS is nothing without data. Students using GIS develop critical thinking skills about data – its imperfections, its limitations, its gaps, and its use, rather than just “accepting it because it is on the Internet!” or thinking “because it is on a map, it is perfect.”

Nowadays, it is easier than ever to use GIS in the classroom. One excellent place to start is to create and analyze maps of recent earthquakes or landslides around the world, soils or biomes in a region, or food expenditures in a metropolitan area. These maps can be saved, shared, and built upon.

How could you use GIS to learn with, from, and about data?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Fun with GIS #88: Conducting a Virtual Transect

Remember field trips? Weren’t they eye-opening? Sadly, concerns over funding, “seat time,” and liability limit what many students get to do these days. But educators can still conduct virtual field trips, exposing elements in the neighborhood, which students can then explore later on their own. Even when “the real thing” is available, virtual field trips can provide important background and alternative perspectives.

Since it is hard to visit everything in all directions, one strategy for exploration is to do a transect — a swath thru the landscape — getting a representative feel for conditions. With ArcGIS Online, it’s easy to build a virtual transect, covering a distance of a reasonable walk, bicycle, or drive out away from the school. The various basemaps and numerous overlays provide a powerful look at the community. You can see an example by searching ArcGIS Online for “virtual transect” (or just click the image).

Open the presentation and walk thru the introductory concepts. The example displayed is for the school in the little town of Waterville in rural Washington. It will likely differ from where you live, highlighting a key feature of these virtual trips: the chance to compare widely disparate communities. Follow the guidance of the presentation and use the tools built into ArcGIS Explorer Online to make points, lines, and areas on the map. Generate the content, classify it, and symbolize it, then integrate the additional layers of data to understand how the local landscape differs from other noteworthy sites.

Virtual transects cannot completely substitute for actual experience in the real world, but they do offer a chance to analyze local patterns and compare the more familiar with the less so. Such analyses and comparisons are key for grasping why people see things as they do, and how “applied geographers” in a thousand careers build the holistic understanding vital for making good decisions.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, Esri Schools Program

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Fun with GIS #87: New Capacity in ArcGIS Online

“Adapt and innovate!” That phrase was repeated over and over as governors of many states gathered recently for the National Governors Association. I was privileged to attend NGA meeting, right on the heels of Esri’s Education User Conference (“EdUC”) and International User Conference (“UC”). The juxtaposition of events was fabulous! The governors heard that, to be competitive, states needed to get ready for different kinds of education, emphasizing problem solving, integration of information across subjects, collaboration, creativity, and analysis. Cool! I had just come from seven days of conference about exactly that, with people from around the world!

At the UC, new capacity was displayed inside ArcGIS Online that allows anyone to begin doing analytical maps with ease! Boiled down to its very essence, GIS is about generating data, analyzing it, and representing it. Now, all kinds of data can be brought in, classified, and symbolized, easily, with just a text editor and a web browser, on Windows or Macintosh!

Using just a text editor (but it could have been a spreadsheet), I created and stored a small table, using coordinates just like what would come from a GPS unit. ((Sidebar: For 19 years, I have said “To succeed with GIS, people MUST be able to navigate files and folders, and understand tables.” It’s still true.)) The table has four records (plus a dummy test record) and six fields, but could have many more, or even far fewer. Here it is in a spreadsheet:

The recent changes mean it’s a simple process to go to, click “Make a Map“, click “Add/ Add Layer from File”, browse to and choose the file, and click “Import.” The map instantly has new points in it. Clicking any of the points opens a little pop-up window with the information displayed above.

Wanting to classify symbols, I hovered the mouse over the layer name “points”, clicked the context menu triangle, and chose “Change Symbols.” Cool! I can classify by various means, right in my web browser! I chose “Size”, and then used the field “elev”.

With a tiny bit of customization, I had a map showing my four points with a graduated symbol based on elevation. And, I can click the “More info” links and launch explorations related to the point of interest, thanks to work in my original table.

With these basic concepts, skills, and tools, I could begin a career in GIS, gathering data, classifying and symbolizing it, integrating different elements of the everyday world. This is the magic of GIS: there is SO MUCH DATA out there, and visual patterns are SO powerful, people need to know how to integrate it, analyze it, correlate it, adapting to new opportunities, and create new visions and invent new solutions.

By doing these tasks today, students can accomplish what the governors heard is vital for today, not just tomorrow: ADAPT AND INNOVATE. The tools will evolve again, growing ever stronger. Students and educators need to get started NOW, pushing the limits with these simple tools in order to get ready for more, or be willing to endure a life of obsolescence.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, Esri Schools Program

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