Monthly Archives: August 2012

Fun with GIS 126: One less Eagle

The world has lost a reluctant hero, Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon, a man who proclaimed “I am, and ever will be a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer.”

I was four years old at the time of Sputnik, and grew up during “the space race,” at the height of the Cold War. When the world heard “the Eagle has landed,” I was canoeing in the wilderness between Minnesota and Canada. As Armstrong made his small step that signaled a giant leap, I was lakeside in twilight, listening to loons, and wondering how long such healthy environments might remain, with water safe to drink, and air sweet to breathe.

Image credit: NASA

Missions into space generated important knowledge that brought benefits to those on earth. But we face today challenges that Armstrong the engineer would understand: systems can break down, and changes too severe or too rapid can be brutal. As the lunar module carrying Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin approached the moon’s surface, systems were being overtaxed. Armstrong took control of the descent. Solid grasp of conditions and priorities, and decades of practice in handling problems, helped him land the Eagle safely. Today, we too need to act. With now twice as many human mouths as in 1969, biodiversity shrinking and climate warming day by day, and social fabrics fraying, we must grasp the powerful principles and interwoven patterns that support us. We, too, have no safety net.

There is today one less eagle among us. But we can collectively salute Armstrong, the untold millions who supported that effort with brain, shoulder, or wallet, and the billions before and yet to come, by recognizing and meeting our most profound challenge: understanding and sustaining our world.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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New Book: The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data

Central to the interest of the GIS community is spatial data: Where to find it, how to use it, how to gauge its quality, its scale, format, and resolution, privacy issues, copyright and licensing, the policies that govern the use of data, the role of data in the evolution of spatial data infrastructures, fee vs. free issues, cloud vs. desktop, downloading vs. streaming, crowdsourcing and citizen science, and a host of related issues. I am pleased to report that a book that Jill Clark and I co-authored on this subject has been published by Esri Press, entitled The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data.

This book [website] is accompanied by a blog that we update weekly with data sources and news on the issues explored in the book. The book is also accompanied by 10 activities free to use that involve the access and use of public domain data to solve problems. These problems range from selecting the most suitable locations for tea cultivation in Kenya, investigating the Gulf Oil Spill, siting a café in a metropolitan area, assessing citizen science portals, creating an ecotourism map in New Zealand, analyzing sustainable land use in Brazil, analyzing floodplains in Colorado, and much more. These activities are linked to the concepts presented in each chapter, and are accompanied by quizzes and answer keys, designed for easy use by an instructor, students, or the individual GIS practitioner. All of these resources are linked to the Spatial Reserves site and reside on ArcGIS Online. Our goal for the text and the activities is to provide GIS practitioners and instructors with the essential skills to find, acquire, format, and analyze public domain spatial data.

“This book fills a very big gap in the literature of GIS and brings together for the first time discussions of issues users of public domain data are likely to confront,” says Michael F. Goodchild, professor of geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), and director of UCSB’s Center for Spatial Studies. “It will prove useful to GIS practitioners in any area of GIS application, including students anxious to learn the skills needed to become GIS practitioners and data producers who want their data to be as useful as possible.”

How might you use this book and its associated resources in your own GIS journey or instruction?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Esri Education Industry Team joins Open Educational Resources movement

Beginning in 2012, Esri president Jack Dangermond authorized the Education Industry Team (Ed Team) to license the educational resources we create under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share-Alike license ( Every year, Ed Team members create dozens of educational videos, lessons, and learning activities, most of which are freely available through Though the works remain copyrighted to Esri, Creative Commons licensing allows users to copy, adapt, and/or distribute them freely. License terms oblige users to (a) acknowledge Esri’s original authorship; (b) refrain from using licensed resources for commercial purposes; and (c) share derivative works freely using the same license.

In addition to the resources it creates in-house, the Ed Team aims to encourage and promote resource sharing and Creative Commons licensing among its partners in formal and informal education communities. This goal follows recommendations of the GIS Education Community Advisory Board to “promote broad Community participation in resource development, sharing, and assessment” ( Visit for examples of open GIS courseware modules published by a public university. A future revision of the Esri Education Community web site will include a showcase for these and other volunteered GIS education resources the Ed Team has reviewed and endorsed.

The Ed Team’s open educational resources initiative complements the many free and for-fee educational resources published by Esri Training (, Esri Press (, and the ArcGIS Resource Center (for example,

- David DiBiase and Joseph Kerski, Esri

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Fun with GIS 125: Serving Map Content

A powerful new capacity is available in ArcGIS Online: hosting services. While users of ArcGIS Online have been able to push content up into individual maps, it has not been easy to get your content used beyond an individual map. With the arrival of ArcGIS Online for Organization subscriptions, this is very doable. Instead of many people needing to find your data and push it up into their own map, now you can publish content once, easily, for many people to use, by adding it directly inside ArcGIS Online.

You can publish basemaps (tile services), layers (feature services), and capacities (geoprocessing services). The easiest of these to understand is a feature service. Think of a lone shapefile in your map, and you want to let many people use it in their maps. A publisher in an organization can publish the content to their account and share it. Bang, done! Or, if you have several layers in an ArcMap 10.1 display, you can right click and choose to share. Zip, zap, zingo … up it goes! OK, yes, there are some steps to make sure it’s usable and findable, but it’s really easy!

Is it powerful? Try this: Open up our old reliable “USA Demographics for Schools” map – 10 layers of demographic data, all in scale dependent displays. Notice that, when you zoom in, you lose track of states and counties. Click the “Add” button and search in ArcGIS Online for “statecountyboundaries” (all one word). Click “add”, then click “Done adding layers”. Look over in the Contents … two new layers, which you can turn on and off, control their symbology, even click to identify. In 10 minutes, I created and published a layer that can now be used thousands of times, on desktops and iPads and smartphones. Think of the layers and maps you can share!

ArcGIS Online for Organizations offers capacities that will become more mind-blowing as you gain experience. You can share with your community editable services to support data collection, or host project content that you personally created, or even publish maps generated in Excel! To start, see these tutorials and videos. (The Organization account section is below the Personal account section.) Happy publishing!

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Reflections on Data Interpretation and Resolution

One of the recurring themes in GIS education blogs, forums, listservs, conferences, and in our recent book The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data is the importance of paying attention to the characteristics of data so that correct interpretations of that data can be made when mapping that data. During some recent work with one of our favorite resources mentioned in the book, that of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network, (CIESIN), I examined a map showing the population density for central Europe (shown in image).

As I examined the map, population density for Germany seemed unnaturally higher than that of France. True, according to a variety of outside sources, Germany does have roughly twice the population density as does France (235 people per square kilometer for Germany versus 108 for France). But the map seemed to indicate that broad areas of Germany are even higher in density, approaching that of The Netherlands. Is this accurate?

Upon further investigation into the metadata, indeed, the resolution of the data set was to blame. CIESIN uses the highest resolution data available for generating maps like this, and the data they were able to obtain for France had a much higher resolution. The resolution is calculated as the square root of the land area divided by the number of administrative units. For Germany, it was 28, and for France, 4. The resulting population per administrative unit in 2000 was 184,000 for Germany versus only 2,000 for France. A-ha!

Close examination of the map prompted my initial concern: The areas mapped in Germany are much larger than in France. But the differences in data collection could not be confirmed until the metadata was examined. Fortunately, CIESIN does an extremely good job documenting their sources and methods. The user still needs to make it a point to read that documentation. But what should we do when working with sites that do not document their data well? In today’s world of a myriad of data, maps, and tools, it is more important than ever to have a good grounding in map interpretation and spatial analysis, but also to ask questions of the data you are using. How can we as the GIS education community foster this kind of questioning of data by our students?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Siting a Bicycle and Ski Equipment Sales and Rental Shop in Wisconsin

I created a lesson where students determine the optimal location for a bicycle and ski rental and sales shop using Esri’s Community Analyst software. The lesson begins with a scenario where the student’s task is to select the best site near one of the oldest and most beautiful rail-to-trail segments in the country—the Sparta-Elroy Trail in west-central Wisconsin. I have personally bicycled this trail, including its three famous railroad tunnels, and sometimes those personal connections to the area being studied make curriculum creation all the more enjoyable, and, I hope, valuable.

Students using the lesson examine local terrain, proximity to towns, the trail (shown by the thick green line in the image), interstate highways, campgrounds, and state parks, the area’s population, median income, amount of money spent by regional households on bicycling equipment in the past year, and the location of existing bicycle rental and sales shops. They also consider customers who would rent versus own the equipment, and consider how winter sports such as cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling would impact the shop’s year-round and overall viability.

I chose Esri’s Community Analyst platform for several reasons. The platform is cloud-based, and as no software is needed, accessing the toolkit is as easy as accessing a web browser and logging into Community Analyst. Some universities have access to this toolkit already, so check with your university. If the software is not part of your university license agreement, you can request a 30 day free trial. Better yet, ask your university Esri software point of contact to add Community Analyst in the future. The toolkit can easily create reports, thematic maps, 5-, 10-, and 15-minute drive time buffers around proposed locations, and export those maps and reports.

The software includes thousands of data variables, not only Census data, but thousands of consumer behavior and expenditure variables, plus thousands of business locations. I still feel like I’m in Willy Wonka’s candy shop when I’m using it because like many of you, I have gone the “long route” numerous times over the past 25 years, spending hours, days, and weeks formatting data from various sites to be able to get it to the point where I could analyze it. With Community Analyst, the data is at your fingertips, ready to be analyzed!

How might you use this lesson, or create a site selection lesson of your own using Community Analyst, to foster spatial thinking, business skills, and GIS skills?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Communique from the 2012 GIS Education Community Advisory Board Meeting

Esri’s Education Industry Solutions Team (Education Team) convened the first meeting of a new GIS Education Community Advisory Board on July 23rd. The meeting took place in San Diego during the 2012 Education GIS Conference and Esri International User Conference. The Board’s charge is to help ensure that the Team’s strategic priorities respond to Community needs. This year, the Team asked the Board to focus on strategic priorities for educational resources.

Prior the meeting, organizers asked Advisers to review and comment upon the Team’s ArcLessons platform and collection ( as well as its current strategic plan for educational resources. From those comments organizers distilled four questions for facilitated discussion during the 90-minute session. The questions were:

  1. Regarding educational resources, what is the “GIS Education Community”? What is the Esri Education Industry Team’s relationship to it?
  2. Does the ArcLessons collection address Community needs effectively? In light of trends in the GIS Education Community, what should ArcLessons become?
  3. What should our priorities be for educational resource development in 2013?
  4. What should Esri’s Education Industry Team do to advance research-based knowledge about the efficacy of GIS in education?

The Board’s advice:

  1. The GIS Education Community consists of educators (professional and volunteer), researchers, learning designers, education administrators and staff, and learners. Community members share a common goal of promoting GIS use and spatial thinking to maximize student success. Esri is one of the Community’s key stakeholder organizations, and is its primary social hub. Esri is simultaneously a part of and partner to the GIS Education Community.
    In regard to educational resources, Advisers agreed that the Esri Team’s near-term emphasis should be to (a) promote broad Community participation in resource development, sharing, and assessment; and (b) organize and disseminate Community resources, including those authored or co-authored by Esri. In all these efforts Advisers stressed that Esri be mindful of the differing needs of educators and learners in higher education, primary and secondary education, and informal education settings.
  2. Advisers recommended several improvements to the ArcLessons platform and resource collection, including (a) specifying educational objectives for each resource; (b) identifying how resources align with education standards (state, federal, international); (c) promoting and collaborating on resources focused more on problem solving and less on software use; and (d) helping users design meaningful sequences of learning activities (i.e., curricula) by identifying related resources. All these are Community responsibilities, not Esri’s alone.
  3. Advisers agreed that the Esri Education Team’s priority for 2013 should be to design and implement a new web-based platform and interfaces that respond to the distinctive needs of educators and students in primary and secondary education, higher education, and informal education around the world. The platform’s key purpose should be to enable and support resource sharing by Community members. In addition, the Team should address the recognized gap in support for intermediate learners and best practices in advanced topics, such as application development, ArcGIS server, and dealing with big and messy data sets. Assisting Community members’ efforts to discover, create and share resources should be a higher priority for Esri’s Education Team than developing resources of its own. The Team should bear in mind differing user preferences for ready-to-use resources versus points of departure for further exploration (what one adviser called “inspiring inroads”), as well as resources for teacher professional development versus for student use. In addition, Esri’s platform(s) should provide access to resources that address workforce needs (as outlined in the Geospatial Technology Competency Model and related efforts).
  4. Finally, Advisers agreed that the Education Team should foster the Community’s development of a research agenda focused on the efficacy of GIS in promoting spatial abilities. Partnership with established research centers such as the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (SILC) at Temple University may help. A set of case studies demonstrating ways to use GIS in educational research may also be useful.

The Advisory Board’s recommendations will inform the Education Team’s 2013 strategy and action plan, which the Team will develop beginning in September. The Team will provide periodic progress reports throughout the year.

Members of the 2012 Advisory Board are listed below. The Education Team selected this year’s members to (a) represent the spectrum of Community members’ roles and work settings, and (b) have relevant experience in educational resource development. Assuming Esri’s continuing support, the Team will invite new members to address different issues in years to come.

2012 GIS Education Community Advisory Board

  • Amy Ballard, Central New Mexico Community College (NM)
  • Sarah Bednarz, Texas A&M University (TX)
  • Margaret Chernosky, Bangor High School (ME)
  • Sara Damon, Stillwater Junior High School (MN)
  • Adam Dastrup, Salt Lake Community College (UT)
  • Eva Dodsworth, University of Waterloo (Canada)
  • Kenneth Field, Esri (CA)
  • Iain Greensmith, Esri Canada
  • Keene Haywood, University of Texas – Austin (TX)
  • Khusro Kidwai, Pennsylvania State University (PA)
  • Erika Klose, Winfield Middle School (WV)
  • Bob Kolvoord, James Madison University (VA)
  • Mark Lindberg, University of Minnesota (MN)
  • Anita Palmer, GISetc (TX)
  • ori Ann Rubino-Hare, Northern Arizona University (AZ)
  • Adena Schutzberg, ABS Consulting and Directions Media (MA)
  • Diana Stuart Sinton, University of Redlands (CA)
  • Debbie Stevens, William Penn University (IA)
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Envisioning the Spatial University

There are plenty of reasons why spatial thinking and geospatial technologies have yet to fulfill their transformative potential in higher education. However, it’s likely that concerted efforts by a few key institutions could have a dramatic impact. Mindful of this, it is apparent that there are five characteristics of “The Spatial University” ….

Learn more and participate today!


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Thinking Spatially with GIS

What would you do in 75 minutes to introduce your colleagues to spatial thinking and analysis? Recently I had the opportunity to do just that, when my Esri colleague Laura Bowden and I conducted a spatial thinking technical workshop at the 2012 Esri International User Conference. I share our outline and reflections in the hopes that it will be of assistance as you plan your own workshops and classes.

First, we were greatly encouraged by the inclusion of such a workshop in the conference for what we believe was the first time. Second, we decided to structure the workshop by introducing how several scholars have defined spatial thinking, plus our own reflections from the standpoint of GIS in education, and followed this with demonstrations of how to use spatial thinking in grappling with real world situations and data using several different tools. In essence, then, we sought to demonstrate “research into practice.”

We started the workshop by posing the following question to the attendees, “Are not all people in the GIS profession, by definition, spatial thinkers?” One could argue that they are indeed, but our purpose for the workshop was to make spatial thinking more purposeful. By employing spatial thinking, we sought to show this excellent group of GIS professionals that they could be more efficient on the job, ask better questions, discover new problems and investigate solutions, and have the opportunity to investigate new tools and build new GIS skills.

We began the workshop by defining spatial thinking as seen through the eyes of research from Joe Berry, Phil and Carol Gersmehl, and the National Academy of Sciences. We discussed our view that GIS relies on three legs of a stool—content knowledge, skills, and the geographic perspective. We then conducted investigations involving the analysis of different images around the world, showed thematic choropleth maps and asked the attendees to identify the “mystery variables,” studied historical tornadoes of the USA, modeled boundaries simple and complex with vector and raster data, mapped the patterns of local and regional businesses, tracked the mean center of the population over space and time, and studied real-time earthquakes. We used the most appropriate tool for each job, and therefore used a variety of tools, including ArcGIS Online, Community Analyst, and ArcGIS for Desktop, and our investigations covered all scales from local to global.

Distribution of two regional convenience store chains using Spatial Analyst. Can you guess which two are shown?

Did we leave something out that you would consider critical? How might you structure a workshop that you are requested to conduct on spatial thinking?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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