Monthly Archives: October 2012

Fun with GIS 132: Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy is raging. It has been decades since such a storm hit the mid-Atlantic to New England. Sandy has already created havoc, and many will suffer. Yet it is exciting to me, because for days meteorologists have predicted it would be serious. How could they know? Science and geography — two elements often derided in the general public, including an unfortunate number who influence legislation, public policy, and education.

If ever there were a clear case to be made for the power of these two ways of thinking, this is it. So far, forecasters have been impressively accurate in predicting Sandy’s path, development, and impact. Days ago, they said it had the potential to become a megastorm.

Learning about the world takes focus, and should not be left to chance. Earth’s forces remain strong, but humanity has three key powers: (1) We can influence some physical phenomena; (2) we can learn; (3) we can influence our own behaviors.


Click the image above to see a larger image or current map

Science is a way of knowing which goes beyond faith and beyond hope. We need to understand as much as we can, about all things large and small, including the things we affect and those that affect us.

Geography is a way of seeing the world, being attentive to patterns and relationships. In this case, it means paying attention to the location, movement, and timing of air masses; the lunar cycle (the impact of a full moon and timing of tides); land use; demographics; engineering; human behavior and the weekly calendar; and events from living memory and more distant past. Up and down the eastern seaboard, people are already trying to cope with the chaos that the physical world can generate for us.

If there is any good to come from chaos, it will be to reinforce the importance of understanding patterns and relationships. Thinking geographically means understanding and integrating multiple phenomena, viewing things holistically. GIS facilitates interpreting vast volumes of disparate data, converting it into information, which can be combined to form knowledge that feeds action. Wisdom is the ability to act intelligently on the basis of knowledge.

Hurricane Sandy is already a troublesome event. We know from science that it will not be the last. We need humility, curiosity, and open-mindedness to learn about the world around us and behave with wisdom.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Land Use Change in Your Own Backyard

What sort of changes has your neighborhood, the area around your school or university campus, or even your own backyard seen over the past few years? Outside our Esri office in Colorado, a large condominium complex has been under construction for a year. Its construction invites consideration of scale, change, and geography. In my neighborhood and in yours, GIS provides an excellent toolkit to examine changes and the reasons for them.

For centuries, communities changed very little, and indeed, some communities today undergo very little change. Yet in most communities, changes in infrastructure, total population, and the makeup of that population are commonplace. In my neighborhood, the hilltop site was chosen because of the excellent views its residents will have of the Colorado Front Range. These, incidentally, were formerly enjoyed by my colleagues on the north end of our building! Regionally, construction reflects population growth fuelled by the combination of high-tech industries, including GIS, and amenities such as nearby universities, the mountains, and the climate, making Colorado one of the fastest growing states over the past half century.

One way to do this is to examine imagery in ArcGIS Online and add three types of basemaps: Bing maps aerials, the ArcGIS Online imagery, and the USGS topographic maps layer. These sources were created on different dates and thus provide an easy and rich data source with which to examine changes in local communities. Revisit a changing area often and capture and save the updated images as I did here. Toggle the layers on and off and/or adjust the transparency so that you can compare and contrast them. Combine this to population change data that is easily added in ArcGIS Online.


Our Esri office in Colorado in the south-central portion of this image is noticeable for its blue-ish roof. Note the open space to the north of our building.


Construction has begun, but note that in addition, a large office building now appears to the north of the east-west street.


Construction proceeds. What other changes do you detect? What time of day were these images taken? What time of year were these images taken? What clues help you answer these questions?

Go outside and take pictures and videos around your local community. Write and sketch what you see. Revisit the same sites during different weather events and in different seasons, or in the case of my Esri neighborhood in Colorado, as construction progresses. Link these photographs, videos, and text to points on your ArcGIS Online maps. What changes are occurring, and why? What will your community look like and be like in 5 years? In 20 years? What can you do to influence your community in a positive way?

I invite you to use ArcGIS Online beginning with these simple but powerful ways.

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Fun with GIS 131: Show Me Some STEM

Want a crowd at an education event? Put “STEM” in your title. Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics is a stronger attention grabber than ever. Whether or not the phrase was used, STEM education has been hot at least since Sputnik floated overhead in 1957. But some educators aren’t really STEM-savvy. I have been asked “Can you show me something STEM?” A few have even looked at a map of sea surface temperature next to a map of social media comments filtered on wildfires and confided “I can do whatever I want as long as it’s STEM. Have you got anything?” I try not to show my astonishment.

Geographic information system (GIS) technology is ALL STEM (or “STEAM”, with ‘Arts’ added.) Working within a context of physical or social realms (or both), users explore, modify, integrate, and analyze data, with a range of tools, thinking critically about patterns and relationships, in order to frame and answer questions and solve problems, and then communicate the information so as to feed action. (See myriad examples in Map Books.) Whether analyzing factors that influence crop yield on a farm; modeling the potential impact of past weather events on current landscapes; seeking more efficient routes for delivering school children from scattered homes to a handful of schools; identifying most critical land parcels to optimize biodiversity; determining whether a certain store might survive in a given location; moving personnel and equipment in front of a fast-moving wildfire or erupting medical emergency to maximize preservation of lives and resources; managing dozens of considerations to design Congressional districts that maximize equality; or any of a million other tasks, GIS users integrate science, technology, engineering, and math, constantly.

When I walk through such examples, some educators blanch a bit and ask “How do I keep all these elements in mind? And how on earth do I teach this to kids who are more tech-savvy than me?” This is a challenge. The world today is more complex, nuanced, inter-connected, and technofied than ever. Educators can seldom pursue a “pure” focus; kids certainly can’t. With so much information to manage, from increasingly many channels, they need to see relevance. Being a responsible and productive global citizen, conscious of the impacts of one’s choices, alert to the integration of culture, economy, politics, and power, near and far, and changes over the past, present, and future, is no easy task. That’s why it is so important for learners (of all ages) to practice the process constantly, building broader and deeper background knowledge, to weave with stronger and more flexible techniques for consuming and using information.

Ask an educator: Are your students permitted, even encouraged, to use cell phones in class? Educators who recognize small computers when they see one embrace the devices as learning enhancement tools. A steady diet of the content and techniques from yesterday simply falls short in preparing learners for the world of today, much less tomorrow. GIS is evolving rapidly, moving into new industries, jumping onto new platforms, ingesting more data formats, opening new frontiers, helping more people understand more phenomena and solve more problems. GIS users breathe and practice STEM (and STEAM). (See careers info.)

Educators who want to integrate STEM through GIS can get started with ArcGIS Online. This web-based environment allows users to be productive in seconds, and to build STEM knowledge and skills endlessly. There’s even a free online course designed just for educators getting started. It will help educators ask students good questions, far more powerful than “Can you show me something in STEM?”

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Reflections on Terraserver and the Evolution of Data for GIS

Back in 1998, I and my colleagues were thrilled with the arrival of Terraserver. While maps and images for use in GIS on the web today are commonplace, back then it was revolutionary. Suddenly, thanks to an agreement between the USGS and Microsoft, the GIS community had access to USGS topographic maps and aerial photographs down to 1 meter spatial resolution for the entire USA. Two additional features made this service extra special. First, these images were georeferenced, meaning that they could be easily used within a GIS environment. Second, these images were online: No CD-ROMs or other physical media were required! After downloading the maps and aerials for our area of interest, we could read these maps and images into our ArcInfo or ArcView GIS software. True, the header files often needed to be edited first, but this resource gave us a huge leap forward because we had terabytes of data at our fingertips via http://www.terraserver-usa.com, later becoming http://msrmaps.com. Even better was when some enterprising folks at Esri wrote programs to automatically stream these images to ArcGIS.

Now, 14 years later, Terraserver was recently retired. As the National Atlas recently wrote, “We note its passing and salute all those who developed the service. Many people were involved in this groundbreaking effort. Still, there were three individuals who largely provided the vision and hard work that resulted in this remarkable service: Tom Barclay (Microsoft), Beth Duff (USGS, deceased), and Hedy Rossmeissl (USGS, retired). The National Atlas switched over to services provided by Esri so that Atlas users can continue to link from our maps to large-scale topo maps and aerial views. This takes us full circle. The National Atlas Map Maker was the first on-line, interactive mapper offered by the Federal government. It was partially developed under a joint research effort by the USGS and ESRI
in 1997.”

A plethora of base maps, topographic maps, satellite images, and aerial photographs are now available to the GIS user and the general public such as via ArcGIS Online. Times have changed but the need for good base data lives on. While I don’t long for those days of tinkering with header files, I salute the early pioneers who made it all happen, and look forward to the future. The evolution of GIS data, and discussion about data sources, quality, and related issues are detailed and blogged weekly about in the book that Jill Clark and I wrote, entitled The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data.

I and my colleagues frequently need old aerials for land use change studies, however, and therefore, I wish Terraserver had remained online. Why couldn’t it have done so? What are now the best sources for old aerial photographs?

- Joseph Kerski, Education Manager, Esri

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Fun with GIS 130: Change the World

The mission: Change education, by helping other educators understand the world, using GIS. Since 2009, educators have gathered for a week in June at Esri headquarters in Redlands, CA, for the Teachers Teaching Teachers GIS Institute, or “T3G”. Four times 30 educators have engaged in a range of activities and discussions, integrating diverse content, varied teaching strategies, and a problem-based learning mindset, with GIS technology. Educators from all disciplines, at levels from public elementary school through state departments of education to elite colleges, plus after-school programs, parks, museums, and libraries, have joined this commitment to help others understand the world through GIS.

T3G 2013 will break from the past by seeking a much larger crew — 100. These agents of change will help pre-service and in-service educators understand why and how to use ArcGIS Online to improve education. Special attention will go to supporting the growing statewide licenses of Esri technology in K12 education across USA. Participants will be expected afterwards to engage in and report on activities they do to help other educators use GIS.

Our infinitely complex and interconnected world can be a challenge to understand. This fractal tapestry is best grasped by exploring the patterns and relationships, a lifelong task that both relies on and fosters critical thinking, creative investigation, collaborative problem solving, and effective communication. ArcGIS Online allows people to explore from neighborhood to planet with GIS in easy steps, building background content and information-handling skills, minute-by-minute, without the learning curve of desktop GIS. With web browsers and mobile tools, and a lot of discussion and reflection, T3G participants will investigate the world and learn how to help others build their understanding.

To those interested in changing the world by making education more relevant, engaging, analytical, and useful, beyond one’s own classroom, through GIS, we invite you to apply to T3G 2013.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Esri teams with AAG and UCGIS to Reissue Body of Knowledge

With support from Esri, the Association of American Geographers (AAG) has reprinted 2,000 copies of the Geographic Information Science and Technology Body of Knowledge (BoK). AAG will distribute these new copies at no charge to attendees at its national events in 2013. In addition, AAG and the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) have granted permission to Esri to distribute a free digital version of the BoK. Download the digital version as a PDF here.

Originally published in 2006, the BoK is the first comprehensive attempt to inventory the knowledge and abilities that comprise the field of geospatial technology. Building on the efforts of Duane Marble and colleagues to develop a Model Curricula for GIS&T education, the UCGIS Education Committee (with support from Esri and AAG) organized contributions from more than 70 GIS scholars and practitioners to produce the BoK.

“The BoK is a very important reference book about the geospatial field and is immensely useful to educators,” says Michael Goodchild, Emeritus Professor of Geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “I’m excited that the AAG, Esri, and UCGIS have come together to make it widely available and easily accessible.” “Esri is pleased to support the reprinting and open access distribution of first edition of the GIS&T Body of Knowledge,” says David DiBiase, Esri Director of Education and lead editor of the BoK. “We look forward to broad community participation in the development of a second edition.” UCGIS researchers are currently working on NSF-funded research related to the development of a dynamic approach to the creation and dissemination of the second edition of the book.

Reference this blog post and download URL using: http://esriurl.com/BoK

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