Monthly Archives: December 2012

Telling A Story About Detroit’s Abandoned Buildings

 Earlier this year, I created a map in ArcGIS Online showing the location of selected abandoned buildings in Detroit.  A book entitled Lost Detroit features stories that the author, Dan Austin, wrote to accompany each of the grim but fascinating photographs of these modern day ruins taken by Sean Doerr.  These include the Grand Central Railroad Terminal Building, the Michigan Theatre that is now a parking garage, the Grand Old Army of the Republic building, the Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church, and many more.

Why did I create this map?  I have always been fascinated by maps and believe that mapping is a natural way to tell a story.  Detroit, and indeed all cities, are dynamic entities that have a unique and interesting story to tell.  ArcGIS Online also allows for the easy integration of multimedia elements to tell a story, and I created popups from online photographs of the selected buildings that ArcGIS Online easily geocoded.  Lastly, I wanted to see the spatial distribution of these buildings, which I could only do by mapping them.  As expected, many of them are downtown, but the Vanity Ballroom and others are scattered throughout the core metropolitan area.  This project illustrated the dynamic nature of the built landscape:  Since the book was published, I discovered that one of the buildings featured in the book, the old Cass Technical High School building, had been torn down.

Earlier this month, I went further and created an Esri StoryMap that allowed a rich integration of maps, text, and images.  The StoryMaps templates are easy to modify to suit your objectives.  I created this StoryMap, and another one that shows changes in landscapes, climate, and land use along 40 Degrees North Latitude, by modifying just two of the Esri-provided files, and then moving these two files along with the other required files and folders to a web server.

What places in your community are important enough to map?  What buildings or other landmarks in your community do you believe are important enough to protect, and why?  How might you use ArcGIS Online or Esri StoryMaps to tell a story about your community and its landmarks?

-Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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After Newtown

The world weeps for the students and teachers in Newtown and their many families and friends. Tragedy is an avalanche … indiscriminate, racing, expanding, consuming. No words can make sense from the senseless; no salve can ease the wounds deep inside so many. Our sole recourse is to grieve, reflect, and look ahead.

Life challenges all to adapt. Those without capacity for observation and analysis are doomed to fates controlled by chance — survival of the fittest and luckiest. Those able to observe, analyze, and act on understood patterns raise their long-term odds of survival, growth, and comfort.

It is hard to know where ripples may travel. What are the impacts from a conscious word, a spontaneous act, a random molecular configuration? What are the effects over time, even a generation or more beyond? If doom were facing us tomorrow, and we could somehow step back in time to tweak some condition or event, how far back might we go to engineer the best result most easily? And if the doom facing us tomorrow might come from many directions, what could have been done in the past most easily to tweak the futures of many in the most positive direction?

The answer, of course, is education. Nothing has such impact; nothing matches its compounding effect. It is the structure and process that builds the future. Every hour, every dollar, every thought focused on education bears fruit far beyond the initial value, and for far longer than the initial investment. But, just as the world has many elements and influences, so too must education have many components, diverse yet integrated, with fractal content viewable both in broad pattern and kaleidoscopic detail.

There is much for us to do, and precious little time. Lacking the magic to go back and change the past, we can only change the present. We can focus on the trivial and easy, or tackle the consequential and challenging. The latter requires diversity of knowledge, interwoven. Representing the rich and mingled layers of our world large and small, presenting analyses that convert data into information, communicating knowledge to all, and offering a path to progress … these are capacities that take time to master, yet can be fostered in learners of any age.

The events of Newtown show both tragedy and hope. Somewhere, something went awry, escaping detection, compounding, tragically. But, recognizing cataclysmic threat, some responded heroically, sacrificing everything for a future they would not get to see.

And in the streets and fields beyond Newtown quietly fall other victims of ignorance and apathy. We cannot bring back the fallen. But we can decide the resources to dedicate to the structure and process of building the future.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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A Good Map Teaches You To Ask A Better Question

During a workshop I attended at the Esri User Conference this past summer, my colleague Charlie Frye stated that “a good map teaches you to ask a better question.”   I love this statement.  It fits well with the mission of the GIS education community, don’t you think?  Isn’t one of our main goals in teaching and learning with GIS to use maps and data to investigate our communities, our regions, our countries, and our world?  A question is the first step in an investigation.  It is the first step in the geographic inquiry process.  Whether the question is “What is the relationship between birth rate and life expectancy around the globe?” or “How did the construction of the breakwater change the rate of coastal erosion along this stretch of beach?” or “Why were communities along the path of Superstorm Sandy affected differently?”, these questions form the foundation of our investigations.  Good questions inevitably get refined and modified along the way and usually lead to other questions.  They may not be fully answered, and oftentimes have no single correct answer.   This may be puzzling at first to students but emulates real-world decision-making.

In this activity, students determine the optimal route for a tourist bus through Manhattan given specified points of interest and the location of the tour bus garage.

As important as good questions are, it is sometimes amazing how little time we spend in our educational system helping students practice asking good questions.  Perhaps it is because in this age of standardized testing, we are so focused on good answers.  Yet many educators are indeed helping students ask questions, and not just any questions, but thoughtful questions that can lead to increased understanding, skill building, and critical thinking.

Teaching with GIS and teaching about GIS foster good questioning.  One of the core functions of a GIS is to allow for real-world issues to be examined, questioned, and probed with real data.  Maps in a GIS environment allow for the many spatial and temporal dimensions of our world to be examined, at multiple scales.  Not only are the questions able to be grappled with using rich sets of maps and data, but they are tied to real-world events past and present.  They are interesting, but they are also important and relevant for our future, including such issues as sustainable agriculture, natural hazard management, smart city planning, and much more.   Maps inside a GIS environment help students of all ages to ask better questions in part because during the inquiry, they allow for the scale and symbology to be changed, for additional layers to be added, and for powerful queries and statistics to be run on the data.  The “what if” questions can be explored, such as:  What  if I changed the scale?  What if I added this variable?  What if I ran a different query?  What if I examined a different area with the same variables?  What if I classified the data differently?  ArcGIS provides a platform for asking and analyzing questions.

What questions do you have about our world?  How can GIS help you grapple with those questions, find answers, or ask additional questions?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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