Monthly Archives: August 2013

Investigating Population Change with Dot Density Maps

A dot map of population change makes it easy to teach and learn about population dynamics in a variety of classroom settings with students from a wide range of ages and skill levels.  This map is based on Esri’s ArcGIS platform and runs in any web browser.

Dot map showing population change.

Dot map showing population change.

Access the map and view the legend while looking at Denver, Colorado.  Note that the dot color depends on whether the area is expected to experience high growth (above 1.25% annually), normal growth (0 to 1.25% annually) or population decline through 2017.  Do you find this map easy or difficult to interpret?  Why?  The dots may show trends that may be hidden by a standard choropleth map.  How many persons does each dot, at this scale, represent?  The answer:  180 people.  Change the scale.  How does the number of persons represented by each dot change at different scales, and why?  As you zoom in to larger scales, each dot represents fewer people, because you are now examining a smaller area.  Click any area on the map and observe the growth or decline for the area you have selected from 2000 to 2017 as a bar chart.  What patterns do you notice, and what are some reasons for those patterns?  What side of Denver (north, east, south, or west) is projected to grow the most rapidly through 2015?  What are some of the reasons?  Can you detect some of the population growth that the Lower Downtown (LoDo) area of Denver has been experiencing with the conversion and construction of existing and new loft-style apartments?  Pan a few miles east of downtown to the site of the former international airport in Denver, Stapleton.  Can you detect the in-fill that is occurring of residential neighborhoods on the site of former runways and airport terminals?

Pan the map to Detroit.  What do you notice about population change in Detroit’s downtown versus that of Denver?  What are some of the reasons for the differences between the two cities?  How is the neighborhood where you work or live changing, and why?  This map, therefore, becomes a springboard for discussion about the types and health of employment sectors, downtown growth, decline, and revitalization, proximity to light rail, bus, railroad, and highway transit, perception of neighborhoods, zoning laws, history, physical setting, and much more, at local to regional to national scales.

This map, along with thousands of others, lives on the ArcGIS platform.  The platform supports maps, data, applications, and tools that together provide an incredibly rich resource for teaching and learning.

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Book Review: GIS Concepts and ArcGIS Methods, by David M. Theobald, PhD

Perhaps I am showing my age, but it does not seem like that long ago when all we in the geospatial community had to choose from in terms of textbooks were those from early trailblazers such as Burroughs and Aronoff. Today, good, quality textbooks abound in general texts and also those focused on specific applications of GIS such as in health and crime analysis. In such a world, why does Dr. David Theobald’s book GIS Concepts and ArcGIS Methods merit attention?

GIS Concepts and ArcGIS Methods by David M. Theobald, PhD

GIS Concepts and ArcGIS Methods by David M. Theobald, PhD

As every technical textbook author knows, there is a fine line between providing information about a rapidly changing and complex system, such as GIS, and making that information understandable by the reader. Theobald’s book does both. In the first few pages, for example, there are real-life examples of how GIS can be used to study aspen groves that help the readers to clearly understand what GIS is all about, and these examples encourage the readers to think about the way that they will use GIS in their own career paths. Theobald explains why a person should choose a particular method or technique, in addition to how to do it. Throughout the book, Theobald takes the Why should I care? view seriously: the technology is presented as something transformative—as a decision-making tool that enables better decision making.

This book is in its fifth edition. Theobald has been refining this book for many years, and his close attention to detail shows. And yes, he includes fundamental discussions about data models, data types, data sources, projections, cartography, and the basics of analysis, which every respectable book on GIS should include. This book is not merely an update of something he wrote 15 years ago but embraces new technologies such as animation and 3D methods. The book provides some foundational underpinnings for people to learn about GIS but also has a strong applied focus to it: using the book will enable the reader to effectively use ArcGIS software. While I would have liked to see something about web-based GIS in the book, the book does remain true to its focus on enabling the readers to understand what GIS is and how to use ArcGIS 10 and to think about what they are doing while using GIS and ArcGIS software in particular. The quizzes are perhaps too brief, but they are to the point and useful for instructors or for those learning on their own. Graphics include tables; photographs; and, of course, maps, and all are well placed and informative.

This edition is digital only, in iBook and PDF formats, which is wonderful for student access, price, and ability to search. A companion book, GIS Concepts and ArcGIS Methods: Advanced, as its name implies, takes the reader to advanced analysis, modeling, raster-based analysis, and Python script programming.

Published by Conservation Planning Technologies, Fort Collins, Colorado, 2012.
Available from
ISBN 0-9679208-7-6

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GIS connections to 21st Century skills

Last week, I explained how well GIS fits in with 6 tech practices becoming increasingly important in primary and secondary education.  This week, I would like to make the case that GIS connects well with 21st Century skills, as defined by the Partnership for 21st Century skills, but also by many states.  Let’s take Colorado as an example, where these 5 skills were identified by educators, policymakers, and citizens as key for the 21st Century:

Interpolating a surface from points using a GIS

Interpolating a surface from soil test points using a GIS.

1)  Critical thinking and reasoning.
2)  Information Literacy.
3)  Collaboration.
4)  Self direction.
5)  Invention.

The effective use of GIS in teaching and learning can support each of these skills. Under critical thinking and reasoning are listed “evaluating”, “inferring”, “drawing conclusions”, “problem solving”, and “using logic”.  All work using GIS involves these actions.  In fact, GIS was created to solve problems, from local to global, from land use to population to natural hazards to transportation and much more.  Under “information literacy” there are also numerous connections, such as evaluating information, accessing appropriate tools, and distinguishing among fact, point of view, and opinion.  Working with GIS involves the use of numerous types, sources, scales, and themes of spatial data, with tools, and with techniques.  Each decision about which to use and how to use it requires careful consideration.  Under collaboration are statements about communication and teamwork. Maps have always been good communication tools, but now that audio, video, photographs, text, and animations can be seamlessly integrated with ArcGIS Online and Storymaps, the GIS platform has truly become a communications platform.

Under self-direction are statements about “understanding and controlling cognitive processes.”  Working through GIS-based projects requires a logical workflow that usually involves asking questions, framing the problem, gathering data, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, acting on the information, and asking further questions as part of the scientific inquiry process.  Finally, invention is all about applying new ways to solve problems.  The GIS environment is a dynamic one, with new tools to learn and new techniques to master.  The technology itself is rapidly evolving, but more importantly, the notion of using spatial thinking as a basis for approaching a problem in the first place is novel for many students.

The documents associated with the skills state that “Reading, writing, and communicating are inherently demonstrated in each of the skills.”  This also aptly describes the work that occurs independently and collaboratively when using GIS in education and beyond.  As the documents also state, “today’s students need a repertoire of knowledge and skills that are more diverse, complex, and integrated than any previous generation.”  GIS entails the use of knowledge about Earth systems, about technology, about communications, about data, and much more.   We need a complex set of tools to grapple with the complex issues that society faces, and students who use GIS are well on their way to be excellent decision makers of tomorrow.

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6 Tech Practices Gaining in Importance in Primary and Secondary Education

Sean Cavanagh, writing for Education Week, highlights 6 different kinds of technology and tech practices that are likely to become increasingly important in K-12 school systems over the next few years.  In addition, the Horizon Report’s 2013 K-12 Edition, discusses those technologies in more detail, and also describes barriers to the effective use of technology. The report was released by the New Media Consortium, an international organization focused on educational technology, as well as the Consortium for School Networking and the International Society for Technology in Education.  Its findings are based on the opinions and analyses of school and college technology officials, business representatives from companies around the world, and others.

The report states that in the near term, mobile technologies have an expanding presence in school, growth driven by “bring-your-own-device” policies, the rise of mobile apps and other tools, and a strong interest from the private sector in developing new technologies.  Cloud computing is already being used by schools today, and more are turning to that option as a way to outsource portions of their technology infrastructure.

In the mid-term, learning analytics, or the field focused on making sense of trends and patterns using “big data”–huge amounts of student-related data, is likely to grow. Data analysis is being used to help struggling learners and to help tailor curricula to student needs.  The use of open content was once largely confined to higher education, but now more organizations are developing those free, flexible materials for K-12 schools. That’s partly a response to “an expression of student choice about when and how to learn,” the Horizon report says.

In the far-term, 3-D printing has the potential to help schools introduce students to the design process, help schools create materials that demonstrate concepts, and make classrooms more creative places.  Virtual and remote laboratories can allow schools to use wireless networks, cloud-based software, and mobile devices to bring scientific experiences to schools that have only limited labs.

The authors also note potential stumbling blocks on the horizon. Today’s technology in schools doesn’t do enough to support personalized learning, for instance. And professional development to implement new technology is often lacking, they say.

Collecting spatial data in the field.

Collecting spatial data in the field.

I see many ways that geotechnology fits into these trends.  Today’s GIS allows students to use a variety of devices not only to create and examine web-based maps, but to collect data in the field.  It thus easily incorporates virtual and remote laboratories and the “bring your own device” model.  ArcGIS is a cloud computing platform that supports an ever-expanding array of functions, map layers, and applications.  The ArcGIS platform is beginning to be embedded into open content and learning management system architecture.  When I read the sentences I have just written, and think back to where GIS in education was just a few years ago, I am amazed.  We have more and easier-to-use data sets and tools at our fingertips than ever before.  Could we be at the tipping point where GIS will soon be adopted on an order of magnitude larger than what we have seen up now?

Not only does GIS fit well with these trends, but I would argue that for the future of our students, we can’t just sit around and hope that GIS spreads throughout education at all levels and in all disciplines.  I feel we must as a community take active steps to ensure that GIS and spatial thinking are embedded into an envisioned future of primary and secondary education.  GIS is well connected to educational content standards, fosters critical thinking, is by its nature created to be an investigative, problem-based set of tools and approaches, and develops skills that are in increasing demand in the workplace.  However, the most important reason we need to promote GIS is, I believe, that we face critical global issues in the 21st Century, all of which are geospatial issues that can be examined through the spatial perspective using GIS.  We simply must equip decision makers with the tools and perspectives necessary for them to be able to make the wisest decisions possible for the benefit of people and the planet.

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O SAE, Can you see?

A number of years ago, our colleague in geography from the University of Missouri, Professor Kit Salter, created a rubric that encouraged students to truly observe and learn from their observation.  Dr Salter called it “O, SAE, can you see?” Each letter in this phrase is laden with meaning.  The “O” stands for Observation, because all geography and the study of landscape must begin with an articulate expression of what you are looking at, or what landscape problem you are considering.  The “S” stands for Speculation — about why the landscape being observed looks the way it does.  Dr Salter  promotes speculation as a strand of critical thinking because “you have to look at visual evidence and try to determine what factors–economic, aesthetic, political, technological, and so on, seem dominant in the creation of that scene/seen” (Salter, personal communication).

O SAE, what can you see?

O SAE, can you see? Fountain Formation sandstone, photo by Joseph Kerski.

The “A” stands for Analysis.  Part of the “O, SAE” exercise is determining what evidence is not  available simply through O and S.  Interviews might be required.  A list of questions that could be taken to the library or to a local realtor or long-time resident would help learn what is trying to be understood.   A can also stand for Answers, which come from observing, speculating, and grappling with the issues.  However, students need to realize that for many complex issues, there is no single correct answer.  The “E” stands for Evaluation.  Does this particular landscape phenomenon make sense?  Is what is observed environmentally sustainable?  Does the situation serve the community?  How can it be studied more effectively?  Dr Salter commented that this simple rubric worked not only in the field but also with in-class discussion or presentations, as well as with passages from prose or objective description.  He used it with primary school field trips through graduate seminars.

I believe that geospatial technologies can be effectively used to bring out the themes of “O SAE can you see”.  Students can use geospatial technologies such as GIS, and ArcGIS Online in particular, to map their own field-collected data, to analyze geographic variables from local to global scale, and to build richly illustrated story maps that communicate their research project’s results.  Students can share the maps they have created and embed them into slideshows and websites. I believe that “O, SAE can you see?” provides an easy-to-remember and helpful framework for instruction.  But as Dr Salter remarked, perhaps a better one is “O, SAE what can you see?”

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Reflections on Spatial Data from the 2013 Esri International User Conference

After a week spent with 14,000 people at the annual Esri GIS Education Conference and the Esri International User Conference, it was evident to me that the themes that Jill Clark and I examine in the book The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data not only are relevant to the conversations that the GIS community is having, but actually grow in importance each year.  My observations from this year’s conference include, first, that despite the plethora of spatial data now available, the need for authoritative data remains paramount.  Data provides the foundation for everything we do in GIS.  This data needs to be curated  and provided with sufficient metadata.   Curation is particularly important in this era of cloud-based GIS.  Second, every data consumer is now also a potential data producer.  However, even though citizen science and volunteered geographic information is starting to provide a wealth of data at scales and with details the community only recently dreamed about, the need for data continues to outpace its production.

Where and Why are Important!  And thus the need for spatial data.

Where and Why are Important! And thus the need for spatial data.

Third, with this avalanche of data and citizen science capabilities comes increased responsibility to use and produce data wisely. Fourth, GIS software and tools have become ubiquitous on just about every electronic device that we use for work and for play.  This familiarity helps the community’s efforts in explaining to stakeholders why GIS is necessary.  However, at the same time presents a challenge because administrators and policymakers can be lulled into thinking that consumer-facing mapping tools equate to a full GIS implementation, and hence may not understand the need to invest in a GIS.  Fifth and, I believe most importantly, the world is changing, with pressing issues of biodiversity loss, climate and population change, food security, water quality and quantity, natural hazards, and many others that need to be solved.  We won’t be able to effectively make decisions about these issues and effectively plan for the future unless we understand the spatial data that is behind the GIS tools and the resulting decisions that can be made with these tools.

After being with thousands of people from all over the world gathered at the Esri International User Conference, I am confident that these skilled, energetic, and dedicated people can grapple with and solve many of these issues.  But again, much of it depends upon the data that we are producing and using.

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