Educating about GIS for the General Public: 20 Ideas and Strategies

We write frequently in this blog about educating students and professional development for educators.  But, could the general public also benefit from GIS education?  I contend that not only can the general public benefit, but it is part of our responsibility as GIS professionals to seek out opportunities to do so.  And, when we find an opportunity, what are some tried-and-tested strategies for educating the general public about GIS?   In this essay I present 20 ideas that I have used in many different venues for general-public GIS outreach, and I would like to hear about your ideas and strategies as well.

1.  Sometimes, a one page information sheet about “Why GIS in education (and society) matters” is what is needed.  Here is my document on this theme.

2.   You may have the opportunity to teach a workshop or a short course for the general public.  I recently taught a course for the general public and titled it, “Why Maps Still Matter”, at the University of Denver.

3.  Need an example of an elevator speech?  I have a series of them, filmed in actual elevators, here.

4.   I created a series of “Why geography matters” videos in this playlist.

5.  Events such as the one I describe here at a local history museum are sometimes effective ways.   Note that “G-Harmony” was the message here!

6.  Geocaching provides a good way of outreaching to the general public.  I have created a set of geocaching courses that I have set up and run at events, parks, and other locations.  I favor “virtual geocaching” where the course still takes place outdoors, but rather than planting plastic or other containers, I use objects already on the landscape, such as light poles, trees, and so on.  Some of these geocaching courses are listed here; all contain a story “theme” to spark interest, such as “aliens land at city park!”

7.  Messaging.  For some events, consider not leading with the term “GIS” or “spatial analysis” might puzzle or alienate some.  Consider “Mapping” or “Spatial Thinking” or “Geo-enabling your …” or Telling Your Story through Maps.  I realize that “mapping” is not the end goal – it is admittedly an oversimplification, but it in one word at least gets to some of our message that is at least understandable to someone browsing an event program.

8.  Spreadsheets to Maps.  If you only have a short time, show (1) a table / spreadsheet; demonstrating attempting to understand it as is, but then show (2) a map of that same spreadsheets’ data.  The spreadsheet could be earthquake epicenters, location of hydroelectric dams, countries with high birth rates, or another topic that would resonate with your audience.

9.  Create story Maps to help people understand what GIS is – such as the Titanic with spatial distribution and graphs showing quantitative data.  Create story maps for campuses, events, or convention centers where you will be presenting.  The message is, if you create a story map in the day or hour before the event, so can your audience!  They are easy to create and yet powerful.

10. Incorporate Spatial Analysis.  Show, in ArcGIS Online, simple but powerful examples of spatial analysis, including the use of the Esri spatial analysis poster:  My live examples in ArcGIS Online usually include mapping earthquakes or some other natural hazard, some current event, John Snow’s cholera points, wells, and city streets, or mapping a specific business in a metro area, and creating a hot spot analysis, route, spatial interpolation, or heat map from it.

11.  Show current, real world events using multimedia and ArcGIS Online, making a Geo-News out of it and encouraging your audience to do the same.

12.  Use Simple but effective web maps to demonstrate and discuss:  600 world cities, plate tectonics with earthquakes, tornadoes, watersheds (drop pin and trace downstream), Starbucks locations, compare locations of two different types of businesses in your community; population change, median age, diversity, and tapestry segmentation. All of these activities are searchable in this blog.

13.  Show web mapping applications, including:  Landsat Change Viewer, and the Urban Observatory and invite conversation on the patterns and issues that you are showing.

14.  Core Messages:  Use Dr Charles Gritzner’s “What’s Where, Why There, and Why Care?” document as a memorable “core message.”  Also consider using my own Working Definition of Spatial Thinking.

15.  Presentations versus Live Demos and Stories.  Limit the number of slides you show; it is much better usually to give live demos of GIS in action and tell stories about what you do with GIS, how you entered the field, and what interested you growing up and in school.   Ask questions during your presentation and foster inquiry!

16.  Paper map and satellite image or aerial photo activity:  Create a map from an aerial photograph activity, discuss map elements such as TODALSIGS.  Print aerial or satellite image, put in plastic sleeve, use markers to make thematic map on top of aerial.

17.  Landforms and land use quiz using satellite imagery:  Land use:  schools, hospitals, churches, shopping centers, golf courses, malls, apartments vs houses, railroads vs light rail, streets vs freeways, etc.  Landforms:  Karst, lava, grasslands, sand dunes, barrier islands, glacial terrain, ice fields, mesas and buttes, oxbow lakes, alluvial fans, deltas, wetlands, sinkholes.   Weird Earth QuizOdd natural and human-built things on the landscape using satellite imagery.  Provide multiple choice questions.    Along these lines:  Other Quizzes:  Use Street View images to determine what city or country the image was taken; provide multiple choice questions.

18.  Think outside the Box:  Tap into community events and make a geo-something out of them.  I did this at History Colorado Museum’s “date night” and created an interactive Colorado geography quiz on the large terrazzo map on the floor, dubbing it “G-Harmony.

19.  Don’t be afraid to use some paper maps and aerials/satellite imagery, and thematic maps to foster inquiry and a roll-up-your sleeves conversation around a table.  Obtain USGS and other large thematic sheets from www.omnimaps.com, ODT Maps, or other map dealers.

20.  Involve the audience in a crowdsourced map that you set up yourself, in answering a quiz, or something else map-related with their cell phones.

Additional Resources include this GIS education blog, GIS Day, and this set of 2,700 videos.

What are your ideas to reach out to the general public?

Joseph Kerski

About Joseph Kerski

Joseph Kerski is a geographer who believes that spatial analysis through digital mapping can transform education and society through better decision-making using the geographic perspective. He serves on the Esri education team and is active in GIS communication and outreach, creates GIS-based curriculum, conducts research in the effectiveness of GIS in education, teaches online and face-to-face courses on spatial thinking and analysis, and fosters partnerships to support GIS in formal and informal education at all levels, internationally. He is the co-author of Spatial Mathematics, The Essentials of the Environment, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data, and other books. Follow him on Twitter @josephkerski
This entry was posted in Education, export and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply