Monthly Archives: February 2016

Fun with GIS 193: Computer Science for All

Computer Science for All is President Obama’s initiative to get all US K12 students to learn computer science. Why? Problem-solving, creativity, entrepreneurship, and logic are crucial life skills. Governors, mayors, school district leaders, and other education influencers are joining the call.

Good news! Students and teachers alike can do this with GIS, online, starting even at a young age, in just minutes. With an ArcGIS Online account, users can create and save maps, then get busy customizing, zeroing in on the mission. Designing a solution that presents information to an audience or solves a specific problem for a client is what hundreds of thousands of GIS users do every day. Students can identify walking hazards in the school vicinity, call out neighborhood opportunities for local businesses, profile shifting demographics for social services, construct environmental reporting apps for concerned citizens, build satellite data monitoring apps to help a community on the other side of the world, and countless other purposes.

It just takes getting started. A while back, I posted about building an easy swipemap app. I’ve used this example with learners young and old with no previous experience coding or doing GIS, and walked them through it well inside an hour. This is just a sample. Students need resources for examples, and then purposeful opportunities of relevance: a map to school; an app about the school in the world; a web scene (3D) presentation showing five places around the world they would like to visit and why; an app showing the college they would most like to attend.

Teachers must adapt to countless new challenges every day — students growing up. Students need the same chance to explore, attempt, fail, struggle, get close, fall down, and struggle up again. “Fail fast, fail early, fail often” (a modern business mantra) is what happens when people stretch their limits, try new things, customize, and build capacity. GIS lets users practice — over and over again — breaking problems down into little steps that build, iteratively, all the while exposing new patterns, illuminating relationships that had been hiding in the shadows. Custom maps and apps help students learn what it is to be a maker, a builder, a designer, a coder. The chaos of life provides countless opportunities. You just have to start!

Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Creating Cartograms in ArcGIS

Cartograms, because they distort our expected view of mapped variables, are wonderfully rich tools for teaching and research.  They allow us to see relationships and trends that may not be evident in a typical choropleth map.  A distance cartogram shows relative travel times and directions within a network.  More common is an area cartogram, a map in which some variable is used instead of the land area in each polygon to determine the size of that polygon. I remember using graph paper to make rectangular area cartograms as an undergraduate (though I realize I am dating myself).  Today, one can use Web GIS and desktop GIS to create cartograms. For example, nearly 700 variables can be mapped on, and the data can be downloaded as Excel spreadsheets and analyzed within ArcGIS.

Let’s say you wanted to dig deeper and make your own cartograms, with the ability to do further analysis within a GIS environment.  You can use the cartogram geoprocessing tool that my colleague Tom Gross at Esri created.  How can a GIS, which focuses on accurate spatial representations of features, be used to create cartograms? Download the tool and find out!  The tool also includes step-by-step instructions and a sample set of data.

Once you install the cartogram tool, you simply run it to create the cartograms.  An intuitive interface allows specifying input and output.  You can even distort your base layers (such as the imagery shown below) so that your cartogram can include these as reference layers.  I did this for cities, a 30-degree world grid, and a satellite image of the Earth to see these reference layers overlaid on my cartogram.

In this example, I chose to map the 2015 population by country.  Then, I mapped the total CO2 emissions by country in 2004, in millions of metric tons, from the US Energy Information Agency. What patterns do you notice?

The cartogram map layer has to be written into a geodatabase, but otherwise, the tool has few restrictions. I am very pleased cartographically with the results, and the methodology of how these cartograms are generated is well documented:   These are Density-Equalizing Cartograms using methodology developed by Mark Newman and Michael Gastner at the University of Michigan.

What other variables and at what other scales could you map and analyze as cartograms?

Cartogram of World Population in 2015

Cartogram of World Population in 2015.

Cartogram of C02 Emissions in 2004, as a Map Layout

Cartogram of C02 emissions in 2004, as a Map Layout.

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Content forward: GeoInquiries and K12 resources for all

In American schools, teaching is increasingly gauged, in part, through student learning.  For better or worse, student learning is commonly evaluated with standardized tests, using state or national curricular standards to define the content.   It should come as no surprise that many educators would be keenly interested in activities and content that directly support the evaluated learning in a classroom.

Over the past two decades, GIS instructional materials for schools have largely focused on either 1.) teaching the learner to use a GIS in the context of a curriculum or 2.) promoting field-based or open-cycle inquiry models of teaching with GIS (such as localized, custom project based learning models). It’s arguable, based on historic adoption patterns, that these two approaches serve Everett Rogers’ Innovators – a small class of highly motivated and well-positioned technology adopters (see Diffusion of Innovation). The great news is that GeoInquiries can engage all teachers and learners and through that engagement, may drive greater interest in GIS, field work, and project based learning.

As a part of the Esri commitment to the White House ConnectED Initiative, the education team sought to develop instructional materials that would strengthen Esri’s offer of ArcGIS Online to every school in the U.S.  This commitment requires approaching the education through a different lens of learning design.

GeoInquiries are short, standards-based inquiry activities for teaching map-based concepts in many different subject areas – all in the most commonly used disciplinary textbooks. Using either a 5-E based inquiry instructional model or the geographic inquiry cycle, GeoInquiries use ArcGIS Online technology to support subject matter content teaching. Lessons include learning objectives, technical “how-to’s”, textbook references, and formative whole-class assessment items – all packed into a single page.

Today, geoinquiry collections are available for:

Later in 2016, we anticipate releasing two new collections. In the meantime, share a geoinquiry with an educator or take a read through one of the latest publications related to geoinquiries:

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GIS and Abductive Reasoning

Abductive reasoning (also called abduction, abductive inference or retroduction) is a form of logical inference that goes from an observation to a hypothesis that accounts for the observation. It ideally seeks to find the simplest and most likely explanation. In abductive reasoning, unlike in deductive reasoning, the premises do not guarantee the conclusion. One can understand abductive reasoning as “inference to the best explanation”.  The fields of law,  computer science, and artificial intelligence research have renewed interest in the subject of abduction.

Abductive reasoning can be effectively taught through spatial thinking and analysis with the use of GIS technology.  Through the overlaying, swiping, and display of maps and imagery in a GIS, students are encouraged to make observations about the patterns, relationships, and trends, or lack of pattern.  They can then form a hypothesis about why the pattern exists and how it came to be.  They can then test that hypothesis against the data, by running a set of spatial statistical techniques, by testing different models, by symbolizing and classifying the data in different ways, and by examining different regions of the world at different scales, testing whether the relationship holds in all regions and scales, or just some.

All of this is what I find most valuable about GIS–it is one of those few tools that allow for inquiry, investigation, hypothesis testing, changing the variable(s) analyzed, all in one environment.

Consider the example below from a GIS-based investigation:  Say after observing the map that the student’s hypothesis is that the savanna regime division is generally characterized by higher population densities in East Africa.  Then, they can investigate such questions as:  Does the savanna suffer from biodiversity loss to a greater degree than less populous ecoregions?  What are other factors that can help explain the pattern of population density in this area? At a larger scale, is population density still higher in the savanna than other ecoregions?  Why or why not?

Examining ecoregions and population density.

Examining ecoregions and population density in a GIS environment (ArcGIS Online).

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GeoInquiries for Advanced Human Geography Released!

A new collection of geoinquiries for high school advanced human geography has been released.  The collection contains 15 activities and maps tied to the AP benchmarks for human geography and the most commonly used textbooks.  Like the Earth Science and US History geoinquiries, each activity is intended to take about 15 of instructional time to deliver to students.

The authoring team included Dr. Seth Dixon, Mr. Chris Bunin, and Dr. Megan Webster. produced much of the data and many of the maps used in the collection.

The human geography geoinquiry collection contains the following activities:

Distance, transportation, and scaleUnderstanding Globalization

World Population

USA Demographics

You claim it, you name it! (Toponyms)

Language and Religion

Sacred space – sacred place

Migration – On the Move

Borders, boundaries, and barriers

Farming, vegetation and the rural landscape

Agricultural Patterns

The Human Development Index

Comparing country development

What’s the range?

Urban areas and edge cities

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Fun with GIS 192: Sustainability and Students

“Sustainability” was not a word I heard in high school. I could comprehend ecosystems; I lived on a small pond, and saw it evolve before I could drive. Looking back, I loved systems, whether the meshing gears of my fishing reel or the feedback cycles in the 3-gallon pond aquarium in my bedroom. In hindsight, Earth Day 1970 marked the dawn of my metamorphosis from biologist to geographer, and a never-ending thirst for patterns and relationships.

On that first Earth Day, Esri was in year one of helping communities plan a better future. That mission continues, but now at all scales. Sustainability is a planetary concern; our future is not fixed; nothing is guaranteed. The interplay of many complex systems works like a herky-jerky conveyor belt; population, food production, biodiversity, climate, water, land use, economics, culture, and history push us … and we push them. We must grasp intestinally how actions have consequences, and how holistic vision can inform action.

Esri’s “Sustainable Development” website shows how individuals, governments, non-profit organizations, and business can collaborate. Our future depends on our capacity to think holistically, about how various elements (or layers of data) appear and conditions shift between here and there. To see the big picture — globally, yes, but even down to a local level — we need to harness technology, as data streams become fractal torrents, and patterns can hide like zebras on the savanna. Interactive geographic analysis clarifies such patterns, adjusting our focus.

Building skills with data takes experience, which means time. Educators can help students start, easily, online, with quick classroom content or extended projects. Any US K12 educator can do this for free, at, with lessons and a free school account. But students need not wait for their teachers to begin learning. Students can explore and learn, unfettered, at Intros, examples, videos, and other guidance await explorers of any age. Students contemplating careers, seeking coding resources, or just concerned about their future world, can launch on their own, for free.

We have begun creeping toward sustainability, but that global conveyor belt makes our net progress uncertain. We need students to arise, look around, view the patterns and relationships, gauge the net movement, and lend fresh vision, passion, and mission to the push toward sustainability. Thinking geographically, using GIS, will help.

Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Seasonal Changes in Snow Cover Map

This map in ArcGIS Online shows snow cover for the globe as it changes throughout the course of the year.  The patterns the map reveals is fascinating.  What is the effect of latitude on snow cover?  How does snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere compare to that in the Southern Hemisphere?  Which month had more snow on the ground than any other, in Canada, versus in Sweden?  What is the effect of elevation on snow cover?  During a specific month, which of the world’s major cities had snow on the ground?  Measure the extent in square kilometers for each of the months for specific countries and graph your results.

This map features NASA’s Next Generation Blue Marble imagery in a set of 12 monthly composite images of the entire earth, using 500-meter-resolution imagery from the MODIS satellite.  More information is available than just the snow cover.  These monthly images reveal other seasonal changes on the land surface, such as the greening up and dying back of vegetation in the temperate regions such as North America and Europe, and the dry and wet seasons in the tropics.  The Blue Marble Next Generation imagery was produced by Reto Stöckli, NASA Earth Observatory (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center).  The data is from 2004.  For more information about this data layer, see this description.  The data layer can be added to any map that you are analyzing in ArcGIS Online, and compared to other data layers, such as mean annual precipitation, or ecoregions.   If you prefer to show the data as a web mapping application, see this app.

How might you use this map and its information in your instruction?

Seasonal changes map in ArcGIS Online.

Seasonal changes map in ArcGIS Online.

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Fun with GIS 191: Survey123

Gathering great field data can be a challenge. A new Esri tool makes it much easier. Survey123 is robust and easy for educators to begin using.

Survey123 relies on a carefully crafted spreadsheet to define the data elements and parameters. The power and familiarity of a spreadsheet make the task manageable even for non-data-wonks. A simple survey can be built and published in a minute (watch the video!), and tested and expanded iteratively. The result is a powerful survey for deployment in the Survey123 app on iOS and Android tablets and smartphones, online or offline, supporting picture attachments, with a map. And anyone in an Org can use it.

Android tablet and iPhone view of same survey

The short intro video (on YouTube) shows the guts. The browser approach is very simple, but the more powerful spreadsheet process takes a little getting used to, and an example helps. I have built a spreadsheet that anyone can download and use inside their Org (as is or customized) to gather some non-invasive personal data, in English or Spanish. Watch the video, download the spreadsheet, and examine how it was built. Publish it once as is, and have students create data on mobile devices, populating the feature service you’ve published. Then look at the data in ArcGIS Online, and finish by dreaming aloud about the data you could gather to amplify learning.

This is a great tool for getting students actively engaged in generating data. The whole class could collaborate on design of a survey, or teams could build their own on different topics — about wildlife in the community, local water quality, visitors to a regional attraction, nearby historic sites, features along routes to school, locations that could support butterfly gardens, and so on. Check out the sample spreadsheet and Survey123!

Charlie Fitzpatrick
Esri Education Manager

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Five Forces Catapulting Geography onto the World Stage

In an article in Directions Magazine, I describe five forces catapulting geography onto the world stage.  These five forces, including geo-awareness, geo-enablement, geotechnologies, citizen science, and storytelling, are transforming the audience for geography and the way geography is taught and perceived.

After I describe each of these forces and why they matter, I define in the article what I consider to be the three legs of the “geoliteracy stool” – (1) content knowledge, (2) skills, and (3) the geographic perspective.  I then ask, “Is geoliteracy becoming increasingly valued?  What role can and should teaching and learning with GIS play in geoliteracy? How can the community seize the opportunity that these five forces represent to foster geoliteracy and promote the use of GIS and spatial thinking at all levels of education?”

I look forward to hearing your comments.

Five converging global trends that present geography with new global opportunities (Kerski, 2016).

Five converging global trends that present geography with new global opportunities (Kerski, 2016).

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