Author Archives: Joseph Kerski

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

Recent Posts

What Makes Your Neighborhood Unique?

What is the purpose for the pole in this picture? Notice that others exist across the street, and indeed, stretch on for blocks in this neighborhood. Yet in your neighborhood, none may exist.

Plow Stake
What else do you notice in the picture? What kind of houses do people live in, and what might the inhabitants be like? What does the vegetation imply about this area’s ecoregion? When were the houses constructed, and how has the area changed over time? The term “neighborhood” implies being near residents who are considered “neighbors.” How large of an area do you consider to be your neighborhood? Does the area that we define as our neighborhoods change as we grow older? Do you believe that a neighborhood’s size depends on our primary mode of transportation? What influence does rural or urban have on neighborhood size? What natural or human-made features influence what you consider to be your neighborhood boundaries?

How could you use GIS to examine your neighborhood? Begin by examining topographic maps and satellite imagery using ArcGIS Online (http://www.arcgis.com). Add demographic data to your map and examine variables such as age, income, and ethnicity, as shown below. Examine lifestyle measures online (http://www.esri.com/data/esri_data/tapestry.html). Compare your neighborhood to others nearby or far away. GIS offers a rich toolkit for neighborhood analysis, and your investigation could continue through the examination of spatial statistics in ArcGIS Desktop.

That pole? It is a plow stake, placed there every autumn so that in this area, which lacks sidewalks or curbs, snowplow drivers will know where the edge of the pavement is. Knowing this, and considering your earlier observations, where do you think this photograph was taken? I will post a comment to this blog entry after I have given you time to guess.


Consider asking your students what makes their own neighborhoods unique, and use GIS to investigate the fascinating stories that their replies will lead to.

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Analyzing Coordinates Before Mapping Them

Today’s GPS and GIS technologies allow us to quickly collect data in the field, and then quickly map the data in a GIS environment to analyze spatial patterns that the field data reveals. However, just as the ease of digital photography has allowed us to get into and out of the field rapidly, it is often advantageous for us as educators and students to slow down! Numerous teachable moments arise even before data is mapped. Consider the following points that I collected during a recent GIS-GPS workshop for educators in Colorado Springs:

point, lat, long
1, 38.98701, -104.76221
2, 38.98700, -104.76198
3, 38.98701, -104.76176
4, 38.98703, -104.76154
5, 38.98702, -104.76127
6, 38.98702, -104.76103
7, 38.98701, -104.76068
8, 38.98719, -104.76059
9, 38.98739, -104.76059
10, 38.98761, -104.76064
11, 38.98764, -104.76084
12, 38.98763, -104.76103
13, 38.98765, -104.76124
14, 38.98768, -104.76149

Observing how the latitude remained relatively constant while the longitude decreased for the first 7 points, how the latitude increased but the longitude remained relatively constant from points 7 through 10, and how the latitude remained constant and the longitude increased for points 10 through 14. From these points, can students visualize that I must have first walked due east, then due north, and then due west? If not, help them visualize this by starting with paper, pencil, and the Cartesian Coordinate System, and then entering and mapping selected points using the Esri EdCommunity latitude-longitude finderArcGIS Explorer Online, or ArcGIS Explorer Desktop. In addition, can they visualize based on the coordinates that the area traversed is not that large?

Once the students can start to visualize their world as x and y coordinates, then map the data, as I did in ArcGIS Explorer. Did the coordinates map where they had predicted they would be?

I am continually amazed at how accurate even recreational-grade GPS positions can be. Using the measure tool in ArcGIS Explorer, I discovered that the trees I was mapping were between 1 and 5 meters off from their location as indicated by the Bing satellite image.

Try this technique with your students and let the GIS education community know what you discover!

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Change in GIS: Moving Forward Is Better Than The Alternative

Like using any technology, using GIS in education involves change. Do you sometimes feel that you are not keeping up well with hardware and software changes that inevitably are a part of our world? Two things have helped me in my GIS career to cope with change. First, one of the things that makes the GIS community special is the open way that everyone shares their knowledge. Even before we had online knowledge bases and Twitter posts, the community was active via telephone, in conferences, and through scholarship, sharing what they knew with others. Realizing that each of us cannot be an expert at everything, but knowing that the community is there to help takes much of the pressure off. Second, with each new version of ArcGIS, the tools are becoming more powerful, and easier to understand, to find, and to use. Yes, it does mean that all of us need to be flexible, but that keeps us moving forward, becoming lifelong learners.

Think of the alternative to moving forward in computer software and hardware. Moving backwards would be worse than the movie “Groundhog Day,” where every day was February 2. Each year, the software would become less powerful and so would my computer. I would lose the cloud. To find data, we would soon be back when all of the web pages were yellow text on a black background. We would then lose the web entirely and rely on gopher, ftp, Lynx, and Archie. Then we would be dependent on telephone calls, spanning floppies with zipping utilities, and 9-track magnetic tapes. At home I would eventually be back on my first PC, an IBM PS/2, using minicomputers and then mainframes at work, restricted to low-resolution imagery and then only vectors. Eventually, I would be sharpening my scribing needle again and unclogging my Rapidograph pen – not a task I would relish.



Image courtesy of USGS.

If time ran in reverse, I suppose it would have a few advantages. I would find those sunglasses I lost. But I would be back to the horrible sink I replaced in the bathroom. But much more importantly, GIS would not be as effective in education and society as it is today.

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Teaching the GeoNews Using GIS Technologies and the Spatial Perspective

I recently wrote about using GIS technologies to analyze one recent event—the toxic liquid spill in Hungary. I used ArcGIS Online (http://www.arcgis.com) to find a map that I could use to analyze the spatial and temporal aspects of the spill, in this case, with ArcGIS Explorer (http://www.esri.com/arcgisexplorer). Have you considered using something like this as part of a GeoNews segment, where you start all or some of your classes by analyzing one current event from a spatial perspective? Have you considered using GIS as a tool to enable you to do this?

Lest you think that such an activity requires a great deal of set-up time, let me assure you that today’s combination of Web GIS and multimedia make this very easy to do. My example from Hungary is only one of hundreds of events that are routinely tied to Web GIS resources annually. And if you cannot find a Web GIS already made, it takes only minutes to create one of your own. Furthermore, the presentation capabilities that are embedded in ArcGIS Explorer and ArcGIS Explorer Online allow you to create interactive slides that help you tell the story. My colleagues and I modelled the GeoNews concept at this year’s T3G institute for educators in Redlands. Each day of the institute, two of us taught a 15-minute segment about events that were unfolding around the world at the time. You can watch examples of this in action via the movie on the T3G site.

After you have modelled GeoNews, assign your students the task of creating and teaching their own short segments. Emphasize critical thinking about these issues and the examination of these issues using the spatial perspective. Students may begin to realize that everything has a spatial component and that, yes, geography matters now more than ever in our interconnected world.

Some educators I know already make heavy use of current events in their everyday teaching. How can you make use of the GeoNews concept to put a spatial context to these current events?

-Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Using ArcGIS Online to Analyze the Toxic Spill in Hungary

A reservoir at an alumina factory in Hungary burst in early October 2010, causing a toxic torrent of water to flow through three villages and creeks. People and fish died; livelihoods were destroyed. Yet from a spatial perspective, we all know that the problem did not end with those three villages and creeks. The water had to flow somewhere. But where?

A quick search on ArcGIS Online (http://www.arcgis.com) uncovered a pertinent layer. I opened this layer and found a series of news articles, photographs, and videos linked to the locations where they were recorded on the ground. Analyzing the spill in a GIS environment allowed me to make sense of the scale, landforms, population, and watersheds affected by the disaster. Suddenly, I had a spatial context and perspective that reading disconnected news stories did not provide. ArcGIS Explorer allows you to navigate the landscape in a 3-D environment, changing the base map in order to examine nearby towns, lakes, and ultimately, how the spill reached the Danube, one of the most important rivers in Europe. Like paper maps have allowed us to do for centuries, a GIS helped me to understand, and to tell a story to others. And like most geographic phenomena, I can examine this in other disciplines—for example, in biology to understand the importance of pH, in economics to analyze the importance of alumina, and in mathematics to calculate the distance and time of sediment transport.


As explained in GIM International, hyperspectral and Lidar imagery was collected and used in a GIS and remote sensing environment to model scenarios and to detect future damage to dams. This article points to the critical role that geotechnologies have in every disaster that occurs nowadays to help policymakers and residents in the decisions they have to make.

Another thing to turn into a teachable moment is an observation that struck me in searching for news about the disaster. Almost every news story was published in the first week of the disaster, with almost nothing since then. Recognizing that news is a business and that to sell it, it has to be current, I was sad to consider that this event held the world’s attention for only a brief time, yet the local residents are still dealing with the effects on a daily basis and may continue to do so for years. What are the temporal and geographic aspects to human-environment interactions?

How can you make use of ArcGIS Online to analyze current events?

-Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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The Grand Challenges of Geographic Information Science

At this year’s annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Dr. Dawn Wright (Oregon State University) and Dr. Chaowei Yang (George Mason University) organized a session to address: “What are the grand challenges of Geographic Information Science?” Their definition of grand challenges were “questions and directives that: (1) are extremely hard to do, yet are do-able; (2) produce outcomes potentially affecting millions, if not hundreds of millions of people; (3) require multiple research projects across many subdisciplines in order to be satisfactorily addressed; (4) consist of well-defined metrics such that, through creativity and commitment, can be realistically met and [there is understanding when the] end has been reached; (5) capture the popular imagination, and thus political support.”

Running through the session was the theme of the digital earth—to make accessible a wealth of geospatial data and tools that enables people to make everyday decisions more efficiently and wisely based on the spatial perspective. The now-familiar concept of citizens as sensors was mentioned frequently. That the EPA discussed having citizens monitor air and water quality is another indication that citizen science will be increasingly relied upon as part of the geo-monitoring system for the planet. That has enormous implications for standards, quality, and the metadata and databases that will need to be in place for it to be effectively used.

Dr. Peggy Agouris’ report about the recent NSF-sponsored workshop on geospatial and geotemporal informatics was encouraging. The workshop identified new challenges in information extraction and modeling, stated that data collection was still important and needed to be supported in industry, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies, and identified support for cross-discipline discovery using spatiotemporal information.

Tim Nyerges (University of Washington and University Consortium of GIS) reminded us of Keith Clarke’s UCGIS grand challenges from 2006: What is the cost to the nation of geospatial information that is inaccurate, over-accurate, or out-of-date? What role can geospatial technologies play in eliminating geographic illiteracy? In what ways have we yet to exploit the superiority of digital maps over paper maps? Can we complete a digital earth by 2009? (!) By how much can effective use of geospatial information improve human safety and welfare while reducing the associated costs? How can we best articulate GIScience as a core of interdisciplinary science, supporting information integration across multiple disciplines in large research projects? Tim also spoke about developing an assembly of geospatial technical and social components and activities that implement a regional network for disaster preparedness and response for the nation. This seems especially urgent in light of the Gulf oil spill!

Next week, I will put forward some “grand challenges” for GIS in education, and I welcome your thoughts.

Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager

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The Disconnect Between Applied Geography and Geography Education

Many of us in the GIS education community recently participated in the annual ESRI International and Education User Conferences (http://www.esri.com/uc and http://www.esri.com/educ).

Two things are clear to me after reflecting on the years I have been attending these events: First, geography is applied daily around the world to solve real problems. The work on display from 13,000 attendees—hundreds of papers presented, a gallery of 1,000 maps, 500 government, nonprofit, industry, and academic exhibitors, make it clear that the geographic perspective and spatial analysis are highly valued skill sets. Understanding how to operate GIS software is not enough—it is the application of the geographic framework within critical thinking and analysis that makes the difference. Second, the variety of disciplines represented—from human health to business, energy, hydrology, seismology, planning, and beyond—show that the geographic perspective is applied far beyond geography.

Are the core themes of geography finally considered important by the workforce and the general population? Scale matters, planning for sustainability is critical, regions endure even in the face of globalization, humans have deep impacts on the environment and the environment continues to impact humans, movement, flow, and patterns have a critical geographic component, and humans and places exhibit wonderful diversity that need to be treasured. The size and viability of these conferences and of the GIS community indicate that the geographic perspective is becoming more valued given the local to global issues we face today.

However, I believe a disconnect still exists between the great respect that the geographic perspective has within the GIS community and the respect that it has in society and with educational policymakers. Geography education is still not connected in most people’s minds to the type of geographic skills that we must have in our workforce. We need to refer policymakers to the new Geospatial Technology Competency Model , which goes beyond technical ability to content knowledge and critical thinking skills. The amount and quality of geography taught and learned is still not what it could be. That’s why I believe that the work of the geography education community is critical. We must continue to support initiatives such as the AAG’s Blueprint for Geography Education, the Geography Map in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and geography’s inclusion in the Common Core State Standards movement. We also need to work together on new initiatives to ensure that geography is funded, supported, and tested so that it can be strengthened. We must provide society with individuals who have the geographic perspective. I encourage all of us to work together on this important task.

-Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager

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How Can GIS Help With AP Human Geography? Part 1 of 2

For five decades, the College Board’s Advanced Placement Program (AP) has provided students with the opportunity to take college-level coursework and earn college credit while still in high school. AP courses exist in 30 different subjects, each ending with a rigorous exam. The tireless efforts of many geography educators culminated in the first AP Human Geography (APHG) course, offered in 2001 with 3,272 students taking the exam. In 2010, over 61,000 students took the APHG exam. During the summer of 2010, 39 APHG teacher institutes were held in 24 states. These are encouraging signs that the subject is gaining ground in the secondary school curriculum.

AP Human Geography participation by year. Samantha Ross, National Geographic.

The five major topics covered in APHG courses are based on the National Geography Standards developed in 1994. Upon the successful completion of the course, the student should be able to: (1) Use and think about maps and spatial data. (2) Understand and interpret the implications of associations among phenomena in places. (3) Recognize and interpret at different scales the relationships among patterns and processes. (4) Define regions and evaluate the regionalization process. (5) Characterize and analyze changing interconnections among places. I have personally observed teachers instructing APHG, and have always been impressed with the depth of the topics covered. It truly is the type of college-level course that I believe we need to be teaching more of in secondary education. I only wish we had an AP Physical Geography course as well! Would anyone like to spearhead that effort?

Unfortunately, the mean score for the APHG exam this year was 2.56, the lowest mean score for any AP test (passing is 3). Part of the reason is that most students taking the course are in Grade 9, with perhaps only one semester or one year of geography behind them, several years earlier. The use of GIS can help raise these scores and more importantly, help students understand the spatial patterns that are such an integral part of the course. How? We will explore that in my next blog column.

-Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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How Can GIS Help With AP Human Geography? Part 2 of 2

In my last column, I discussed the contents and increasing popularity of the College Board’s Advanced Placement Program (AP) Human Geography course.

One of the five major goals in the AP Human Geography (APHG) course is to enable students to “use and think about maps and spatial data.” I like the fact that both the terms “use” and “to think” are included. Using maps and spatial data implies a rich engagement with maps as analytical tools, not just as reference documents as wall maps or atlases to look up locational facts. To really use maps in a critical thinking, problem-solving framework means to classify data in different ways, to use spatial statistics to examine the relationship of, say, literacy rate to life expectancy, or traffic to city size, to ask questions of the data, and be able to incorporate additional map layers to grapple with complex problems. This can be effectively done within a GIS environment. Using ArcGIS from Esri allows students to do all of these things and more, in both 2D and 3D, with the same toolkit that professionals use, analyzing the essential APHG topics such as population, migration, language, agriculture, and land use.

In so doing, students will be addressing two other APHG goals that have to do with understanding and interpreting associations among place-based phenomena, and the changing interconnections among places. And, because GIS and spatial analysis depends on scale, students will meet the APHG goal to “recognize and interpret at different scales the relationships among patterns and processes.”

I believe that for a geography instructor not to be using GIS as one of his or her major instructional tools is analogous to a chemistry instructor not to be using the Periodic Table of the Elements. GIS is one of the fundamental tools of geographers, and students who are exposed to this tool will be better problem solvers and critical thinkers not just in Geography, but in other subjects, both while in school and after they graduate.

What will you do to promote the use of GIS in AP Human Geography and throughout education?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Earth Day: GIS Is Green Technology

What do Earth Day and GIS have in common? Earth Day began in 1970, with one of its goals to help people take steps to ensure that sustainable practices are followed to protect the environment. I like to think of Earth Day as incentive for what we should be thinking about and doing the other 364 days of the year. GIS also began around the same time, during the 1960s, and like Earth Day, its disciplinary roots are older. ESRI began the year before the first Earth Day, in 1969, as an environmental and land use consulting firm. Despite the changes that have taken place since then in how Earth Day is celebrated, and also how GIS is used, they both have empowered people to understand Planet Earth and to do something positive as its inhabitants.

How can GIS be used to benefit the environment? Examine a sample of papers given each year at hundreds of local, regional, nationwide, and international GIS conferences (such as at the ESRI User Conference), books, journals, and articles listed on the ESRI GIS bibliography, and the annual ESRI Map Books. Look at how GIS is used daily by organizations from local to global scale, including departments of natural resources, the Nature Conservancy, and the United Nations Environment Programme. Review the “best practices” booklet showing how GIS is green technology, in which GIS is described as helping site optimal locations for wind turbines and roofs for solar panels, maintaining tree inventories, and improving wetland habitat. But dig deeper than simply topics labeled as “environmental”: When GIS makes vehicle routing more fuel efficient or when GIS restructures city operations so that underground cable upgrades are done before the street over those cables is repaved, those operations are also “green” because they save resources.

All environmental issues have a spatial component. GIS is used for these green applications because it provides a unique, spatial perspective on those issues, promoting creative problem solving. Most of us want a career where we can make a positive difference in the world. Using GIS is not only interesting and marketable—it brightens the future for all of us.

Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager

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