GIS in midsummer 2001

(a general summary, including a report of my attendance at ESRI's User Conference)

Enabling technology is software and/or hardware that allows something imagined to be carried out or realized. Once one has such a technology, one imagines applications and is inspired to experiment with their development. Available to us, and literally at our fingertips, are more ways (channels, sensors, repositories) to know about the world around us than ever before. Our students need the experience of working with such data, in real-world contexts, in order to realize the potential of such transdisciplinary and integrated systems approaches (Science 6 July 2001, pg. 49) as Environmental Studies, Global Stewardship and Earth Systems Science. We need tools for visualizing, modeling and understanding the physical environment and other systems in which we have come to recognize ourselves as actors. We must include historical processes as well as distributions at single points in time. We have to build management tools that can deal with the volume of data we have and will have.

Because of a confluence of advances in computer hardware and software, we are on the brink of dramatic new possibilities in the analysis and presentation of spatial data. We have at our fingertips

  1. extraordinarily powerful cartographic software (generally epitomised as 'GIS'),
  2. the means to digitize and georegister paper maps and images,
  3. relational database resources to build and query enormous collections of data and imagery, and
  4. utilities for Internet distribution of interactive maps built with the above resources.
It is now practical for non-specialists to produce and distribute maps that only a few years ago were the province of cartographers. The power and user-friendliness of GIS software continues to grow as new versions and features are released, and the prospect dawns of students and professors routinely using computers to create maps as a means to visualize data. These digital maps can then be published to the Web, analyzed with sophisticated geostatistical tools, tied to continuously updated databases, and archived for posterity.

GIS is the enabling technology for visualizing and analyzing spatial data, and the case for GIS as an essential tool for Global Stewardship and Environmental Studies programs is obvious. Vast quantities of data are available for administrative units (nations, states, counties, etc.) in economic and social realms [vector data], and remote sensing provides a continuous and growing stream of information [raster data] on terrestrial systems. Information derived from these data streams is applicable to many sciences and management tasks.

I imagine a future in which GIS is an everyday part of teaching and learning, but how we'll get there is both a challenge and a mystery. We're a long way from that now: we have interest from faculty, but few of them are willing to commit themselves to the time it takes to start learning, and most aren't all that enthusiastic about becoming supporting developers of their institution's GIS infrastructure. That will get left to somebody else, but who should that be? (who can it be?) and how do the necessary positions get created and the necessary resources get allocated? Librarians might be an obvious choice, but few have training in or inclination toward spatial data, or rather toward the complex of data and hardware and software that's necessary for GIS. At the moment, GIS development at W&L is in the hands of an ad hoc cabal, which has ambitious plans for the second half of the summer, expects to be the primary support for GIS through the coming academic year, and anticipates a search for outside funding for further developments in the next couple of years.

I enjoy several unique perspectives on GIS, since I'm a librarian and a professor, an anthropologist and a geographer, a technologist and a sort of a humanist. For me, GIS is the answer to a longtime problem, just as HTML has been: I'm able to realize the means to distribute what I do to global audiences, and to encourage colleagues in a broad range of disciplines to do things I think are important to the evolution of education. Realizing these things, bringing them into being, has been the epicenter of my work of the last 10 years, and continues to be far more satisfying and rewarding than what came before. Ultimately, I want to use GIS as a tool to teach other things, including spatial concepts and visualization of data in many fields.

My overall task is to envision what we'll DO with GIS software in the next year and more. ESRI's newly released integrated product (ArcGIS 8.1) offers an important step forward in public and pedagogical uses of GIS, but it also presents a few challenges --instructors have to learn a few new things about the interface (though it's generally both more intuitive and more Windows-like), and the greatly expanded functionality creates opportunities that need expertise to realize. Fortunately we have a lot of the requisites for development and deployment in place --with Skip Williams and Geoffrey Marshall in particular, and a prospect that several Computer Science students may be interested in software development possibilities. Some of what follows is a sketch of what needs to be built and deployed, with the objective of having ArcGIS 8.1 available in Parmly 302 in the Fall, to support the Anthropology of East Asia and Human Geography courses I'll be teaching, David Harbor's and Mark Rush's courses in the Winter term, and beyond that to develop W&L's presence as a creator of GIS content for Web deployment.

The ESRI User Conference
The great advantage of an industry-sponsored meeting is that it showcases the possibilities: one sees experts demonstrating and discussing and answering questions. Pennies drop, unanticipated possibilities are revealed, and questions are provoked. ESRI's annual User Conference is a 5-day event with more than 10,000 attendees, combining technical sessions, paper presentations, vendor booths, a gallery of hundreds of maps, and opportunities for consultation with engineers and technical support people. This year the User Conference was preceded by a 3-day Education conference and pre-conference workshops. I spent most of my waking hours in the various sessions enumerated below, and also presented a session (on GIS in the liberal arts context) myself. The recent release of a new version of the software was the main topic of many of the technical sessions.

I attended half-day preconference workshops on Building a Distributed GIS Infrastructure using ArcIMS and Using Java Technologies with ArcIMS.

During the Education User Conference I presented a session on Teaching with GIS in Liberal Arts Colleges, and attended sessions on Introduction to ArcGIS 8.1, Scientific and Social Aspects of Tropical Cyclones (Teaching Content using GIS), Using USGS Raster Data in the Curriculum, and Implementing GIS in Libraries.

During the main part of the User Conference I attended 90-minute technical workshop sessions on ArcIMS Developer, Introduction to ArcXML, Introduction to ArcCatalog, Installing and Configuring ArcIMS, Relational Database Concepts, Site License Administration for Higher Education, Managing and Using Raster Data, ArcGIS Spatial Analyst, Working with ActiveX ASP Connector, ArcGIS Geostatistical Analyst, Growing an Internet Mapping Service using ArcIMS, ArcGIS Configuration and License Management, ArcGIS 3D Analyst Advanced Visualization and Customization, and Map Analysis.

ArcGIS 8.1 makes a substantial step in the direction of a pedagogically relevant application. Previous version have required that an instructor spend time teaching GIS, going over elements of ArcView's interface and features to prepare students to work with data. The new version includes many intuitive features, is closer to the Windows conventions (drag-and-drop, right-click for details), reduces ESRI-specific terminology, and automates a number of functions.

The most important evolutionary step for ESRI and ArcView is a connection to the Web as data source and distributory environment. The enabling technology is the Internet map server (ArcIMS), which operates in two modes: (a) as a means to distribute maps created locally, via a server, such that they can be used interactively by consumers with Web access; and (b) as a source of data which can be imported directly into ArcMap sessions.

(a) The local server allows us to create and distribute content (such as the Rockbridge County and James River Projects), and offers the possibility that a professor's maps could be produced for use entirely via the Web --students would be able to explore material in a Web browser, without any reference to GIS software.

 (b)Internet access can be most clearly appreciated via, an ESRI-sponsored site that distributes a large and rapidly expanding array of spatial data for use by ArcGIS, upon which users can draw to explore and appreciate landscapes of many sorts. Just as a user can load the shapefiles for a map from our network, and then proceed to work with the data to create maps and perform analyses, geographynetwork and other ArcIMS servers can provide coverages and data which can be imported directly into ArcGIS.

ArcGIS 8.1 is a revolutionary product, and presents us with challenges and opportunities that have few precedents in the evolution of software for teaching and learning. In essence, the prospect is that GIS will reinvigorate geography as a fundamental part of many disciplines: maps of many sorts will be obvious and readily accessible visualization tools, and spatial data will be a natural part of exploration, analysis and exposition. Others have noted the parallel to the development and promulgation of the spreadsheet as an all-purpose "number processor" in fields which rely upon numerical data (an evolution which began just 22 years ago, with noteworthy consequences for the microcomputer industry and the teaching of business). GIS in its latest incarnation unites the relational database model for storing and querying data with a mature suite of (carto)graphic tools and a robust link to Web distribution of the resulting maps. 8.1 makes a LOT of sense for teaching, especially in providing seamless access to geographynetwork and demystifying the details of projections and layers and transparency. ArcIMS may also allow students to publish maps to the Web, thus building much greater functionality for distribution to audiences. ESRI is now developing a Reader for digital maps, analogous to Adobe's Acrobat Reader for text documents. Once implemented, ArcReader allow e-mail attachment delivery of interactive maps, and thus will open many new pedagogical possibilities and encourage map production.

Realizing the pedagogical potential of ArcGIS 8.1 does not require anything very extraordinary in the way of additional institutional investment, and can follow upon processes and developments already underway. Our site license for ArcView provides us with the basic tool and its updates; the continued efforts of enthusiasts (John Blackburn and myself) and academic computing support staff (Skip Williams) and committed teaching faculty (David Harbor, Chris Connors, Mark Rush) will build the infrastructure for deployment of the tool; classroom uses will develop in Parmly 302. At some point the instructional use of GIS will grow to the point that we will need the services of a GIS specialist, and our experiments with ArcIMS and ArcSDE and with Parmly 302 as a teaching venue will probably identify budgetary items for the next fiscal year.

So where is it all headed?
In the big picture of computers in education, the point is that computers enable operations with data and information. Specific applications (Word, Excel, ArcView) are important as facilitators, as environments within which ideas can be realized, visualized, developed and distributed. In general, educators would like to minimize teaching the tools, but maximize the tools' accessibility and use. The ideal tool is a transparent and intuitive extension of the user's brain: the user learns the tool by using it, by repetition, by conscious self-study, by guided instruction, and by experiment.

It's important to realize that software evolves rapidly and continuously. As software becomes more important in pedagogy, we have to be actively involved in exploring, keeping up to date, testing and anticipating demand. Such pioneering is an essential part of "Instructional Technology", and Skip's contribution is of great significance to this evolution. The formal organization, institutional location, and budgetary resources of this development arm of IT remains a problem for solution.

GIS now has something of the atmosphere I remember for the Web in 1994-95, when a small number of pioneers and enthusiasts explored and experimented in the faith that it would lead to something glorious, though few could articulate or imagine the scale of influence, the rapidity of development, or the reach of the technology. GIS has a firm basis in developed uses in a number of scientific disciplines, and in many governmental and industrial applications. Several vendors have stable and powerful products (ESRI is certainly recognized as the industry leader, with the largest user base). Growth is clear in many application areas, academic and otherwise, and is also reaching new territory, especially in social sciences and humanities.

In practical terms, the GIS Cabal is working on several fronts:

Sessions I attended and conversations I had in San Diego make it clear that other institutions are not far ahead of us, and few small liberal arts colleges seem to have contemplated the integrated development that we are now embarked upon. Several large universities have mature systems for management and campus delivery of GIS (though many do not):
NCSU's GIS development is based in the library, which has a "Head of Data Services" (and two Data Librarians) whose mandate includes GIS, but their programs are very applied, so the data serve specific disciplinary needs and not "liberal arts" studies.

Princeton's Educational Technology Center is working to spatially enable existing databases and build an online library of queriable maps, and acts in part as a 'service bureau' for faculty projects that use spatial data.

Harvard's Map Library is in the early stages of an ambitious "campus-wide geographic data exploration system" using ArcIMS and ArcSDE. (See GIS User Group for links).

While many colleges and universities have standalone GIS labs (usually in departments, occasionally in libraries, rarely linked to campus networks), most are oriented toward teaching GIS as a specialty (often in the context of certificate programs), and few are actively trying to develop teaching with GIS by supporting faculty efforts to include spatial data in courses. Many larger libraries have "GIS Specialists", but most seem to confine spatial data to "in-house" use, and do not anticipate network distribution in the foreseeable future.

In summary, each institution has a window of opportunity: a combination of resources and objectives and institutional will and vision of what can be accomplished. Ours is certainly an ambitious conception, but everything I saw in San Diego confirms my conviction that we can build a useful, appropriate and innovative GIS infrastructure at W&L.

--Hugh Blackmer