Esri Story Maps are alright!

I know thesriuc_2015_smallat Esri story maps have been around for quite a while, but I am only finally learning how to create them now. For some reason, I was quite resistant to using them, but now that I have created a couple I have to say they could be really useful for teaching both GIS and just about anything geographical (I know my friends at Esri would be rolling their eyes – what can I say, I’m a slow learner!). The user interface for creating them could still use some tweaks, as I found there was a lot of clicking involved, but I have not yet tried uploading using a CSV file, which I have a feeling would alleviate that problem.

The first story map I created uses photos I took on a little walking tour from my hotel to Stanley Park and back in Vancouver, when I was there for the Canadian Association of Geographers Conference in June. I have a GPS receiver for my Canon 70D and I have to say it works like a charm! The receiver gets a signal within a couple of minutes, and then my photos are automatically geotagged. Of course, I also used my MotionX GPS app to record my track, which I have included in the story map as a separate map layer. It was a cloudy day, so the photos aren’t exactly spectacular, but it’s not too bad as a first effort. Maybe I’m just too new to this, but the embedded version below doesn’t seem as intuitive as the “full” version when it’s opened in a new window. (Edit: I tweaked the widths of my website page elements, so now the embedded versions render in their correct, “full” versions – much better. I also changed the Vancouver base map to satellite imagery).

I hope to experiment with the different templates available in the future but, for now, the basic walking tour format seemed to work best. I have also created one with photos from the Esri Education GIS Conference and main User Conference (click here to open in a new window):

Note: one thing I have noticed is that, if my browser window is too large, or too tall and skinny, the story map doesn’t render properly. I read on GeoNet that apparently it interprets the dimensions as being on a mobile device – Esri is working on fixing this. If this happens, you can just reduce the height of your browser window until it renders it correctly (it seems to want to be wider than high).

This first foray into Esri’s online applications is part of my new commitment to making better use of the Esri platform, beyond the traditional desktop suite. While I was at the User Conference, I had an “aha!” moment where I realized that all of the various components that Esri has been talking about for the past two or three years have matured and coalesced into a coherent and powerful platform. I’m sure that was their plan all along, but I have a feeling I’m not the only user who’s taken a while to figure out what it all means.

 

Using ArcGIS maps and tables in PowerPoint

I am currently in the process of re-evaluating my PowerPoint slide designs and templates that I use for my lectures.  As a rough estimate, I have somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 slides spread over many files.  Over the last ten years, I have used the same template for all of them, with minor modifications.  In the next few months, I plan to give them an overhaul – update the designs and screenshots (there are still some Windows XP slides lurking in some of my files, which really stick out now, and not in a good way), experiment with new layouts, graphics, and content.  I have just bought some books that I’m sure will be very helpful in this process, including Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte, Presentation Zen and Presentation Zen Design by Garr Reynolds, and the Non-Designer’s Presentation Book by Robin Williams.  I like to think I’m fairly good at slide design and presentation, but I also know there is much more I can learn.  Some of what they recommend is old hat to me (e.g., less text, more graphics) or cliché (the expression “death by PowerPoint” is so overused but, sadly, still often needed) but I am voraciously reading all of these books to broaden my thinking for presentation design and execution.

So, on the topic of slide design, I thought I would share a couple of tips that might be helpful when using ArcGIS maps in PowerPoint.  First, I design maps specifically for use as slides whenever possible.  If you have the time, your audience will notice the difference (the small fonts and pastel shades often used for print maps just don’t translate well when projected for any kind of larger audience).  In ArcMap, create a custom page size that matches the dimensions you want to use, such as 7.5 x 10 inches for a map that will fill a traditional slide (sometimes I make them 6×10 inches to leave room at the top for a title).  Then set the data frame size to be the same as the page, with no offset or margin.

ArcMap layout for a PowerPoint slide
Custom ArcMap page layout for PowerPoint. Here my map will be 6 inches high to leave room for a title above.

Create your map, keeping in mind that the colour schemes, line weights, and symbol sizes should be slightly exaggerated.  I tend to use somewhat brighter, more vibrant colours for PowerPoint than I would for a print map, especially if the room I will present in won’t be that dark.  You also want the message you are communicating with your map to be easily grasped in a few seconds (this may also be true for print, but I think more so for presentation).  I then export the map from ArcMap as a 200 dpi jpeg file.  If 200 dpi seems like overkill, it often is, but it gives me more flexibility if I later want to enlarge and crop the map.  The trade-off in file size is worth it for me, but you may want to go with a smaller image resolution.  I then add the map into PowerPoint.  I usually cut and paste the legend from ArcMap directly into PowerPoint so I have the option of moving it later if I want to add a label or other text to the map.

When adding attribute tables to PowerPoint, follow the same guidelines for text size you would use for any other slide text.  In other words, the attribute table text should be BIG.  I often see presentations where people fail to do this and I always think “Why show an attribute table if we can’t see the contents?”

Attribute table with large type size
ArcMap attribute table with large type size

When bringing in screenshots of attribute tables or any dialog box into PowerPoint, I first set the size of the window so that I have a predictable, consistent size for every one.  There is an incredibly useful, free utility for Windows called Sizer (http://www.brianapps.net/sizer/), that allows you to set custom window sizes (it does not officially support 64-bit Windows 7, but I have not had any issues).  Since I show a lot of tables and dialog boxes in my lectures, I find it helpful to maintain consistent sizes throughout.

Sizer freeware
Sizer dialog box for setting custom window sizes.

As time-consuming as slide design can be, I really enjoy the process, as I’m always trying to find a simpler, more effective way to tell a story.  I hope the above tips will help streamline your workflow and help you do the same.

 

ESRI technical certification and my GIS curriculum

When ESRI recently announced their new Technical Certification Program, I was really interested in what they specified as required skills, particularly for their ArcGIS Desktop Associate and ArcGIS Desktop Professional designations, since those are likely to apply most directly to my students.  I was impressed with the number and range of skills, and it seems as though they’re not planning to just hand these out to anyone that comes along.  This got me thinking about which of these skills I already teach, which I should add, and which are beyond what I can do with the usual time and resource limitations.  It also got me thinking about the relationship in my courses between training and education.  This is something I address on the first day of my first introductory GIS course each year.  I explain that my courses emphasize education, but that I do my best to build in practical, marketable skills whenever I can.  My approach is to get students to understand the underlying concepts first, but to use examples from ArcGIS wherever I can to show how that concept has been implemented in the software, how to apply that concept correctly, and what risks there may be if you don’t understand it and plow ahead anyway, fingers crossed and clicking on defaults all the way.

If you look at the skills listed under “Coordinate System (Spatial Reference) Awareness” for the ArcGIS Desktop Associate (under the Skills Measured tab), it lists things like “specify a coordinate system in ArcGIS desktop when creating or editing a feature class” or “implement a transformation for a data frame”.  These are definitely important skills to know.  However, what’s missing are things like “be able to explain why you would choose one coordinate system over another for a particular study area and purpose”.  That to me illustrates the difference between a list of skills and a list of concepts or knowledge sets.  However, conceptual understanding does seem to be emphasized much more in the Desktop Professional list, as they include skills such as “determine suitable projection parameters for a specified set of data given bounding coordinates for a specific geographic area and purpose”.  Even though this is listed as a “skill”, the implication is that you can only master this skill if you understand the theory necessary to successfully complete that task.  I’m not sure how this is actually tested, but it appears as though they have the right idea.  This really doesn’t surprise me – as much as many people want to bash ESRI for various reasons, I know they have incredibly bright people working there, including many who come from academia, and who uphold rigorous standards (of course, I’m not saying they’re perfect either).

This new certification program is an interesting development, and one that will be useful.  It’s may be tempting for us university GIS instructors to want to teach to the Technical Certification requirements in an attempt to stay current and show students that what they’re learning is marketable, but how much this happens (or even should happen) will depend on a lot of factors, such as time, expertise, and personal and pedagogical views on the value of training or even views on ESRI itself.  Personally, when I begin my annual curriculum review in the spring, I will definitely see where I can incorporate some of these skill sets.  I don’t think I can or should attempt to have as a goal that students would be able to pass the certification test at the end of my courses, but I would like to prepare them as much as is practicable while maintaining what I consider to be the academic and pedagogical goals I also want to achieve.