Engaging new GIS students with web mapping

Simultaneously published at V1 Magazine with thanks to Matt Ball, co-founder and editor, Vector1 Media.

Not that long ago, I considered “web mapping” an advanced topic, best left to be taught in a senior GIS course.  While that can still be the case, depending on how it is defined, the fact is that creating a map of your own data on a web page has become something anyone can do in a matter of minutes.  This was recently made clear to me when I decided to find out what Google Fusion Tables were, as I had been hearing a lot about them on Twitter and Google+ (particularly by the prolific and informative  Mano Marks, Senior Developer Advocate, Google Inc.).  I was amazed that I was able to geocode a list of one hundred postal codes using Google Fusion Tables less than five minutes after I learned what Fusion Tables even were.  I was struck by how useful this would be for my introductory GIS course to quickly get students’ attention, establish the relevance of what they would be learning, and promote discussion of several topics that would be covered in the course, including data input, map design, coordinate systems, projections, and interpretation and analysis of geographic data.

In the past, I have asked students to anonymously provide their postal codes on the first day of class so that I could geocode them in ArcGIS and then use this as a launching point for a discussion on geocoding, the spatial resolution of postal data, and what might be interpreted from their locations.  Now I see using Google Fusion Tables as a way to take this a step further, by allowing students to try it themselves and see how easy it is to collect data and create their own web map.

Students are already familiar with web maps in general and, likely, with Google maps in particular.  They already understand and appreciate the power of web maps.  My hope is that the simple act of creating their own custom-made Google map with their own data will empower them.  In other words, they will realize that they can do this themselves, and embed the results in any web page.  They can now move from passively mapping addresses in the standard Google Maps interface to more proactively mapping their own data in their own way.

With this simple exercise, students can see geography in action; how data can be collected,  mapped, and then analyzed and interpreted.  They can start to think spatially and analytically: How many students live within 1 km of the classroom?  How many live more than 10 km away?  What can they say about the points – are they clustered? Random? A bit of both? Does distance affect the pattern (e.g., clustered close to campus, but more random with increasing distance)?

Students can also be encouraged to critique the results of this web mapping exercise: Is there a legend?  Is there much flexibility in choice of symbology?  What do they like or dislike about the Google base map?  How does scale affect the data displayed and the representation of it?  If we zoom in and out from the local to the regional, national, and international level, how does the look of the map change?  This is a great way to introduce map projections and their scale-dependence (i.e., that different projections are appropriate for different scales).  Since I will not have introduced the concept of geocoding beforehand, I can ask them how Google “knows” where to place the points for the postal codes.  This will get them thinking about data sources and the “behind the scenes” data processing that goes on in order to make a seemingly simple map.

My approach has always been that, since many of my students will only take one GIS course, the main emphasis of that course should be on learning to create a well-designed and useful map, as that is likely to be the most useful skill for them.  My traditional assumption, which I now realize is rather old-fashioned, is that the maps they would want to create would be printed or perhaps used in a PDF file created for a report.  The reality is that the more likely medium they will want to use is the web.  Even the most casual mappers will want to share something online and, by teaching them how to do this early in their first GIS course, I believe this will give them a sense of empowerment and motivation that will, in turn, help them become more engaged with the course material.  To be sure, more complex web mapping is still something that is more appropriate for an advanced class (and a different instructor) but introducing some of the fundamental capabilities early on can provide a great opportunity for getting new GIS students interested in mapping and geographical analysis.

P.S. I realized after I posted this that I hadn’t actually included my little test case, so here it is:





4 responses to “Engaging new GIS students with web mapping”

  1. Dr. Maija Heimo Avatar
    Dr. Maija Heimo

    Dear Dr. Boyes,

    I was told that web mapping is free and it can be freele studied in the ‘open’ net – I have been looking for courses (free) but no luck.

    Can you please give me some pointers as to how I can learn web mapping on my own by relying on the web. I know how to go to google maps and put on it my items, but there is more to it and I don’t know what the ‘more’ is.

    Thank you for your help, best regards, Maija Heimo, McLure, BC

    1. Don Boyes Avatar

      Whether or not web mapping is free depends on your definition – in my post, I was referring to the simple type that can be done with Google Maps or Google Fusion Tables. These services can create a good map with your own data that can be embedded in a web page. Another useful service is http://www.arcgis.com/home/. Learning to use these simple and free services can be done through their “help” and FAQ pages. More advanced web mapping may be defined in terms of developing web mapping applications, which is quite a different prospect, and requires an understanding of programming and software development. A couple of examples of companies in this area are dtsagile (http://www.dtsagile.com/) and geoiQ (now part of Esri). I don’t know of any free courses to learn this type of thing, but there may well be something out there (this type of web development is not something I teach). I hope you’re able to find something. -Don

  2. R Leonard Avatar
    R Leonard

    How would one represent two people with the same postal code?

    1. Don Boyes Avatar

      Typically, they would be represented with two points at the same location, but there are tools that can count the number of coincident points and assign that count to one point, which can be more useful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *