Education, Vocation and GIS Enlightenment

by Joseph K. Berry

Berry & Associates // Spatial Information Systems, Inc.
2000 South College Avenue, Suite 300, Fort Collins, Colorado, 80525 —


Keynote Presentation for IMAGINE Forum, Lansing, Michigan — May 1, 1997


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In contemplating what to include in this address reflecting on GIS education, the ideas of Where, What and Who kept coming to mind. These topics seem suitable for the discourse, but the story of the three-legged pig makes an ideal place to start.


You see there was this traveling salesman who noticed a three-legged pig standing in a field. His curiosity was peaked, so he stopped by the farmhouse and sought out the farmer. "I noticed the tree-legged pig in your field and am curious as to what happened—I have never seen one before." "Well let me tell you about that pig," said the farmer. "My youngest son fell in the pool, and that darn pig jumped in, pulled him out and was giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by the time I arrived." "But how’d he lose his leg?" "Let me tell you something else about that pig. The barn caught fire and my daughter has trapped inside. The pig shot by us all, grabbed my unconscious daughter and pulled her from the flames, just as the barn collapsed." "But how’d he lose his leg?" "What do you mean? If you had a pig like that could you eat him all at once?"


That’s the state of GIS today… all utilitarian. The early years of GIS’ing for GIS sake, intellectual enlightenment, and friendly users have given way to folks who actually intend to something with it and demand it be user-friendly.


Contrary to my academic background, I will heed the king’s advice in Alice in Wonderland—"begin at the beginning and go until you come to the end; then stop"—hopefully before dessert is a distant memory and your patience is exhausted.



(General Halftrack slide…"there’s only one problem having all this sophisticated equipment; we don’t have anyone sophisticated enough to use it")


Where is GIS Education?


GIS means different things to different people. To some, it’s a tool that extends mapping to the masses. It allows the construction of custom maps from any desktop. It enables the spatially challenged to electronically locate themselves on a map, request the optimal path to their next destination, as well as checking the prices of motels along the way. When coupled with a cell phone, they can call for help and their rescuers will triangulate on the signal, and deliver a gallon of gas and an extra large pizza within the hour. Whether you are a lost explorer near the edge of the earth or soul-searching on your Harley, finding yourself has never been easier—the revolution of the digital map is firmly in place.


A new-age real estate agent can search the local multiple listing for suitable houses, then electronically "post" them to a map of the city. A few more mouse-clicks allows a prospective buyer to take a video tour of the homes and, through a GPS-linked handy-cam movie, take a drive around the neighborhood. A quick geo-query of the spatially-linked database, locates neighboring shopping centers, churches, schools and parks. The city’s zoning map, land use plan and proposed developments can be superimposed for a glimpse of future impacts. Demographic summaries by census tracts can be generated and financial information for "comparables" can be plotted and cross-linked for a better understanding market dynamics. Armed with this information narrowing the housing choices, a prospective buyer can "hit the ground running" right off the airplane—the revolution of spatial database management is here.



(Location slide…mapping tells us where we are)



(Impaired slide… spatial database management organizes massive amounts of information; "Life is difficult for the organizationally impaired")


Academic Organization (is that an oxymoron?)


However, the "intellectual glue" supporting such Orwellian mapping and management applications of GIS is still being fought in series of small skirmishes on campuses throughout the world. In part, the battles reflect the distribution of costs and benefits of the new discipline. From one perspective, GIS is viewed as a money pit draining the life-blood from traditional programs. It appears as an insatiable beast (like the plant’s constant cry of "MORE!" in the Little Shop of Horrors) devouring whole computer labs with its gigabyte appetite and top-end taste in peripherals. The previous assault on "real computing" by the demeaning distractions of word processing, spreadsheets, and graphics packages, pales by comparison. The insertion of yet another "techno-science" addition to the already burgeoning curricula appears to be the last straw. GIS’s insidious tentacles are tugging at every department.


The classical administrator’s response is to stifle the profusion of autonomous GIS labs and centralize them into a single "center of excellence." On the surface, this idea is not without merit. Its obvious economies of scale and orderly confines, however, often are met head-on by the savage realities of academic ownership. A GIS oversight committee composed of faculty from across campus is an organizational oddity in a sea of established departments and colleges. Strong leadership within the committee is viewed as a "power-play" by the activist for his or her department and is quickly countered with the sub-committee kiss of death. Keep in mind the old adage that "the fighting at universities is so fierce, because the stakes are so small." Acquisition of space and equipment are viewed less as a communal good, as they are viewed as one department’s evil triumph over the others. My nine years as an associate dean hasn’t embittered me, as much as it has ingrained organizational realities. Bruises and scar tissue suggest that the efficiencies and cost savings of a centralized approach to GIS (be it academic or corporate) are largely lost to organizational entropy, user detachment and a lack of perceived ownership.


As with other aspects of campus life, GIS technology might benefit more from its diversity than from its oneness, with a single academic expression sized to fit all. If GIS is to become a fabric of society and spatial reasoning a matter of fact, it’s tangible expression as a divorced edifice on the other side of campus is dysfunctional. To be embraced and incorporated into existing courses, GIS needs to be as close to its users’ hearts and minds as the door across the hall. An intellectual osmosis easily flows through the semi-permeable walls of a small departmental GIS lab. A well-endowed GIS center makes great publicity photos, but its practical access by faculty and students often rivals the assault on Bastille, guarded by unfamiliar and intimidating GIS-perts.



(Strange beast slide…GIS to many is a strange beast, but actually it’s an assemblage of many familiar parts)


The GIS Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts


Assuming a balance can be met between efficiency and effectiveness of its logistical trappings, the issue of what GIS is (and isn’t) still remains. Some of the earlier responses defined it as a mapping science, therefore it became the domain of the geography/cartography unit on campus. Other responses emphasized its computer and database underpinnings and placed it in the computer science department. Most current definitions, however, spring from a multitude of applications in diverse departments, such as natural resources, land planning, engineering, business and health sciences. The result is a patchwork of GIS definitions aligning with the separate discipline perceptions of its varied applications. This situation is both good and bad. It provides a context and case studies which resonate among selected sets of students. Unlike those introductory courses in statistics addressing the probability of selecting "a white or a black ball from an urn" (get real), application-specific GIS grabs a student’s attention by directly relating it to his or her field of interest.


The underlying theory and broader scope of the technology, however, can be lost in practical translation. While geodetic datum and map projections dominate one course (map-centric), sequential query language and operating system procedures might dominate another (data-centric). A third, application-oriented course likely skims both theoretical bases (the sponge cake framework), then quickly moves to its directed applications (the icing). While academicians argue their relative positions in seeking the "universal truth in GIS," the eclectic set of courses on campus becomes its tangible, de facto definition. It’s at this level that a center of excellence in GIS is warranted—operating as a forum for exchange of ideas and expertise, not as a room full of hard and software items. Constructive discourse on what GIS is (and isn’t) can be focused on the paradigms, procedures and people involved, rather than the trappings of the technology and whether "dis’course is better than dat’course" for the typical student.



(Beginning Duck slide…actually GIS is as easy as Beginning Duck)


What is GIS Education?


Our struggles in defining GIS revolve less around its mapping and management concerns, than its application contexts and expressions. Although there are variations in data structures, a myriad of geo-referencing possibilities, and a host of methods to derive thematic mapping intervals, it’s GIS’s modeling component that causes most of the confusion and heated debates of what GIS is (and isn’t).


We have been mapping and managing spatial data for a long time. The earliest systems involved file cabinets of information which were linked to maps on the wall through shoe leather. An early "database-entry, geo-search" of these data required a user to sort through the folders, identify the ones of interest, then locate their corresponding features on the map on the wall. If a map of the parcels were needed, a clear transparency and tracing skills were called into play. A "map-entry, geo-search" reversed the process, requiring the user to identify the parcels of interest on the map, then walk to the cabinets to locate the corresponding folders and type-up a report. The mapping and data management capabilities of GIS technology certainly has expedited this process and has saved considerable shoe leather… but come to think of it, it hasn’t fundamentally changed the process. GIS’s mapping and management components are a result of a technological evolution, whereas its modeling component is a revolution in our perception of geographic space and spatial relationships.



(Software life cycles slide…the software life cycle begins as an idea for a super-sonic tool, then takes on a somewhat different shape as implementation reality sets in)


GIS Modeling


This new perspective of spatial data is destined to change our paradigm of map analysis, as much as it changes our procedures. GIS modeling can be defined as the representation of relationships within and among mapped data. A geo-query, such as "all counties with a population over 1,000,000 and a median income greater than $25,000," is not a GIS model. It simply repackages and plots existing data which describe independent map entities. Modeling, on the other hand, derives entirely new information based on spatial relationships, such as coincidence statistics, proximity, connectivity and the arrangement of map features. As depicted in the accompanying figure, GIS modeling can take several forms. The two basic approaches concern cartographic and spatial models. Whereas cartographic modeling involves the automation of manual map analysis techniques, spatial modeling involves the expression of numerical relationships of mapped data. The former treats numbers comprising a digital map as simply surrogates for traditional analog map representations of inked lines, colors, patterns and symbols. The latter anoints digital maps with all of the rights, privileges and responsibilities of quantitative data, thereby forming a new map-ematical discipline.



(Deeper slide…let’s get a little deeper into this idea of "numerical relationships among maps")


(GIS modeling slide…leave up during discussion; for a thorough discussion of Map Analysis and GIS Modeling see An Analytical Framework for GIS Modeling, a white paper presenting a conceptual framework for map analysis and GIS Modeling, BASIS, Fort Collins, Colorado, July, 2009.  J.K. Berry and Shitij Mehta.

Posted at


Maps as Organized Sets of Numbers


The numerical treatment of maps, in turn, takes two basic forms—spatial statistics and spatial analysis. Broadly defined, spatial statistics involves statistical relationships characterizing geographic space in both descriptive and predictive terms. A familiar example is spatial interpolation of point data into map surfaces, such as weather station readings into maps of temperature and barometric pressure. Less familiar applications might use data clustering techniques to delineate areas of similar vegetative cover, soil conditions and terrain configuration characteristics for ecological modeling. Or, in a similar fashion, clusters of comparable demographics, housing prices and proximity to roads might be used in retail siting models.