17th Annual GIS SIG Draws Genesee/Finger Lakes Region Geospatial Users to Tackle Local and Universal Challenges

By Adena Schutzberg

Pittsford, New York, outside Rochester, was host on Tuesday, April 22 to the 17th GIS Special Interest Group Conference serving the Genesee/Finger Lakes Region. This regional event serves the local towns, cities and counties, along with consultants, educators and students. The regular complement of about 175 turned up for the all-day event.

I presented the morning keynote and argued that what we as geospatial practitioners do is not really that different from those who came before, but that the platforms on which we do it, the "earth beneath our feet," is indeed shifting. It's those underlying platforms to which we need to turn our attention if we are to best prepare for the future. I'd like to think that I shook many in the audience from their comfort zones, speaking about gaming, virtual worlds, social networking and other platforms.

I attended an application-focused session in the morning. The first presentation addressed traditional GIS-type problems in the region. First was a stormwater management project at the local airport. The GIS and analysis were familiar, but the airport setting presented challenges. The town of Greece, N.Y. faced a common problem: capturing images, GPS locations and some attributes for property assessment. Creating a workflow and finding hardware and software to collect the data was far more complex than you might think. The answer, in the end, involved using a Nikon digital camera and Trimble's TrimPix software to send the image directly to a Trimble GPS for geocoding and attribute creation. Many in the audience wondered why such a simple and much needed workflow still required so many bits to be linked together.

An afternoon session focused on LiDAR applications. First up was a bit of a primer not on LiDAR itself, but the LiDAR Data Exchange Format (LAS) format, a published standard. As it turns out, many commercial packages support it, including at least one open source library. The LAS binary file format is a big step over ASCII files of the same data because the LAS files are about half the size and support classification so that unneeded data can be "coded out" instead of being deleted (which is sometimes how it's managed in an ASCII file). The presenter, from the consulting firm IAGT, showed how LiDAR data could be shared with others using Skyline's server and free viewer. A presentation from Monroe County shared several different explorations into its LiDAR dataset and its planned uses. The final presentation was not about LiDAR, but rather an extension to Pictometry's Electronic Field Study software called Eco-View, which enables analysis of near infrared data for vegetation analysis. Pictometry is trying to leverage more types of data, and provide more analysis for its existing and potential users. The company is well-known in the area, near its hometown.

John Calkins of ESRI offered the closing keynote: a challenging group test of the audience's spatial literacy. The presentation, he explained, came out of recent work trying to determine how to gauge whether individuals think spatially and how that can lead to better use of the geographic approach. After a "warm up" exploring John Snow's approach to cholera in London, Calkins led us through a series of case studies based on maps in a colorful handout. We had to think through how to track down a pedophile in Norway, locate a gas station in Denver, make sense of a contour map, understand a gas field, interpret an aerial image and then take a "final exam." The goal was not so much to get the answer "right," but to think through what questions to ask and analyses to perform that could lead to an answer.

I was reminded throughout of some of the intro courses I took as an undergrad and then helped teach as a graduate student. My sense was that many in the audience enjoyed the challenging puzzles but were a bit disappointed in their own performance. My suspicion is that many "heads down" GIS users do more "cookbook" GIS and production than they do this type of analytical problem solving, what I view as the "fun" part of geographic science. I suspect that while these key ideas were taught in geography and GIS classes the assembled had taken, the attendees hadn't had much opportunity to use them for quite a while.

That, as I interpreted the session, was the bad news. The good news, I think, stems from Calkins' suggestion that many other aspects of your life may help grow and stretch those spatial skills. He noted hobbies like astronomy and geocaching (anything with a GPS), and told the story of how after years of listening to air traffic control flying into Denver (his home) he'd mapped the runways in his head! I think working through this exercise raised as many questions about the state of our spatial literacy as it answered.

Published Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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