GIS Day, Then and Now

November 15, 2017

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Since its first formal appearance in November 1999, GIS Day has been eagerly and grandiosely recognized by organizations, schools, companies, universities and colleges, governments, municipalities, libraries, agencies, offices, and other institutions around the world. It falls on Wednesday during Geography Awareness Week which itself is nationally declared to be the third week of November. Esri, one of GIS Day’s primary sponsors, hosts a website at which public events can be shared. As of early this week, over 1200 separate events had been registered. The city of Gaithersburg, Maryland will be promoting their new collection of web-based maps, and in DeKalb County, Georgia, a highlight of the day will be demonstrating a new app for searching and discovering available commercial property. The list could go on and on — and it’s not only about big commercial software. Perhaps you’d like to see some of our nation’s rare maps at the Library of Congress, participate in one of several hundred OpenStreetMap mapping events, or enjoy the simple pleasures of GIS-enabled life by hanging out on your cozy couch with Google Earth.

GIS is one of those city-running, natural-disaster-responding, infrastructure-enabling, you-name-it-industry-empowering technologies that most people know nothing about. For those whose jobs call for outreach, marketing, recruiting, and general awareness-building, participating in a global event such as GIS Day becomes a tantalizing opportunity. Why not share the day connected to other engaged nodes within an international network of spatial analysis and mapping? What is even more inspiring, are the thousands of volunteers who donate their time and energy motivated only by their passion for sharing their GIS love and their collective love of cake.

The dynamic and rapidly evolving nature of digital geospatial technologies means that there will always be new content, apps, or stories to showcase. The low hanging fruit GIS Day activity of displaying a slide presentation of mapping projects with a laptop on a lobby table during lunchtime requires relatively little preparation but is also low impact. It’s more inspiring and engaging to incorporate some type of hands-on activities or experiential learning. For example, at the University of Southern California, GIS Day activities have included balloon mapping (2013) and planning an archaeological mini-dig and excavation on campus, led by a faculty expert (2014). Basing activities around current events, such as weather-related ones or emergency responses, is always likely to capture student and community interest, notes Darren Ruddell of USC’s Spatial Sciences Institute. In Bloomington, Indiana, university students will be generating community maps to troubleshoot problem areas for vehicle, bicycle, and pedestrian collisions.  

Small conferences have long been popular models for structuring the day. Central Pennsylvania GIS Day started in 2009 as a partnership between the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Harrisburg Area Community College. In the early years, local high school students participated in morning workshops and afternoon sessions with geospatial professionals to learn about career and industry opportunities. Now, the event has been expanded to include sessions designed for students and professionals to learn together, industry showcases, map galleries, high-profile keynote speakers, a networking mixer, and their own Story Map to promote it all. The planning committee includes multiple state agencies, Esri, the Nature Conservancy, the Pennsylvania Alliance for Geographic Education, the County Commissioners of Pennsylvania, Lehigh Carbon Community College, and others. Basically, it is no longer a small event! Across GIS Day, growth patterns like this are not uncommon. At Texas A&M University, it’s now three full days of GIS.

Internationally, conferences that mix students, geospatial professionals, and the public are also taking place. In Belize, Total Business Solutions Ltd. has once again organized an event at which many hundreds of school children will learn from their peers, undertake basic analyses and make maps, and see how GIS is involved in all aspects of their country. At the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Foster, in Okinawa, Japan, the GIS office celebrated their first GIS Day in 2013 by literally leaving their office doors open and engaging passers-by in conversation. Encouraged by the small success, they’ve upped their game each year since, and also shifted their event towards middle-school-aged children. Today, they are using the base theater and the local grounds for geocaching, image capturing demonstrations with small unmanned aerial vehicles, GPS surveying, and a poster contest. Given that a portion of the office staff are Japanese, the event has become bilingual as needed. Their geospatial counterparts from the Air Force GeoBase at Kadena Air Base are co-hosting with them, and the additional help will be much appreciated as 1200 children and adults are expected to participate during those busy hours.

Fun and games aren’t the only expected outcomes for GIS Day events; communicating and teaching about local needs are also planned consequences. For example, the Japanese addressing system is notoriously complicated to understand; the streets have no names. At the Okinawa event, one focus is E911 addressing, to ensure that children and adults alike are aware of the custom-built digital applications they can employ on that island, a place shared by Japanese nationals and numerous United States military bases, to safeguard that dispatchers will be able to reach points of distress.   

GIS Day events can require months of planning, significant unbudgeted expenses, hassles, headaches, and stress. Yet worldwide, GIS Day continues to grow in popularity and scope. Mandates aside, what keeps people motivated to rally their geospatial energy and enthusiasm each November? Is it like running a marathon, or childbirth, or moving cross-country, when a few months later the painful memories have faded and you wake up one day and say, wow, that wasn’t so bad, maybe I could do it again?

Often it’s the singular gratifying experiences or unexpected outcomes that are the most memorable and satisfying ones. Nicole Ernst, a professor at Harrisburg Area Community College and one of the planners for the Central Pennsylvania GIS Day, says that what really motivates the committee is seeing high school and college students make connections to the geospatial community, especially when a former student now attends GIS Day as a geospatial professional. Plus, the enthusiasm of the committee itself is contagious; being around that kind of energy is inspiring. She also remembers a few years ago when a mother brought her daughter to one of the high school workshops being offered that year. The girl found it interesting, but it was the mother (who was working in the insurance field at the time) who contacted Ernst a few weeks later and will now be graduating from their geospatial program this December.

Tyrone Oglesby, the senior GIS analyst of the GeoFidelis Marine Corps Installation Pacific at Camp Foster on Okinawa, said it this way: “It’s almost too much, but I had always promised myself that if one kid, one young service member, or one parent has a positive change in their career focus, or their geographic outlook, then I will have been a success. To me, success is affecting just one. This Wednesday we will have more than 1,000, so I like the chances.”  


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