Another Tool in the Box: National Geographic’s MapMaker Interactive

I finally got around to playing with National Geographic’s MapMaker Interactive application on the organization’s education site. As a GIS analyst with two young boys I am always interested in tools that can help teach them about geography or GIS. The MapMaker tool helps teach both of these.

The interface is built on the ArcGIS framework using the ArcGIS API for flex. It features eight base maps to choose from including National Geographic view, satellite view, streets view and oceans view. There are also six themes (with related sub-themes) such as water, land, climate and population, that help users turn out handsome looking maps quickly.

National Geographic MapMaker Interactive

The drawing tools are very user-friendly and include only six basic tools. In addition to these, there is a “markers” tab that provides 30 different symbols representing vegetation, structures and events. You choose between three different marker sizes then drag and drop the marker where you want the point to be located.

Other than looking at the prefabricated themes or measuring distances between locations there is really no analysis that can be done with this map. However, the tool is called MapMaker, not MapAnalyzer, and is geared toward kids so one really cannot complain.

While kids might be the target audience of the MapMaker, its simplicity lends itself to be used by adults who are not GIS savvy but might want to make a quick and authoritative looking map for a manager or client.

The National Geographic education site is still in Beta at the time of this post so there are still a few issues with the tools acting buggy. It would also be great to see a PDF export option and a way to retain measurement annotation as a permanent part fo the map. Those are just minor complaints though and the functionality may well change as the web site goes through and comes out of Beta.

Overall this is a great tool to use for basic mapping or teaching about geography and geographic information systems. Head over to the site and give it a try. You might find that you have another free tool that you can use to make a quick one-off presentation map or you can recommend it to a non-GIS user who wants to play cartographer.

Teaching Geography is Fundamental Act is Misguided

There are nine core academic subjects in the No Child Left Behind Act. Of the nine, only geography doesn’t have its own federal funding stream. Since 2008, geography advocates have petitioned the federal government for just such a stream, in part by supporting what is called the Teaching Geography is Fundamental Act. There is a reason why this act has been introduced and subsequently died in two previous congresses – It is not good legislation.

Out of 15 potential uses for the funds identified within the Act, only a few reference clear, actionable uses. The rest consist of “promoting”, “strengthening”, “encouraging” or “supporting” vague notions including “academic standards”, applying GIS to teaching, and “research”. What does that actually mean?

The language of the Act creates a grant of $75,000,000 spread over five years but fails to designate concrete uses of that money. The Act basically throws money at an issue expecting the issue to then resolve itself. Of course, this should surprise no one since the government’s response to most problems is to appropriate funds. Educators should know better than to see this as a solution but it becomes difficult to see beyond the potential of receiving money, regardless of its dubious origins.

Activists could better spend their time trying to get rid of legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act so we can stop teaching based on federal mandates and standardized tests and go back to student based teaching.

What Makes GIS Interesting?

Geospatial technologies do not exist for their own sake. The real power of geospatial technology is in its ability to solve problems in other disciplines. GIS is not a tool that is applied to the GIS industry. Rather, it is a tool to be applied to geology, engineering, aviation, logistics, gardening, personal navigation, intelligence, real estate… the list goes on and on.

It is rare that an industry today is not touched by some form of location based technology or GIS. It is this interplay between geospatial technology and the multitude ways of consuming and utilizing it that makes it so exciting.

NGA GEOnet Names Server Ensures Uniform Place Names

If you work with international GIS data you know how important it is to have standards for place and region names. Many governments maintain stability in place names so they rarely change but there are always plenty of exceptions. Furthermore, spellings often have variations based on translations and dialect making it difficult to put an official name to a place, let alone have it be uniform across multiple applications.

Thankfully, there is the GEOnet Names Server (GNS) maintained by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).  The GNS contains over 5 million geo-located features and more than 8 million feature names. Updated weekly, the GNS database provides its data through several means including an OGC web map service graphical interface, a text-based interface and a data download page.

NGA’s Name server viewer

So, whether you are designing and building an international geodatabase or you are just interested in place names, the GNS is the authoritative place to go. Bear in mind that the GEOnet Names Server is only for locations outside the United States. For official names within the United States see the US Board on Geographic Names.

The Map Was Alive with the Sound of Earthquakes

I recently saw a tweet highlighting a Youtube video showing 2011 earthquakes as a dynamic time lapse map. You can watch it on Youtube.

During the 9 minute video of a single map, the viewer is shown various sized rings at each epicenter location. The ring’s size is dependent on the magnitude of the quake.This in itself might not make for an exciting video. What captures your attention is the addition of sound corresponding to each earthquake presented. Each time one of the quake rings appear the map makes a short click. As the magnitude increases, so does the volume of the click. The video moves quickly covering days in just seconds and revealing the hundreds of earthquakes each month throughout the world.

It is profoundly disquieting and surprising when you see and hear the March quake near Japan that caused the tsunami and subsequent nuclear meltdown that is still affecting the people of Japan.

One could easily interpret the map with only its visual symbology but having sound represent an attribute of each quake represented by the ring symbol gives the destructive reality of high magnitude quakes more realism. It just made me wonder what the future might hold for sound symbol integration in GIS. Is there any point? Would there be any widespread application?

Maintaining Relevance as a GIS Professional

Technology changes rapidly. It seems like there is a new version of some device or software presented daily. GIS technology is no exception to this rapid change. While currently employed GIS professionals are usually in their position because their skill set matches the needs of the employer, keeping up with industry development can help you stay relevant. The best way to keep a position or move higher in a company is to be the expert in your field who is able to answer questions and solve problems that others cannot.
In today’s economy, no job is 100% secure. Businesses might downsize, shift focus or close altogether. This could leave a GIS analyst looking for another place to ply their trade. Or, perhaps you are a technician hoping to land a higher level GIS position. In either case would you be current enough with your GIS skills to land the new job?
How can you stay abreast of the constant changes in technology and know what changes you should be focused on to improve your skill set? It is easy to get overwhelmed by the number of software systems, tools, languages, platforms and technology uses there are out there. One way to keep up is to follow blogs (industry and individual) and relevant web sites. The idea here would be to learn about the latest and greatest innovations as they emerge. The problem with this approach is that not every new technology, tool or update will be utilized industry-wide (if at all). One would need to follow too many blogs and sites to get a broad view of the industry. Following blogs can still be a useful tactic, however, for keeping up with specific subjects.
I have found the best way to maintain currency across the GIS board is to study job postings. Even if you are not looking for a job, postings give you detailed insight into what GIS employers are interested in and what they are expecting out of their personnel. It really does not matter what software producers are developing. What matters is what businesses are using and how they are using it.
I make it a practice to search job boards on a regular basis. I am not looking for another position but for insight on how to be better in my current position. I find the best boards for doing this kind of research are the Geospatial Jobs Clearinghouse and I start by searching for job titles that closely match my own. Then I simply read through the body of the listings and look for trends in the position requirements. The good news is that employers tend to structure their position details the same way every time. It usually looks something like this:
  • Company overview
  • Position Description
  • Requirements
  • Preferred experience
While the requirements section is probably the most important you should also pay close attention to the preferred experience section. These are the skillsets that can set you apart from the rest of the crowd. Most GIS professionals will have the typical requirements of a degree, experience using desktop GIS software and good communication skills. Those who have specialized skills like scripting/programming languages, photogrammetry, web design or database design will be in more demand. Specialized skills might not be mandated for a position but employers will see you as more valuable to their organization if you have them.
There are many ways to try and keep current with your profession. Whatever method you choose, remember that those who advance their knowledge and skills along with associated industry changes are the most likely to stay useful to their employer and outshine others in their field.

Letterboxing as an Introduction to Navigation and Location

Letterboxing is an old activity, somewhat related to both geocaching and orienteering. It involves navigating from a given starting point to a cached box containing a log book and a rubber stamp. Navigation consists of anything from following riddles and printed clues to compass directions and distances.
The low-tech nature of letterboxing is one of its attractions. You do not have to have a GPS device or any specialized equipment. A compass is really all you might need.
Once a letterbox is found, the letterboxer uses the stamp in the box to mark his log book and marks the box’s log book with his stamp. Each letterboxer also comes up with a trail name. The trail name coincides with your stamp identity and allows others to follow your hunts. Here is a picture of the stamps I made with the family. The cat is our family stamp and the snake is one my son drew for himself. I carved both of them out of a $1.26 art gum eraser.
homemade letterboxing stamps
Many letterboxers carve their own stamps. Here are my not so artistic attempts
Once my seven year old son caught on that letterboxing was like going on a treasure hunt, he was easily convinced to learn the skills necessary to find the boxes. It only took him a minute to learn how to shoot a rough azimuth with my compass. I wrote out some basic directions including azimuths and number of paces from point to point throughout the house. He was successful in navigating through the house and finding a couple of baseball cards I had hidden for him.
I see letterboxing as a great way to introduce my younger children to the world of land navigation and location awareness. It might help them later to appreciate geocaching and orienteering which I would love to get them involved in.
The best place to find out more about letterboxing is The site details history, etiquette, materials needed and rules of the game. More importantly it provides a list of letterbox cache sites and the instructions to find them. If there are no locations for your area, by all means go out and create some.

5 Nifty Mapping Sites From StumbleUpon This Week

StumbleUpon is a great site for finding web sites and blogs you might not otherwise come across. Of course many well known sites are there as well.

In my perusals I came across the following five mapping/GIS sites that I thought were interesting.

FlashEarth – Here is a nifty little satellite imagery viewing application. Flash Earth is refreshing because it does not look like Google Earth. Yes, it is flash based and it pulls its imagery data from Microsoft and Yahoo.

Picture of the home page

Wikimapia – Yep, it’s a Google Map powered wiki. Launched in 2006 there are over 15,000,000 places already marked. You can use the site for free and anyone can upload information without registering.

Picture of the site with North American extent

Maps Of War – Another flash based map site Maps of War is a collection of maps having to do with wars and war related subjects.

IRIS Seismic Monitor – The Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology is a consortium of universities that aquire, manage and distribute seismological data. The Seismic Monitor is the geospatial mapping application they use for the distribution. The application is not perfect. You can only zoom to a small scale view of an area but the information is interesting. Play around with it and see what you think.

Picture of the Seismic Monitor map – Interactive geopolitical maps focused largely on Europe. While the site does not yet cover a large portion of the earth, the site’s creator intends to expand his project worldwide.
Picture of the site


Please Don’t Be “The Map Guy”

It never ceases to amaze me how many GIS professionals feel the need to brand themselves “The Map Guy”. If you could collect a business card from everyone at a GIS conference you would find maybe a quarter of them with “The Map Guy!” printed below their name. It’s not a bad tag line for someone who makes maps but for goodness sake, it’s been done.

Of course it does no good to complain about something unless you can come up with an alternative. Here are a few business card ready tags you can use to show yourself to be a unique member of the GIS community:

  • The Ace of Maps
  • The Map Ninja
  • The CartoWarrior
  • The GeoGiant
  • Not To Scale
  • The Carto Kid
  • The Human Projection
  • Thematic and Proud
  • The Mad Mapper
  • CartoManiac
  • And my favorite – The Original Geographer

There, see? Now there are no more excuses for following the crowd. Now go out and be someone different, and no, “The Map Man” Doesn’t count.

6 Ways to Squeeze More GIS Juice From Your Budget

We all love working for an organization with deep GIS pockets. When there is a fat budget you can afford to buy more toys, upgrade the toys you already have and generally keep up with technology.

Our current economy, however, has impacted even the biggest budgets like that of the Federal government and most state and local ones too. Private companies have not been immune either.

Dollar Bill


There are ways to grow your geospatial program though. You just have to become a little more creative in how you approach your acquisitions. Following are six ways an underfunded GIS team can thrive in a down economy.
  1. Ask your software vendor for an upgrade. Most software companies work to constantly improve their products. When they compile enough changes they will release a new version. Find out if your current maintenance schedule already includes new versions. Even if your maintenance agreement has expired or you never had one, you might be entitled to an upgrade to the next version after the one you bought.
  2. Learn scripting to automate your processes. They say time is money. If this is true then learning a relevant scripting language can be worth its weight in gold. One useful and popular language in the GIS world is Python. Python can be used not only for scripting but for full blown product development. It is easy to learn and there are plenty of resources out there to help you utilize it. ArcGIS 10 is probably the most widely used GIS platform supporting Python but the free and open source Quantum GIS does as well.
  3. Speaking of free and open source…. If your organization is open to open source software and free products on their network, you should definitely look into it. If you can only afford to maintain a few paid seats of ArcGIS you could augment your holdings with the previously mentioned free and open source Quantum GIS (QGIS). QGIS can read and write Shapefiles and PostGIS data, both of which can be utilized in ArcGIS. Products such as Google Earth, MapQuest, and Open Street Map can also be powerful geospatial tools and can either augment your current software or in some cases replace it. Some of these software products even provide development APIs to create your own custom tools. It all depends on what your mission is.
  4. Ask your local college for help. Do you need to be freed up to pursue important projects that have been languishing? Utilize your local GIS students for digitizing, GPS location and more. Talk to the head of your local college GIS program about hiring students as interns. You can typically pay them a lot less than a regular hire but still get great results. They get the benefit of experience; you get the benefit of accomplishing more in budget.
  5. Mine the internet for free data. There is always the fear that data from the internet is inaccurate or outdated. That is certainly true in some cases but there is plenty of quality low cost or free data to be had. A few examples of quality (usually) data providers include federal, state, county and city governments, special districts such as utilities and university data repositories. Check to see if the data has associated metadata available. This will tell you if you are working with quality or if you should be looking elsewhere for your needs.
  6. Buy used equipment. If you are in need of new data collection equipment (GPS receivers or survey equipment), data manipulation equipment (computers), or data output equipment (plotters and printers) eBaycould be your answer. The online auction site is still going strong and offers just about anything imaginable. Try creating a custom search for the items you are looking for and keeping watch for great deals. You can determine the price you are able to spend and then start bidding. This might take a little longer than traditional purchasing methods but the cost savings can be worth it.
Even if your GIS team is on a shoestring budget there are many ways to maximize output and proficiency while staying on top of current GIS trends. As shown above, open source and free products are widespread and in many cases perform just as well if not better than their proprietary and fee based brethren. There are also plenty of ways to find help and equipment at prices lower than you might normally pay. Do you have suggestions of other ways to save money while growing your GIS presence? Leave a comment and let me know.