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On a US map with the Democrat-voting states colored blue and the Republican states red, big expanses of red overpower the blue areas. But adjust the map to reflect each state’s population—ballooning Massachusetts and Connecticut, for example, and squashing Wyoming and Montana—and now the red and blue cover virtually equal areas. This image shows why the 2004 election was so close. On a Skidmore map the potential new buildings to replace Scribner Village can be inserted as squares or rectangles. But place 3-D models of buildings on a topographical map shown in relief on a computer screen, and then ride along with the
cursor on a “fly-through” of the site, and now you’ve got a virtual tour, giving a you-are-there feeling for the whole building complex.
This is more than just mapping. This is GIS, or geographical information systems, and it’s a popular new academic tool at Skidmore.
“All GIS needs is a basic database—in Excel, for instance—and the software will apply the data to any map,” explains Bob Jones, an economics professor who is Skidmore’s resident expert on GIS. “Many maps are downloadable, or we can scan in our own, like the Skidmore campus map.” GIS users can georeference a map by inputting a few global-positioning coordinates (taken from simple, hand-held GPS units oriented by satellites), so that maps with several types of data can be correctly aligned and overlapped. A huge array of information is also downloadable, such as measures and statistics from an online national atlas, the Census Bureau, the Environmental Protection Agency, meteorological services, state and county records, and United Nations tables of social and political data for hundreds of countries.
In a 200-level interdisciplinary GIS course, Jones’s students try their hands at a variety of data-mapping projects, from charting of property values, household incomes, and environmental cleanup sites, to layering gerrymandered voting districts over neighborhoods with large or small minority populations. “Students pick up the basic software and skills quickly,” Jones reports. “And with students in so many different majors doing the same projects, they realize early on how much everything is interrelated.” Once, he brought in an art class on communication design, to have its students critique the maps created by his GIS learners. Deb Hall, the design-course professor, was delighted with the learning experience on both sides: “This kind of interaction across disciplines is part of what Skidmore is all about.”
With the GIS course under their belts, Jones says, his students are ready to “go off and apply the skills in their own majors.” Take environmental studies: several ES majors used GIS in spring-term projects for Skidmore’s community-based Water Resources Institute, including studies of the economic value, historical and current land-use patterns, and buffer-zone policies of the Kayaderosseras Creek watershed in and around Saratoga. A recent geology course used GIS maps to document North Woods evergreens, whose growth rings were sampled to reveal climate history. Next fall an interdisciplinary freshman seminar will include mapping of tectonic plates and volcanic activity. Right now Jones is planning a course on economic geography (“the unemployment rate, for example, is always spoken of as a national average, but on a map you can see that it’s very uneven in various regions”). And retired biology professor Bill Brown, still tracking rattlesnakes near Lake George, is enlisting GIS in his studies of denning sites.
What makes GIS such a readily accessible resource is Jones’s generosity as a consultant, plus a new lab stocked with computing, printing, and scanning equipment courtesy of a $100,000 grant from the George Alden Trust in 2003 and supplemental funds from the Rathmann Family Foundation in 2004. But it began much smaller—with sociologist David Karp and his course in criminology. Karp says, “I knew that GIS was a big trend in police departments, for tracking crime rates, and I thought it would be a good tool for my students.” Each year he borrows crime data from the Albany Police Department and his students map it to see which demographic or social factors are associated with high-crime areas. When Jones and other faculty members learned about GIS from Karp, interest snowballed (especially in Jones’s nimble mind) and the interdisciplinary GIS Center was launched.
“Having the lab here,” says environmental-studies professor Karen Kellogg, “has revolutionized ES 375,” an advanced case-studies course. Having been introduced to GIS in Jones’s fall course, ES 375 students this spring “dove right in using it. It’s so powerful for illuminating varying depths of knowledge.” Jones the economist allows that GIS is essentially “a visual extension of statistics. But it’s very compelling.” He cites its “exploratory and inductive value: it generates ideas that you can test with statistics. Conversely, you can also test statistics through GIS.” Either way, it’s a creative interweaving of discrete, hard facts to form a unified, textural image packed with surprising truths—and that’s the kind of left-brain–right-brain tango that Skidmorites find hard to resist.
“I never dreamed I’d be getting a master’s in geography,” says Emeline Renz ’04. Her early introduction to GIS, for crime mapping in sociologist David Karp’s criminology course, “opened the door to a whole new way of studying social patterns.” She familiarized herself with the software and helped Karp prepare police data for input and analysis. Now a SUNY-Albany grad student, Renz recently started an internship helping New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation with its mapping projects.
GIS is so flexible, she says, that “you can analyze changes in land cover over time so you can detect urban sprawl, or generate a line-of-sight map to see where to hide ugly cell towers, or help protect wildlife by revealing impending threats to habitats.” And she knows that a list of stats won’t catch a lawmaker’s eye, but a visual image can “make all the difference in a decision to institute public or environmental policy.” —SR