Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me a Map
Maps of Buddhist meditation sites in the Pioneer Valley, Joshua tree propagation along the West
Coast and hip-hop music sales around the nation, have already been made. Got an idea? Map it.
Armed with just the geographical coordinates for Jon Caris’ lab,
a newcomer may have difficulty locating it at Smith College. But, once there, students
and faculty have been using such coordinates to find their way just about everywhere.
In the six-year-old Spatial
Analysis Lab that
Caris oversees, students and faculty generate maps using the latitude, longitude
and elevation coordinates they have charted with portable devices or from national
and international databases that couple a location’s coordinates with descriptive information
about the location.
Up to this point, Smith students have learned to use the technology in various workshops. But
for the first time last semester, the college also began offering a course about the science
of mapmaking, more commonly known as Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The technology encompasses
both portable devices used to collect data in the field and the computer software that turns
it into maps.
“GIS has a very diverse range of applications,” said Robert Burger, Achilles Professor
of Geology, who instructed the introductory course last semester. “In view of this widespread
and growing use of GIS in so many diverse areas and due to its growing and valuable use in education,
I thought it critical that a GIS course be available at Smith.”
Indeed, the technology is so widespread that it has become familiar to many automobile drivers
whose new cars offer the ability to map their destination.
Yet, the precision of Smith’s system is unusual even among
colleges and universities. Working with the City of Northampton, Smith upgraded its
technology a few years ago and now has the most sophisticated system in western Massachusetts,
according to Caris.
As faculty members have begun to understand how the technology can be applied in their disciplines,
they have begun to register for the GIS workshops. Faculty members from history, psychology,
sociology, government, art, biology, economics and anthropology all enrolled in a recent session.
And, while those faculty members are developing an appreciation for GIS, geologists such as
Professor Robert Newton have long been employing it.
This summer, Newton will collect data about the floor of the three reservoirs that provide drinking
water to Northampton by crossing the reservoirs in a boat numerous times. Newton is mapping the
lake bottoms both for city officials who want the information to determine the volume of water
available to residents and to answer his own questions about the rate of erosion and sediment
In past workshops on the technology, Caris has assigned such projects as mapping the depth of
snow at various campus locations. One of the more conventional maps Caris recently completed
is one of the Northampton rail-trail, a bike path traveled by upwards of 450 people on an average
summer weekend day or holiday.
Others in the Smith community have used the technology to map Buddhist meditation sites in the
Pioneer Valley, Joshua tree propagation along the West Coast and hip-hop music sales around the
“The students come up with really off-the-wall ideas,” said Caris. “When you
start thinking about it, there is no shortage of information to map.”