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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.

Spatial Analysis Lab as seen from Google Earth

The Spatial Analysis Lab as seen from Google Earth. Click to enlarge.

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 buildup.

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 nation.

“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.”


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