“I never took a geography class. Can I use GIS?”

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GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is about making maps, but you do not have to be a geographer to use GIS technology. There are actually many easy-to-use and free applications that will allow you to make maps. It all depends on what you want to show, who you want to show it to, and what message you want to give. Maps are like images: they worth 1,000 words….but only if they convey the right message.

There is a lot that goes into creating a map before you even start designing it. You have to know why you are creating the map (purpose), who you are making it for (audience), and how you are going to present your story (data). The same map can be interpreted differently by various audiences, so you must take time to think about what you are going to map before you actually start mapping it.

Once you have thought about the what, how and whom, you can start thinking about the best technology to use for making your map. There are several ways you can create maps without being a bonafide cartographer. Let’s say you are just trying to map an event about how many people ate at a food truck today in Washington DC. You can try using Crowdmap, which allows you to crowdsource information and visualize data on a map.

If you wanted to calculate the shortest distance between your house and the nearest hospital, you may need to perform distance analysis using Arc GIS (examples of maps created by ArcGIS below), which allows you to create layered maps and view spatial data.  ArcGIS is available in the Hurst lab.

Then there is the free and popular option, Google Earth, that allows you to create placemarks and add data to specific locations.

Bottom line: Then answer is YES, you can use GIS even if you haven’t taken a geography course. These are only a few of the names out there that will help you map data.  Once you know what you want to map, you just need to choose the right tool to get started.


How to make many placemarks at the same time on Google Earth

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If you are familiar with Google Earth, you know that making placemarks and editing bubbles can actually be fun once you get the hang of creating them. However, when you have 50+ placemarks to create in your layer, you don’t want to spend your entire evening making little pinpoints everywhere, adding information, photos, videos…you have better things to do, like play the flight simulator.

We at the lab bring you good news: the awesome guys at Google actually created a spreadsheet where you can put all the data about your layer in one place and upload it to Google Earth. This is done with the Google Earth Spreadsheet Mapper.

It basically works like this: Download the Spreadsheet Mapper from Google Earth and open it in Google Docs. You’ll see that Google has cells for your to fill out the basic information about your layer, such as the name of the project and URL if you have one, and also instructions on how to connect your spreadsheet to Google Earth [example below]. In the tabs at the bottom of the screen, you’ll find the space where you input your coordinates and the additional data that goes in each placemark bubble. The template tabs help you customize the bubble template you choose for your placemarks.

Just plug in your information in the designated cells

Things to remember before you begin:

  • You’ll need coordinates in decimal form, not in degrees-minutes-seconds. You can find a converter online.
  • First check out the six bubble templates that Google Earth provides to get an idea of what you want your bubble to look like. Then, choose one of the templates for your layer.
  • Have all your images uploaded to a server. You’ll need the URL to add pictures to your bubble.

If you’re still confused, or need more information, the Spreadsheet Mapper website provides video tutorials and more detailed instructions on how to add your layer information.

Faculty and Staff: CTRL Open House – Thursday Nov. 10

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The Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning invites the faculty and staff members of the AU community to an open house to celebrate the new year, new initiatives, and our finally being all together in one place.  Please join us:

November 10, 2011
Hurst Hall, 2nd Floor
1:30 – 4:00 pm

There will be refreshments, demonstrations of our many research resources, and chance to meet the CTRL staff, and opportunities for audience participation!

We hope to see you there!

Quick Way to Find Variables on SPSS


When you’re using SPSS, have you had those moments when you’re endlessly looking for a certain variable, but in a list of 100+ you never seem to do it quickly?  Do not waste time scrolling through your giant database; instead, take this tip from us:

First, remember that SPSS stores your variables with a name (= a code for the variable, which should only be a word) and a label (= an explanation of what your variable is in a whole sentence). Second, whenever you want to do an operation in SPSS (i.e. get descriptive statistics for a variable) the window for this will show a list of the variables that by default presents the labels.  If you point the cursor over this list (anywhere on this list of variables is fine) you can right click the list and choose that you want to see the “names” of these variables.  If you right click again you can indicate that you want to see an “alphabetical sort” of the variables.

 And done!  We suggest looking at variable names because is just a word and is likely that you would know this, plus the alphabetical sorting tends to make more sense with the variable name rather than the code.

Please leave a comment if you think this was useful, and ask a consultant if you have a question using SPSS!

Qualitative Challenge: Is GIS a qualitative research tool?


Earlier this week three of our staff presented NVivo, Google Earth and ArcGIS to a qualitative research methods class in SIS. Our goal was to simply introduce a few software programs that can be helpful for researchers using qualitative methods such as content analysis, indepth interviews, focus groups or ethnography. It was easy to see how NVivo was appropriate -it is the industry standard for computer-assisted qualitative analysis. But what about Google Earth and ArcGIS which are both used for geo-spatial research?

Our staff created possible research problems that would require Google Earth or ArcGIS. One example included comparing locations of poverty and locations of conflict in a particular country. Other ideas were to map ethnicity and war or education levels and war. (Can you tell the students were from International Peace and Conflict Resolution?) In
reality, many of the organizations that utilize the program for projects of feasibility, monitoring, and implementation.

We ended our presentation with this question for the class: Do you think GIS classifies as a qualitative research method tool?

Please give us your feedback  [If you don’t see the comment box below, click on the title of the post].

Tips for Data Visualization (Part 2)

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And now, Part Two of the series “Tips for Data Visualization”:

1. Use the Rule of Thirds

What is the rule of thirds?  Imagine taking an image and splitting it into thirds. With this grid in mind, this “rule” identifies the important parts of the image that you should consider placing your points of interest as you frame your image. Take the example above. Which one looks better to you?

Of course you don’t need to pull out a ruler and start measuring your images to make sure they follow this principle, but try seeing the graphic in a way that is elegant in its data-infused beauty.

2. Be consistent when scaling images

If a 1-inch-tall coffee mug represents how much coffee the SSRL staff consumes in one day, how many cups does a picture of a 6-inch coffee mug represent? How can you tell?  If you create your scales with a graphic editor, be careful about being consistent with your images. If possible, use a computer program to help you make consistent measurements.

3.  When using intensity maps – keep the scale coloring from lightest to darkest.

This might seem like a no-brainer, but with the vast range of colors that are available out there, you might be tempted to make your intensity map look like a bowl of Skittles than an image that has real information on it.  Darker colors usually mean higher values, but you can work around this if you define your scale to your audience. Just keep the hues consistent.

4.  Use Maps and Statistics in an Effective Manner

Take a look at the map above.  You can tell the general area where there is great population density, but can you tell which city?  The bubble for Phoenix is swallowing the entire state of Utah here.  Your maps shouldn’t leave your audience guessing.

5. If it looks bad to you, it will probably look bad to someone else too.

As Prof. Jim Lee likes to say, “Use your crap detector!”  Share your graphical information with someone else.  If they take too long to figure out what it means, something is probably wrong.  Make your graphic look good, but understandable.

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