GIS: Isn’t that Spatial?

Christine Gregory recently finished a GIS internship with EcoLogic, where she helped us represent environmental data in maps of our project sites.  She is a recent graduate from Tufts University with a Major in Spanish and Community Health and is very enthusiastic about exploring the application of GIS in environmental projects in Latin America.  She has been working with Jessie Norriss, an Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning graduate student at Tufts, to better understand the natural habitat of the project sites through the analysis of spatial data. The following blog post was written by Christine in December, 2015 at the end of her internship.

From left, Anne Elise Stratton (Program Officer for Institutional Development), Christine Gregory, and Gabriela González (Regional Program Director) in Cambridge

From left, Anne Elise Stratton (Program Officer for Institutional Development), Christine Gregory, and Gabriela González (Regional Program Director) in Cambridge

Some may think Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are just software used to make maps (think about Google Maps), but that’s just the start of its vast and varied powers!

My interest in GIS started last year in the introductory course at Tufts. I walked into class with little idea of what GIS was, just knowing I was about to fulfill a tech requirement for graduation.  Shortly after, I realized just how useful and versatile GIS was as a tool for solving spatial problems and how I, as a Geography enthusiast, could convert my excitement over atlases into a technical skill.

At its core, GIS is the analysis (think about measuring the area of a weird shape of land or building), and representation (labeling) of spatial data—data that can be defined by a geographic location through a coordinate of latitude and longitude (anything you can assign a real place to!).

Spatial data is packaged in two parts: geometry and an attribute table, i.e. what it looks like and what information you know about it. For example, the geometry could be the physical outline of the country of Mexico and the attribute table would be information in Excel format about the population count of Mexico.

The same could be done for data referenced to a city or a municipality; as long as we have the information that tells us where in the world our data is collected from, we can map it! But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Once displayed in a map, the data associated with the places you want to map can be symbolized in a variety of ways, making it much easier for viewers to see the geographic layout of certain characteristics.  For example, in order to display population density across municipalities in Mexico, red could be used for highest density areas while yellow could be used for low-density areas. Now that phrase “a picture’s worth a thousand words” finally makes sense! That’s GIS—a map that can sum up a large quantity of data in one shot.

This quarter, I have been working with EcoLogic to explore the potential of GIS to bolster our projects through more systematic analysis and visualization of spatial data. We can ask spatial questions and get answers that help us better understand the habitat and characteristics of the communities in which we are working.  We can target sites with the highest potential for growth and direct our resources based off measured analysis.  We can visualize the hydrology of an area, see the change in forest coverage over time, and overlay multiple environmental inputs in order to gauge the potential for restoration and natural regeneration.

Map created by Christine using ArcGIS software to show firewood and coal use in La Chinantla, Mexico

Map created by Christine using ArcGIS software to show firewood and coal use in La Chinantla, Mexico

Over the past month I have worked on maps displaying these types of data amongst others for EcoLogic’s eight project sites across Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize.  This has been a unique opportunity to further familiarize myself with ArcGIS (the standard industry software) and its use in answering environmental questions.

There have definitely been a fair share of complications along the way; displaying trees and rivers is much trickier than first meets the eye.  I have come to the conclusion that the quantity of data available on the internet is both a blessing and a curse.  In the rural areas in which we work, the spatial data may not exist and even if it does, it may be limited in its accessibility or difficult to locate in the black hole of cyberspace. Despite the challenges, GIS is an incredible tool that inspires creativity in its user. With a couple of deep breaths and a dose of ingenuity, any problem can be solved and you may even find yourself with a pretty map.

As I see it, GIS is the next step for an EcoLogic focused on applying the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation for targeted, structured, and sustainable environmental impact. Ultimately, GIS will help EcoLogic serve local communities and the environment in a way that can be monitored and evaluated for years to come!

By Christine Gregory

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