The Beauty of Geographic Information Systems

Who doesn’t love maps, especially those that let us click and show information that might otherwise get lost in prose or in a footnote? As I am finding in my own work, there is real beauty in them. Let’s take a look at how they can be used in many ways that you can learn and incorporate in your own research and writing.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are powerful computer systems that can help people discover information from geographic data. In other words, GIS enables you to go above and beyond the basic powers of mapping transforming geographic data into accessible, useful geographic presentations. Information gathered through GIS can help inform critical decisions for disciplines ranging from public health, business and marketing, to environmental management.

Click on image to visit interactive Endangered Climate Story Map by: Witold Fraczek, Esri

ArcGIS Pro is a GIS program created by the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) with broad applications. Although I am still learning the tricks of the trade, I have had the privilege of becoming very familiar with this program over the last year. It’s especially valuable in environmental science. Visualizing information such as air quality levels, sea level rise, or wildlife density can be done in various ways. There are static displays of information, such as the maps you see on poster boards or classroom walls, and there are also dynamic maps. Story maps (interactive web maps) like the one on the right that accompanies a short nature film with Julia Roberts, are a personal favorite because they harness the power of words, pictures, videos, and maps all in one.

Brothers Kevin, Jason, and Kyle Prevo, own and operate their family’s century farm with their wives and families. A century farm is an operation which has been owned by the same family for at least 100 years. Photo: Jason Johnson, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Click on image to visit Farming for the Future – Story Map by: Esri and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Story Maps such as these allow you to do what the name says – tell a story. In an environmentalist’s line of work, numbers and data are often not enough to inspire people, but a picture (or a map) can be worth a thousand words.

For my own RCC Fellowship research, I will use ArcGIS Pro, among other resources and software, to assist me in analyzing how flooding from Hurricane Florence in 2018 has affected gentrification in New Hanover County, North Carolina. Most of the data I am using is sourced from the U.S. Census and American Community Survey; both are resources for population demographic data made publicly available.

Click to enlarge. Population Density Distribution by Block Group in New Hanover County, 2020 (Unfinished Model – Cate Arnold).

Click on image to visit interactive US Census Results

In ArcGIS Pro, I can work with data over a range of years to see how population demographics such as age, education, median household income, and other characteristics have changed.

Additionally, I will be able to factor in flood data from Hurricane Florence and use spatial statistic tools such as Geographic Weighted Regression to help me further progress in analyzing geospatial relationships. Click here to see how it works.

As my research moves forward, my experience working with GIS has only begun. I look forward to learning more about what this software has in store. If you want to explore more about the world of geoscience and what GIS programs such as ArcGIS can do, check out this link to ESRI’s Living Atlas, which is contributed to by people around the globe.

RCC Fellow Cate Arnold is a senior at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She is an Honors College student pursuing a double major in Environmental Science and International Studies with minors in Political Science and Geographic Information Systems. At UNC-Wilmington, she serves as a grant reviewer for The Green Initiative Fund and is on the executive board of the campus chapter of Plastic Ocean Project, a local non-profit. In her free time, she also volunteers with the Ocean Friendly Establishments initiative.


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