Improving Your GIS Communications Skills

Since they were invented, maps have shown travelers how to get to their respective destinations. They’ve also gotten people lost. Dr. Joseph Kerski, Education Manager for Esri, explains that maps are no longer viewed only by a handful of people looking for a vacation route. Now, as GIS technology continues to evolve more rapidly than ever, maps are used to convey a wealth of information that if not understood or interpreted correctly, can convey the wrong message, thus getting its readers lost.

Strategic focus on appropriate and correct communication of information depicted on a map is now more crucial than ever, as people use GIS mapping technology in many aspects of their working and social lives. GIS technicians not only need the skills to understand and build a map, but also must know how to effectively communicate the information on it.

[event tag=gis]“Technicians and students need to think about how they are going to communicate data to their respective audiences,” Kerski says. “Maps are powerful, and one needs to be mindful of how their information is displayed and interpreted. One should know and fully understand where the data came from, and on what scale it was generated. This is especially important now that it’s so easy to just grab data from organization A and organization B and then, boom, there’s my map. That’s the real danger.”

Data should be specialized for the audience it is being conveyed to. Technicians must be effective in communicating the needs and limitations of the data and implementing it at various scales. Regardless of the data, it should be understood by the audience it is being presented to. If the information does not make sense to the audience, the project’s objective will fail.

Dr. Kerski, who will join Dr. Devon Cancilla, dean, business and technology for American Sentinel, to discuss the Top 5 Skills You Need to be Successful in a GIS Career in a free webinar on Sept., 27 at 1 p.m. EDT says that one of the best ways to avoid errors is to clearly communicate your message.

In preparation for a career in GIS technology, Kerski says, technicians should be learning how to communicate data, for instance, in a GIS degree program. “There are more ways to communicate than ever, but it’s important to be clear, effectively employ your cartographic elements, know your audience and know where your data came from,” Kerski says.

Those successful in GIS know how to use GIS and other presentation tools to communicate their results to a wide variety of audiences. Whether it’s communicating business analytics, forecasting natural disasters, interpreting shifts in weather, or preparing government reports, GIS specialists are at the forefront of communicating vital information to the public.

Free ArcGIS Tools

The best way to avoid mistakenly creating false routes or colors in maps is to practice making maps. There are several free tools available to help one perfect their GIS technology skills.

  • ArcGIS Explorer Online is a browser-based tool that relies on the Microsoft ® Silverlight plug-in. It allows you to make and save online maps, and build and share presentations.
  • ArcGIS Explorer Desktop, a software that can be downloaded and installed on computers running Windows ® (XP and later). It allows the display of a vast array of geographic data, from online sources such as ArcGIS Online or from local hard drives. ArcGIS Explorer Desktop can display content in either 2-D or 3-D and supports building rich geographic presentations. This is a great free tool for users seeking a balance between the ease of web-based mapping and the power of full desktop GIS.
  • AutoREALM is a free GNU mapping software that can design maps of castles, cities, dungeons and more. AutoREALM is generally used by role-playing gamers who enjoy doing their own maps, but it could be a used make fun maps and to get in map-making practice.

Kerski says students or people interested in GIS should start using these free tools because they have presentation capabilities.

“Let’s say a technician wanted to tell their story about how they’ve used GIS to grapple with Hurricane Irene,” Kerski says. “Tracking this storm, figuring out which areas to evaluate, that story could be told in a series of live maps.”

In the AcrGIS Explorer Online’s presentation mode, these maps could include videos, audio, Prezi, PowerPoint, oral and written communications.

One example of this is a simple map of golf courses in San Diego County. The map has thumbtacks signifying courses. When you click on a course, it pulls up information about the course and allows you to zoom in closer to the destination. The map builders even included reviews, league nights and the ability for the map viewer to edit the entry. It’s a live map for a particular audience.

Any student or GIS enthusiast can build one for free. Maybe you want to build a map of stores of your favorite hobby or all the minor league baseball parks in your area. Or maybe you want to map your ancestors’ route to America. Whatever you might want to do, the free resources are out there to perfect your GIS communications abilities.

You can even build your own application-programming interface (API). And it’s easy, according to Kerski. “You don’t necessarily have to know a whole lot of programming,” Kerski says. “You can go out to these pages that we’ve got on the Esri site and you can copy and paste code snippets and create your own web mapping application.”

So, what are you waiting for? Go perfect your skills!

This is the first of a three part series leading up to Esri Education Manager Dr. Joseph Kerski’s Top 5 Skills You Need to be Successful in a GIS Career webinar on Sept., 27, 2011 at 1 p.m. EDT.

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