Students explore the world in new ways with GIS technology
Unfold the map in your glove compartment. It might be able to tell you how to get from point A to point B, but not a great deal more.
With state-of-the-art technology at their fingertips, students in Temple University Ambler’s Community and Regional Planning undergraduate and graduate degree programs could develop a comprehensive map that tells you not only where you’re going but what you’ll find when you get there — everything from population densities to pizza places to the best traffic route in the event of an emergency.
Want to discover how many jobs are moving from the cities to the suburbs of the region you’re visiting? With the right data, Geographic Information System (GIS) technology makes it a simple process.
“GIS is a dynamic and versatile technology capable of providing critical spatial information to a wide range of users for multiple applications. It allows users to mimic real-world situations to address policy issues or solve problems,” said Dr. Jeffrey Featherstone, Chair of the Department of Community and Regional Planning and Director of the Center for Sustainable Communities at Temple University Ambler. “GIS applications are made using computer software and digital data files. These applications allow users to manipulate, create, analyze, model, and predict information that has a geographic location.”
According to campus GIS program coordinator A.S.M. Abdul Bari, there is often a misconception among people who have heard of GIS that it is simply a mapping tool. Because it is based upon the real world, however, “GIS is never a static map.”
“It’s mapping that answers questions, mapping that can guide you to a solution. It can present scenarios that answer not only what is, but what if and what could happen,” he said. “A three-dimensional texture map of a watershed could determine the most likely location for flooding in the future. It could answer the question ‘yes, your property is downstream and yes it is in danger from flooding,’ something that would be difficult to tell from a two-dimensional map. It’s an excellent visual tool.”
The Center for Sustainable Communities is presently using such technology to create comprehensive maps of the Pennypack Creek Watershed, an area that has suffered from devastating floods in recent years. According to Bari and Dr. Featherstone, a key aspect of utilizing GIS software is gathering the most up-to-date data — such as building locations and ground elevations — in order to extrapolate future conditions. In some respects, the planner using GIS has to be a bit of a detective.
“There is a great deal more information available with global positioning and digitized information on properties. If the data are good, you can do great things with GIS but sometimes not all of the information are readily available,” Dr. Featherstone said. “In Montgomery County, for example, tax parcel information has yet to be digitized. For a study like the Pennypack, that is something that we need to create.”
Data sets, Bari said, set up boundaries for the GIS program to work within — a given school district or municipality has built-in boundaries — and provides the criteria for the answer you are trying to discover.
“How many children in a municipality, how many schools within the district, how many students in a given school, how many school buses are used and the routes that are used for transportation are all different databases that can be used in combination to create a GIS model that mimics the real world,” he said. “The model is a representation of a real-world location presented in real time.”
That real-time model can be used to glimpse both the past and the future. Using census data, a planner could examine population migration from the 1930’s to today from a given city and overlay it with job locations. The result — an animated series of maps showing the progression of population movement, the movement of jobs to the new population centers, and the potential for continued sprawl as people move even further outward.
“It can visually show the ripple effect, the development of retail stores, grocery stores, supply stores to meet the needs of the new population areas,” Bari said. “That information can be used to help determine how to stop sprawl, how to provide accessibility to jobs, how to plan better.”
Learning how to utilize GIS technology is an integral part of the Community and Regional Planning Program at Temple University Ambler. According to Dr. Featherstone, all CRP students must take an introductory GIS course. Many go on to take advanced GIS courses as well.
“Individuals with a working knowledge of GIS are highly sought after in the job market today. There is a demand for planners with GIS training in everything from transportation, evaluating development and redevelopment, environmental analysis and habitat studies, emergency preparedness, and basic homeland security,” he said. “GIS allows you to assess future conditions, project impacts, and determine alternative courses of action.”
The fields that now use GIS technology are quite varied, from planning officials and township managers to real estate professionals and nonprofit managers to fire and police chiefs. While the CRP program is relatively new, the demand for qualified planners with a GIS background is already evident. CRP student Matthew Hidek, for example, has already secured a position as a Transportation Security Specialist in the Marine and Land Division of the Transportation Security Administration, formerly part of the United States Department of Transportation, now a division of the Department of Homeland Security.
“I’m currently working with transportation infrastructure protection. Temple University Ambler’s program and a background in GIS helped me achieve this position, without a doubt,” Hidek said. “Exposure to GIS, through CSC projects like the Pennypack Creek Study, definitely helped. GIS is now an integral part of planning. The more you learn, the better your chances of finding a job, especially in security planning.”
Hidek said GIS isn’t used just for analyzing terrorism threats and potential outcomes.
“It’s also being used to analyze and map natural hazards, such as chemical plume releases,” he said. “One of the things they are doing in the infrastructure protection field is merging specific data sets to take a hard look at urban environments, especially where public safety is concerned.”
To help meet the demand for GIS-savvy graduates, Lab 25 in the Library Building is being outfitted with 28 new PCs that include the latest GIS software (ESRI ArcGIS, ArcView, CommunityVIZ and AutoCAD Map). It is the first dedicated space for the CRP program. In addition, the retrofitted lab will facilitate outreach and training by the Center for Sustainable Communities.
“It will allow more students to take the course and allow more time to work on projects outside of their classes,” Dr. Featherstone said.
According to Bari, undergraduate students studying GIS learn all of the basics of the program, from collecting data sets to extrapolating solutions to a given problem.
“It might be pinpointing the location of every grocery story in Ambler and converting that information to a database. It might be a new department story or movie theater in a neighborhood and determining its economic impact,” he said. “For the graduate students in the advanced program, it might be a transportation program — determining accessibility by location or race — or a watershed model determining locations that are prone to flooding. As long as the data is good, GIS is so powerful that you can create a real-world representation of a neighborhood without ever having to go there.”
Susan Spinella and her team of fellow CRP graduate students utilized GIS to develop a corridor study of Route 309 in Upper Dublin and Lower Gwynedd townships for their transportation planning course. With GIS, the students were able to map out area land use, bus routes, transportation routes, and watersheds to propose a variety of changes along the corridor designed to improve traffic circulation.
“GIS is a very visual tool and extremely versatile,” Spinella said. “It gives you a greater understanding of the problem you are working on; you are able to actually see what you are trying to achieve.”
In addition to the ongoing Pennypack Creek Watershed Study, students in the CRP program and CSC research fellows are also putting GIS technology to good use for a variety of other community projects.
In Fall 2003, the Community and Regional Planning will be offering studios for its graduate students — a requirement for completing the degree program. Dr. Shirley Loveless and Richard Nalbandian will be teaching the CRP studios.
A proposal has been submitted to Warrington Township, Bucks County, for the students in the CRP studios to update the township’s comprehensive plan. Students in Dr. Loveless’ transportation and land use classes and Bari and Md Mahbubur R Meenar’s advanced GIS program would also be involved in the project.
“The idea of the studios is to enable students to examine a real-world problem. For participating municipalities, the studios provide an opportunity to receive a ton of resources directed toward their planning needs,” Dr. Featherstone said.
The Center is using GIS technology for an ongoing project with Philabundance, a non-profit, Philadelphia-based organization that collects and distributes donated food, to optimize its hunger relief operation. The Center is mapping hunger relief agency service areas and neighborhoods that are more prone to instances of poverty to determine the most efficient outlets and routes for food distribution.
According to Dr. Featherstone, a grant proposal for the project has been submitted on behalf of Philabundance, the Delaware Valley Childcare Council, and Temple University.
A grant application has also been sent to the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a study examining smart growth in Pennsylvania and barriers to smart growth in selected municipalities.
“We would identify four to eight municipalities where barriers to smart growth planning exist — archaic zoning ordinances, subdivision regulations,” Dr. Featherstone said. “Most municipalities have inherent barriers to smart growth in their existing zoning and local codes. We will essentially pick municipalities that want to promote smart growth initiatives and determine what needs to be done to remove the barriers to make it happen.”
The Center is additionally utilizing GIS to help assess the emergency response and crisis management plans of the Wissahickon School District, Ambler Borough, and Lower Gwynedd and Whitpain townships. The study will include fire and police stations, hospitals, schools, evacuation routes, and services areas and also take into account day of the week and seasons. The project will also study the location of emergency equipment is schools and the minimum response times for fire, police, and ambulance services.
During the fall semester, the CRP Department will also receive a new Global Positioning System (GPS) unit that will be used in the advanced GIS course.
“During the course, we’ll be training students how to use the GPS unit. For something like this emergency management project, you can use GPS to collect data on street light and stop light positioning so that during a time of crisis you could determine the most efficient route for police and firefighters,” said Bari. “Use of GPS in conjunction with GIS is another level of planning. That kind of knowledge makes the student more marketable and will be extremely important when they enter into the working world.”