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Cary Institue hosts GPS scavenger hunt and lecture on GIS November 27, 2008

Posted by Bahadir Sahin in English, Haber (News).
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Wednesday, Nov. 19 was Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Day, a widely recognized day of learning and demonstrations declared by National Geographic. The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies hosted events on GIS Day in order to educate the public on this significant branch technology.
The “25 cent definition” of GIS, according to Neil Curri, GIS resource educator at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Millbrook, is “a computer-based system for capture, storage, retrieval, analysis, and display of special data.”

When talking about GIS, many people automatically think of GPS. Global Positioning Systems have a variety of uses but are recognizable as the portable navigation devices that have become so useful to directionally challenged drivers.

Curri taught local young people how to use such devices when he led a GPS scavenger hunt that evening on the grounds of the Cary Institute. The group braved the bitter cold in a race to locate six different stations, each containing a “clue” to solving the final puzzle and receiving a prize.

The coordinates of the stations were programmed in GPS devices. Teams of young people used their GPS’s to navigate to each post, where a singe letter was concealed. The first team to unscramble the six-letter word was awarded a prize.

GIS and GPS are often equated. Curri, however, prefers to speak in terms of GIS, as it “covers the whole gamut of technologies.”

Curri presented a slideshow on the various ways in which GIS data is captured and processed. Data is captured using GPS or by photos taken either from airplane or via satellite. Capture and display are always digital.

“Google Earth” is a popular freeware example of GIS. Information is collected via satellite and displayed on the Internet as a true-to-life photographic map, accessible to the public.

Data can be translated in a variety of ways into maps. Oftentimes color codes are used to designate certain features. Three dimensional maps featuring elevations and contour can also be created. “For those of you into CG (Computer Graphics) or animation, you might actually see something like this,” said Curri, showing a three-dimensional color-coded rendering of a sample terrain.

GIS data also allows interested parties to study patterns and change over time. Dr. Stuart Findlay, aquatic ecologist at the Cary Institute, showed how GIS technology has enabled scientists to track changes in different Hudson River habitats over a number of years.

Findlay showed aerial photos of an artificial Hudson River island located just off the coast of Germantown. The photos, taken at different periods between 1995 and 2001 track the expansion of a patch of floating leaves.

From the data, scientists determined that the invasive aquatic plants had expanded over time by approximately one million square meters. “We’re not happy this has happened but we’re happy that we know this has happened,” said Findlay.

One of the most useful features of GIS is that it facilitates the layering of information. Different thematic information can be visually overlaid to create a bigger picture. Curri cited the combination of data describing transportation patterns, land use, census data, structure type, postal codes, and raster imagery, in order to create a comprehensive view of a developed area.
“You’re really only limited by your imagination and what you think may influence whatever you’re studying,” he said.

Mark Doyle, Cornell Cooperative Extension board member and Town of Amenia Conservational Advisory Committee member, talked about how Amenia had employed GIS in the development of its comprehensive plan.

An aerial photo of the town shows what Amenia is known for, said Doyle. “Amenia” is derived from the latin word “amoena,” which means “beautiful to the eye,” he explained. The comprehensive plan committee strove to preserve this natural beauty and make sure that its farmland and natural resources were properly represented.

The town was lucky to have Hudsonia step in to lend a hand in the comprehensive plan process. The not-for-profit local environmental research and information organization specializes in recording and interpreting site-specific information and offering advice to both groups and individuals.
Amenia was also privileged to have GIS technology available. The town used GIS to map farmland and gravel soils within the town and to show how these coincide with steep slopes. They also used GIS to locate significant habitats in the area. The resulting map, said Doyle, was an “extraordinary mosaic” of important conservation areas.

Planning, said Doyle, was largely based on Amenia’s water stream corridor. GIS allowed the planners to overlay aquifer and flood plain maps.

“We wanted to make sure our analysis corresponded with the topography,” sad Doyle. Using GIS, the committee was able to create overlays that aided in updating zoning code for the town.
Doyle also displayed GIS renderings of Amenia as it currently appears and Amenia as it will develop in the future. “It’s quite interesting to be able to flip to and fro between these,” he mused. “All in all GIS mapping and the help that we had enabled committee and community members to look at the same objective information and come to a decision on issues that people thought that they would never resolve in their lifetime.”

While GIS certainly has many practical uses, it has also become a recreational, exploratory tool for some.

The winner of the GPS scavenger hunt received what Curri identified as a “geocoin,” produced by the New York 4-H Club’s Geospatial Technology team. Geocoins, said Curri, have actually become quite popular. These trackable tokens can be concealed in any location, usually along with other items. The owner then publishes the coordinates of the coin in a public forum at http://www.geocash.com. Internet users can search for geocache in the area. The idea is to find the geocache with whatever items are concealed, and leave other items in its place.

Sometimes tracking geocoins can be a little more interesting. Curri revealed that he once found a geocache that contained a Beethoven action figure. The owner left a note requesting digital photos from all the musical locations that miniature composer visited. Beethoven ended up at a number of different music venues.. When sending their geocoins out into the world, “some people have a destination in mind,” said Curry. “In this case there was no destination.”

“Geography is the study of almost everything,” said Curri during his introduction. GIS enables users to study and connect to their entire world in a number of ways. The county, unfortunately, has considered cutting GIS funding. Towns like Amenia, however, have demonstrated that this is an invaluable resource. Gathering as much information as possible for analysis is necessary in order to understand one’s environment and make informed decisions. Findlay attested to this in his comments on his study of Hudson River aquatic life: “Being able to analyze the neighborhood is key. Without geospatial tools I don’t know how else to do it.”

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