Mapping the Future

By Chris Przybyszewski
Photography by Baxter Buck


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How do humans see this world? Most have the ability to do just that: see. Moreover, humans do not just see one or two things at a time. Instead, we see myriad structures, all at once, each taking up a bit of space.

Compare this to the way scientists have looked at data throughout history. Before the advent of computer modeling, most scientists studied the human condition (or that of plants and animals) via the numeric table, as any one of us finds on an Excel spreadsheet.

A two-dimensional numeric table and the three-dimensional world necessarily involve a disconnect; that is, scientifically speaking, humans do not get the whole picture. The world of scientific research has not always been able to put the numbers of research into their proper space. This “no place for space” philosophy has its uses: averages, standard deviations and regressions in statistical analysis assume—for the most part—a two-dimensional plane of discrete elements (e.g. whatever is being studied, like voting results) happening at certain times.

However, if someone were able to meld the two levels, say make a map and somehow join that space with numeric values from empirical research, bring the table to the map and then see the new picture, that would be a neat trick.

Enter the computer program ArcGIS (Geographic Information System) by ESRI, a computer program corporation founded in 1969 and operating out of Redlands, CA. ESRI created a new type of computer program, one that can take numeric values, like those from the U.S. Census Bureau or voter registration numbers, and plot those values on a map. This layering of information results in the ability to analyze data in three dimensions.

Some Rhodes professors use this new software to enhance their teaching and interdisciplinary study and research. The group of professors include Peter Ekstrom in anthropology and sociology, Carol Ekstrom in geology, Michael Kirby in political science and urban studies, David Kesler in biology, Stephen Ceccoli in international studies and Kenneth Morrell and Susanne Hofstra, both from Greek and Roman Studies.

“It all started a long time ago, maybe 15 years ago,” says Kirby from the middle of the group’s GIS lab, full of state-of-the-art computers, workbenches and many, many maps. “It was when Judith Rutschman joined the computer center. She was to work with faculty on computer-related problems and issues.”

Kirby immediately saw the use of computers on campus and the ability to mimic the work of other political scientists.

“In essence, what they did was map voting patterns in Southern states by county and show over time how those voting patterns were stable,” he says. “I thought, gee, that would really be neat if we could do some of that in our own research, get students to collect data and then teach them to display it.” However, Kirby did not have the necessary scores of graduate students working in his lab, collecting data and making maps by hand.

“I wanted to find some software that could help us out,” says Kirby. “We looked around and found something, but it was so complicated we could never make it work. But it was an idea that stayed with me. Over time, software started to show up and we bought bits and pieces. It was still cumbersome, but I could do some election analyses with the classes of students.”

In 1999, Prof. Kesler, who has used GIS to plot the locations of mussels in the Wolf River and map locations of American chestnut sprouts in Fayette County, TN, approached Kirby about attending a seminar in San Antonio on a new type of software—ArcGIS.

“Of course, my reaction to David was, ‘Leave me alone, I already have this other software,’” Kirby recalls. “David said, ‘Mike, you don’t understand. This is becoming the standard. Why don’t you come?’” Kesler and Kirby attended the conference at the same time that Prof. Carol Ekstrom attended a similar conference in California. Afterward, the professors came together with others interested in the new programming tool. The GIS collaborative came to life with a sizeable donation of the expensive software by ESRI itself.

“We were off and running,” Kirby says.

Kirby uses the GIS software to allow students to collect data about the neighborhoods around campus. Kirby separated one neighborhood into so-called “parcel files” or “polygons.”

Kirby elaborates: “These polygons refer to a piece of property that has a house or a business on it. It may be a vacant lot, have a school or a park on it. What’s nifty about this is that we can attach information to the database behind this. So we have actual addresses here and we can code them in any way we want to, and then we can color-code that map so that it says something about that area.

“In this case, I was interested in the condition of the neighborhood and problem properties in the neighborhood with the idea that not only do we study the neighborhood, but we can learn about its condition. We also learn about ways in which we can deal with some of those problems. The way in which we do that is to design a survey form so that students can look at each parcel and describe the condition it is in.” So, if a house has a bad roof, peeling paint, a lot of litter, the students could code the house accordingly.

At this point, Kirby proudly displays a simple map of Hunter Street, between Springdale and Hollywood, which is about a half-mile from the campus. The white polygons show houses without significant problems. Those with green are “distressed” areas. Clearly on the map, Kirby shows definite groupings of areas with problems.

“We’re showing blight empirically,” he explains.

Houses in disrepair tend to be on the same part of the street. The real-world application is that violence gravitates toward those blighted areas.

“There’s something called the ‘broken-window’ theory which says that locations in poor physical condition can lead to crime in the neighborhood,” Kirby says. “A broken window means that people don’t care about the neighborhood or themselves.” With his students, Kirby later mapped violent crime trends onto the blight map. “With GIS we found that there was a lot of violent crime in the neighborhood and we thought that before you can solve the violent crime, you have to solve the physical problems.

“I asked the students to pick one thing that they saw and could possibly fix. What impressed them the most was something that none of us expected to find on that street: tires—tires that were left and not picked up by the city. Students wanted to do something about that.”

Kirby made that intervention happen, based on the class’s data from GIS.

“We were actually in the lab and I let them use my cell phone. I said, ‘Call the Solid Waste Management Service Center right now.’”

The result was a wholesale tire cleanup on those streets. In addition, Rhodes has since adopted the neighborhood and will continue to meet the citizens and help clean the area.

However, Kirby is quick to point out that the GIS software is not a cure-all for city woes.

“What this does is start the discussion,” he says. “It doesn’t solve anything, but it does provide tangible information that you can take to someone and use.”

In Carol Ekstrom’s Environmental Geology class, she asked students to use GIS to look at the water supply in Memphis.

“I want them to understand the water supply and that there is a potential for contamination,” she says. “We have a very good water supply and I don’t want to imply that there’s a problem with it, but we do have to be aware that we have to monitor it constantly. So I have them get the data for all the different things that are involved: the thickness of the protective layer above the aquifer, the location of the pumping stations and where the fault lines that run through the Memphis area are. Also, we look at where the underground petroleum storage tanks are. Definitely, septic tanks and storage tanks are two of the most prominent contaminaters of ground water. We don’t have to worry about septic tanks inside the city, but if one of the petroleum storage tanks leaks and the contents seep into the ground water, that’s an event about which we need to be aware. I have them try to analyze where we need to monitor. There are hundreds of wells and hundreds of storage tanks. They have to plan the most effective way to keep a clean water source.”

These examples of advanced usage of the GIS software package are not for beginners.

“Whenever you learn new software packages, there are going to be pitfalls,” Prof. Ceccoli says. “I teach other software packages to different classes and there’s always a learning experience. It’s a very sophisticated package to master. Even to be on a good level with it requires a lot of work.”

The original arcView program package had more than a few user issues. However, more recent versions have created a friendlier environment.

“GIS, ArcGIS, the major program we see on the computer is now in its second incarnation,” Ceccoli says. “The first version was not very user-friendly at all. It wasn’t intuitive. About two years ago, the company ESRI updated the software to version 8.1. It’s much more point and click; it’s a Windows-based system, you have pull-down menus.”

This new program still requires a good amount of training on the part of the students and constant hands-on supervision from faculty.

Ceccoli says that learning the technology and language is an integral part of the undergraduate experience.

“We want our students to use GIS, to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, really work with these things on a first-hand basis,” he says with a certain relish in his voice.

Since multiple workplaces (civic planning corporations, consulting firms, research companies and graduate programs) use the GIS software, Ceccoli thinks this hands-on approach has a big payoff after graduation.

“I really believe we are equipping our students with a very marketable skill,” he says. “We want our students to be as competitive as possible.”

To highlight the work of faculty and students, the group has also started an annual campus tradition of GIS Day in the GIS lab, with faculty and students presenting their research based on usage of the software and databases.

That display of opportunities with GIS has led to seminars for the entire Rhodes community.

“We invited faculty and staff to come to a workshop and—just like our students—they would see faculty and how they used GIS for the problems they face,” Ceccoli says. “Then we asked the people who came to this workshop to design their own projects.”

One result was a project by Meeman Center director Marilyn Hury, who wondered whether the current location of the center drew enough students. By mapping the home addresses of students to their times of classes and usage of the center, she found that most of the students come from their homes in Germantown and East Memphis, raising the question of a possible satellite campus in those parts of town.

Another highly useful result came from the Admissions Office, which combined applicant data (e.g. who applied, where did those applicants come from) with recruitment data (i.e. which admissions counselors visited certain areas) in order to see which admissions trips were most effective and in which areas in the United States additional admissions travel would be most beneficial.

Past the on-campus experience, the GIS group wants to extend knowledge about the program to other campuses as well. The group received a grant to show off its capabilities to other schools, such as Millsaps College in Jackson, MS.

“We took our show on the road,” says Prof. Carol Ekstrom, noting that other schools are interested in a seminar as well. “I was asked to be part of a GIS planning meeting at Southwestern University. A number of schools came up to me afterward and asked our group to give seminars.”

A final, important aspect of the GIS collaborative is its interdisciplinary approach to research and teaching.

“The beauty of the interdisciplinary approach is that we don’t have large departments and we don’t necessarily have people in our own departments who are interested in data and information,” Kirby says. “So we have to look beyond our own departments to get reinforcement.

“A big research university is going to have 40 people on a staff and maybe three or four who do GIS in that discipline. In a liberal arts college, you are going to have to look to other disciplines. There’s a lot of cross-fertilization that way.”

Ceccoli adds to Kirby’s sentiments:

“The collaboration, the interdisciplinary connections, talking to the biologists, the geologists, other political scientists, those who teach business or philosophy, it’s been great to work with these people to get their perceptions and their interpretations of the same thing. That’s very important, particularly at a liberal arts college. We’re not just focusing on our departments. Learning is multi-dimensional and we can learn many things, whether substantively or methodologically, from other fields.”