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GIS 101: A Tutorial in Geographic Information Systems from a Purchase College Student

By Jared Bernacchia (Class of 2017)

They’re everywhere. They help us get to work, school, or to our uncle’s house in Long Island. They help identify issues and resolve on public matters such as housing, healthcare, and natural disasters. They’re geographic information systems, better known as GIS.

Geospatial technologies are among the fastest growing industries in the world. Here at Purchase College, the School of Liberal Studies & Continuing Education offers a certificate program in geographic information systems, and is designed to educate:

  • public planners and consulting engineers
  • conservation and land management organizations
  • utility and transportation professionals
  • location-based entrepreneurs

The course is open to all interested participants. As a journalism major, I have no background whatsoever in the world of GIS. I decided to search around campus to find somebody who can better educate me on what GIS are and their use in society. My search led me to John Rocco Varamo Jr., a senior environmental studies major, who very graciously gave me the low-down on the ins and outs of geographic information systems.

Here is our interview…


JB: What specifically is your background in GIS (geographic information systems)?

  • JRV: I am an undergraduate environmental science major in my senior year at Purchase College. I have taken multiple GIS courses, I have interned for Westchester County in their GIS department (working directly with Sam Wear, one of LSCE’s GIS Instructors), and I’ve also done some work for the City of Norwalk’s water department.

JB: What the heck is GIS?

  • JRV: Very basically, GIS, which stands for Geographic Information Systems are maps. What’s cool about GIS is that it’s kind of like a 3-D map. They’re on a computer, obviously, but you can print them out. You can kind of dissect the different layers of GIS so that it’s not just a flat map. You can see vegetation types, you can see soil types, there’s so many different layers. On top of roads you can see fire hydrants and homes, as long as you have the data. Anything that can help you input data I guess can be considered GIS.

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John Rocco Varamo Jr., senior environmental studies major, shows us examples of GIS on his iPhone.

JB: What are some simple, practical ways in which GIS is applied to everyday life? For example, when Siri is telling me to hop on to I-684 to get to school, is that GIS?

  • JRV: That’s a more theoretical way of looking at GIS. GPS systems are considered a kind of geographic information system, hard maps are, programs that create maps are, scanners that can input are… all of these are types of GIS. We definitely use GIS in our everyday lives, through our phones, through our car GPS systems, and it’s definitely changed the way we live our lives. We don’t have to grab an atlas anymore or a map out of the trunk of our car to take a road trip.

JB: What are some examples of GIS that you have worked with?

  • JRV: Oh, there’s so many kinds of GIS I’ve worked with. I’ve created data layers of all of the cooling towers in Westchester County in the midst of the Legionnaire’s Disease outbreak, in anticipation that the state would require us to identify and inspect all of the cooling towers in each county. I’ve realigned the sewer district in Westchester County to conform to our current Westchester County municipal layer. I’ve also managed and edited metadata for multiple layers for Westchester County, creating new data such as trails and pathways on maps so far. I’ve had a lot of fun doing all of this!

JB: Have there been any particular discoveries made through the use of GIS?

  • JRV: I think that the discoveries are not necessarily made through GIS except where it can highlight certain issues. Say, for example, people didn’t realize that wildfires were a problem in a particular area. Mapping all of the wildfires in a particular area over the past 30 years can really prove a point that we need to make some kind of change in the way that our system is working. Or, another example, you can determine that there aren’t enough hospitals to accommodate all of the people who need beds in the area. I think it can help us identify issues that we might not have known were there, and then we can respond accordingly.

JB: Do you think it’s necessary to have some sort of GIS background in today’s world? If not necessary, is it at least beneficial?

  • JRV: It’s definitely beneficial, and is an asset to any degree that’s in the sciences like environmental science, political science, geography or even geology. If you’re doing urban planning or going to be in politics, it’s important to know how to use the tool. If you don’t know how to use the tool, that’s okay, as long as you have somebody else in your department who can. If you can read, understand, and interpret data, you’ll be fine. I do think it’s important, however, to have some background.

JB: So, should anyone and everyone be taking GIS courses?

  • JRV: GIS is simply a tool. If you don’t understand how to apply that tool’s usage to everyday situations, it’s not very much help. If you don’t have a degree in say, urban planning, then knowing GIS is not going to help you very much if you want to become an urban planner. For me, as an environmental science major, having GIS background is incredibly important. If somebody is considering pursuing GIS as their degree, I would personally say to study geography instead of straight-forward GIS.

JB: Purchase College’s School of Liberal Studies & Continuing Education is offering a course called “Using Cloud-Based and Online GIS Platforms”. Its description is:

Explore cutting-edge GIS websites and a wide range of online mapping. Query rich geospatial data repositories and operate mapping services, which can be integrated and “mashed up” into other GIS software programs. Participants examine and review current federal, state, and local portals providing geospatial content, along with emerging cloud mapping programs, such as ArcGIS Online and open-source alternatives.

JB: How will this course benefit anyone looking to use GIS?

  • JRV: So, I will tell you that everything is moving to the Cloud. ArcGIS, which is the application that is created by ESRI, is the leading GIS software in the world, and that’s the one used here to teach in Purchase College, it’s also the one used in Westchester County. Most municipalities use it. There are several open-source, free alternatives but they’re not nearly as well known. But, I will say that right now the desktop software suite of ArcGIS is being phased out for ArcPro which is a newer version of ArcGIS that incorporates not only the desktop client but then also an online portion which is called ArcGIS Online, which I became extremely familiar with when I worked for Westchester County’s GIS Department. It’s what most places have been converting for a few years now: ArcGIS Online instead of having a straight forward desktop client. And that’s mainly because years ago, the only way to transfer data at that point was to send CDs, and data can be extremely large. As a government office, if somebody requests data, we would give it to them, so we would need to create multiple CDs and it becomes very expensive and time-consuming. In recent years, we’re able to download those data layers individually and one can use them on their flash drives. So, to be able to have them accessible on a cloud-based service is really cool and it just makes everything a lot easier and less wasteful. I think that this class, since it is teaching ArcGIS Online, is very much cutting edge because this is the newest, latest, and greatest. It’s what everybody is doing right now and trying to convert to.

JB: Has GIS changed the world for the better?

  • JRV: I think that GIS is very important because it can help us identify certain things that we didn’t know existed. It also makes mapping things so much it’s easier. Whether or not it’s made a difference for the better or worse is kind of hard to say. I don’t know much about the history of GIS to really give you a solid answer. But, I know from my experience that it helps in mapping out tax parcels or parks or lakes or municipality districts and by identifying where firehouses are and where schools are and where hospitals are. By having all of that information, it makes planning easier. For example, if you’re planning on building a new firehouse in a particular area, you can look to see where the nearest firehouses are. If the nearest firehouse to that area is, say, 10 miles away, that’s too far. By using GIS, you can see where certain areas of government are lacking.

JB: On a personal note, where do you see yourself heading career-wise, John?

  • JRV: I definitely want to go to graduate school, most likely for environmental studies. I can definitely see myself being an urban planner, or an environmental consultant for politicians or private companies. I can also see myself, as I’ve done previously for my internship, working day-to-day as a GIS analyst in government offices or even with a private company. Whatever I do, I definitely see myself using GIS.

I would like to give a tremendous thank you to John for taking time to speak about the importance of GIS and educating me, and I hope some of you, on what GIS is and its relevance to society. Best of luck in your endeavors, John!

In the meantime, you can find more information about our GIS certificate program here.