Mapping Your World

Dana Bauer
May 01, 1998

You want to open a pizza parlor. You want to set up shop in a place populated with potential pizza-eaters. You want the parlor to be a five minute's drive for at least 10,000 customers between 18 and 30.

map depicting watersheds of Pennsylvania

"GIS can help you find the best spot," says David DiBiase, director of the Deasy GeoGraphics Laboratory, Penn State's cartography lab.

GIS—Geographic Information Systems—is a software tool. It uses the power of the computer to let you store, manipulate, and map data that has been marked with geographic tags. Using GIS, you can combine the features that define a geographic area—census tracts, township lines, streets, and zip code areas, with the attributes that you think will define pizza-eaters—young, busy, and low-income. "That's called precision marketing," says DiBiase.

GIS works in layers—layers of data and layers of geography come together in color to map themes. "It's not the ability to work in layers that makes GIS interesting, because computer mapping did that before GIS," says DiBiase. "What is unique is that GIS links geographic features to a database that may contain many, many characteristics of those features." Population density and median income in Centre County townships. Incidence of violent crime in the Philadelphia area. Congressional districts throughout Pennsylvania. DiBiase continues, "The heart and soul of GIS is linking features and attributes."

GIS is not new: government agencies and utilities have used it since the 1960s. "That's not why people get excited about it," explains DiBiase. "It's exciting now because GIS can create maps that are products of the user's questions, rather than a cartographer's anticipation of what people want to know. Now anybody can be a cartographer." He continues, "With GIS, you can ask a question and get back information that wasn't already on a map. That is, assuming you have access to data."

To get data, go to PASDA—Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access, a Web site at that allows you to search, view, and download data that is tied to a geographic location. "Detailed geographic data are hard to come by and expensive," says DiBiase. "Organizations which pay to create it are reluctant to share. Even PASDA offers only a bare-bones selection.

"The key to PASDA is that it provides free public access to information that otherwise would only be available to selected people," explains DiBiase—environmental data, political data, data on recreation areas such as state parks. Most of the information comes from the Department of Environmental Protection and the federal government via the University Libraries. The PASDA Web site also includes colorful displays—examples of how the data can be mapped when you put it into a GIS.

"PASDA appeals to two different audiences," explains Jason Cupp, a research assistant at the Deasy lab who manages the PASDA Web site, "those who just want to look at electronic maps that we've already made, and those who want to download data and then manipulate it to create their own maps, using their own GIS software.

"On PASDA, we try to make it easy for anybody to get on the web and explore all kinds of information," Cupp says.

"Here's a scenario," says DiBiase. Between 1989 and 1994, the Department of Environmental Protection commissioned an environmental consulting firm to find a place to store low level radioactive waste in Pennsylvania. The consultants used GIS to look at the environmental and social factors that might disqualify certain areas. In collaboration with Penn State's Environmental Resources Research Institute, they mapped attributes such as watersheds, population density, agricultural areas, limestone areas, and land on a down slope. ("High population density wasn't a disqualifying factor," DiBiase adds.)

"Through PASDA, citizens' groups now have access to that same data. They could do the same analysis and arrive at their own conclusions," says DiBiase. "Before the data were accessible, citizens couldn't do that. PASDA democratizes the process."

map of Pennsylvania

To find the information you want on PASDA, you search through metadata, which is a description of the data. It's similar to using LIAS, the University Libraries' on-line information system, to find books by author, title, and subject. "Metadata is the data's pedigree, its certificate of authenticity," explains Cupp. "It describes the data, where it came from, who documented it, when it was last updated." Once you find the data you want, you can click on a button and bring it directly to your own computer desktop, and manipulate it with your own GIS software.

Yet, GIS software doesn't come bundled on your PC with word processing software. "A huge issue in GIS science is, how do you develop and implement a public GIS?" DiBiase says. The GIS center in the Maps Room of Pattee Library is Penn State's try, the result of a partnership between the Department of Geography, the Center for Academic Computing (CAC), and the University Libraries. Eight computers, provided by CAC, are equipped with a kind of GIS software called ARCview, while lab attendants, who are undergraduate and graduate students from the geography department, are there to help make GIS more understandable.

According to Maps Librarian Melissa Lamont, "We've helped a history professor, a local business person, a criminal justice professor. We help more students than faculty though—a lot of grad students.

"GIS is a sexy technology. It's very appealing to people since this is a very visual society. People are starting to understand the power of representing data in a map," Lamont continues. "It's a creative process. It's very techie, but also very creative. And it's easier to create maps using a computer. If you screw up, you can do it again."

Lamont describes how an architecture professor used GIS to organize her slide library of buildings in Rome. "She had a map of the city on her computer. Click on the building and the slide and information about it pops up." Lamont continues, "GIS is also perfect for archeologists; it works in layers and so do they.

"It used to be only earth scientists and geographers used GIS, but it has applications that people never thought of," she says.

DiBiase teaches a general education undergraduate course called Mapping Our Changing World, the first in a four-course series that will be available to distance education learners on the web as part of Penn State's "World Campus' initiative. In one of his lessons, he demonstrates the power of GIS by having his students play "The Lifestyle Game"—a web-based game set up by a marketing company called National Decision Systems. Type in a zip code and information on the probable lifestyles of people in that area appears. When DiBiase's students typed in the zip code of their college town, the following lifestyle attributes popped up on their screens: singles, ages 18-24, light grocery store shoppers, eat a lot of fast food.Bingo. An ideal location—a college town with thousands of hungry students nearby.

Pizza anyone?

David DiBiase directs the Deasy GeoGraphics Laboratory, 210 Walker Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-4562; Melissa Lamont is the Maps Librarian, C202 Pattee Library; 865-4861; Jason Cupp is a research assistant at the Deasy GeoGraphics Laboratory; PASDA is a joint venture between Penn State and the Department of Environmental Protection. Visit PASDA at Play "The LifeStyle Game" at

Last Updated May 01, 1998