Richard Rupp in a CDPE-created video. (Photo by Brian Maki)
PULLMAN, Wash. – Most maps have two dimensions. Very few have three. Geographic Information Systems creates maps with a fourth dimension, a new topography of digital information.
GIS works like this: Data is collected about anything that can be measured or calculated: Income levels, water pipes, traffic, soil composition, animal habitat, the widgets in a warehouse, the locations of people trapped in quake-crushed buildings. The data can come from traditional sources, such as a census, or from satellite photos and planes that use lasers to create 3-D maps of the landscape.
Computers place the data over the relevant map. Different data sets can be layered over the same area. People can then make decisions based on a deep new stratum of digital information.
New courses offered
This fall, students – regardless of their geospatial locations – will be able to learn about GIS in a new WSU Online course, Soil Sciences 368, Introduction to Geographic Information Systems. The course is taught by Richard Rupp, GIS coordinator at Washington State University’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.
Also this fall, WSU will begin offering a minor in geospatial analysis, which is a bit broader and includes remote sensing and spatial statistics.
A multitude of applications
Though GIS technology is relatively new, the practical applications have been of astounding range. Farmers use it for planting, cities for planning, businesses for managing everything from inventory to parking spaces.
Rescue workers in Haiti used it to save earthquake victims. The city of Portland uses it to map utilities, fight graffiti and tell commuters when their bus will arrive.
At WSU, the technology is often associated with precision agriculture and natural resource science, as well as archaeology, geology and civil engineering. But it’s quickly becoming a crucial tool for commerce worldwide.
Course will emphasize “how to”
“Business is the biggest use of GIS in the country,” Rupp said. “Government is number two.”
The new online course will focus on geography, but the process applies to other data.
“Students will learn not just ‘about.’ They’ll learn ‘how to,’ ” said Charmaine Wellington, the e-learning consultant at the Center for Distance and Professional Education who is working with Rupp. “They’ll create a map for each assignment.”
The course also will include video created by the CDPE and screen-capture sequences made with Camtasia software.
Long interest in maps
Rupp earned his bachelor’s degree in bacteriology from Iowa State University in 1980, and his Ph.D. in microbiology from WSU in 1986. He became interested in GIS about 15 years ago, just as it was growing into a major force.
“I’m kind of a data freak,” Rupp said. “I love numbers.”
Rupp’s interest in maps goes back to when he was 10, when he started a National Geographic subscription.
 “Until my wife finally convinced me – in a weak moment – to get rid of them, I had a huge collection of National Geographic maps, going back 20 or 30 years.”
He still subscribes, still admires the maps, but no longer saves them: “Now I can make my own.”