GIS Reveals Extent of Early Hawaiian Agricultural Systems

…from The Nature Conservancy…

“Early Hawaiian agriculture was far more extensive and complex than anyone has fully understood, according to new research by scientists blending state-of-the-art technologies with traditional dirt archaeology.

“Until now, it has been difficult to prove the full scope of Hawaiian farming technology, said Samuel M. Gon III, ecologist, cultural advisor and senior scientist with The Nature Conservancy. “At the peak of Hawaiian population, there were perhaps a million people. It takes thousands and thousands of acres to feed all those people,” Gon said. Where was all that farmland?

“A new research tool has now identified thousands of farmed acres not previously known to science—including a vast dry-land agricultural field system in the grassy plains of Ka‘ū on the Big Island.”

The World is Much Smaller than Many Think

…from Yahoo!

“Some people have suggested the world is getting smaller, but the majority overestimate its size ten-fold, according to new research.

“A survey of 2,000 adults found the average estimate for the distance around the equator was more than 300,000 miles, when it is actually 25,000.

“The public also appears to overestimate the extent of scientific knowledge, according to the poll. One in five thought further scientific fieldwork was unnecessary and half believed exploration was more commonly linked to television documentaries than new discoveries.

“The research, commissioned by ESRI (UK), a provider of geographic information systems technology, suggested fewer people were inspired by tales of classic explorers.”

Free U.S. Earth Imagery Sharpens Shared View of Global Challenges

USGS Director McNutt a Leader in U.S. Delegation at International Conference

Free, easily accessible U.S. satellite data enables any citizen, scientist, or analyst who can use the information to contribute to a shared vision of the challenges facing our planet.

That’s the message the newly-appointed director of the U.S. Geological Survey, Dr. Marcia McNutt, plans to deliver when representatives of 80 governments and over 50 participating organizations convene at the international Group on Earth Observations (GEO-VI) meeting, November 16-17, in Washington, D.C.

“Our policy of providing free Landsat data supports a central GEO goal: to promote global distribution of earth observation data,” said McNutt. “With a continuous record of earth observation since 1972, Landsat provides the most complete set of land surface information as well as a vital historical perspective for researchers, decision makers, and commercial users around the world.”

From over 400 miles above Earth, the scale of Landsat imagery makes it particularly useful in understanding natural and human-induced changes to the planet. The data enable a wide array of investigations — from supporting disaster relief efforts to making agricultural crop assessments to correlating environmental conditions with famine, biodiversity, and human health.

Beginning with the launch of Landsat 1 in 1972, Landsat, a joint operation of USGS and NASA, has produced over two million space-based, moderate-resolution, land remote sensing images. The massive data archive is maintained at the USGS-EROS facility in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“As the world’s increasing population is compelled to face the effects of climate change and the limitations of water, petroleum, and other vital resources, the broad availability of images from Landsat and other earth observation satellites benefits both developing and developed countries,” said Dr. McNutt. McNutt became the 15th USGS Director on November 5.

USGEO, the American contribution to GEO, is sponsored by 15 federal agencies and two White House offices.

“I am very pleased to note that it was the agency I now direct, USGS, that opened the Landsat archive to the world free of charge,” McNutt continued. “Since the archive was opened, over 1 million images have been provided to users from 180 countries — a resounding success.”

For further information, visit:

[Source: USGS news release]

Charting the Unknown: How Computer Mapping at Harvard Became GIS

ESRI Press Book Delves into the Beginning of GIS

…from the Winter 2006/2007 issue of ArcNews

Harvard University students in Cambridge, Massachusetts, today meet in the basement of Memorial Hall for a drink, a bite to eat, and perhaps a jazz concert. But for a generation of some of the most respected leaders in the GIS field, the legacy of the subterranean retreat now known as Loker Commons belongs not to burgers and beer but to computer mapping software.

p43p2Memorial Hall was where retired Chicago architect Howard Fisher established the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics in 1965 with a Ford Foundation grant. From the depths of the basement offices came pioneering computerized mapping and geospatial analysis programs, such as SYMAP, SYMVU, POLYVRT, and ODYSSEY, that were produced by some of the smartest people working in computer programming, geography, cartography, and other disciplines.

“It was a group of people who were very bright, motivated, and in the early stages of a whole new field of computer graphics and geographic information systems,” said Bruce Rowland, an ESRI manager and former student at the Lab, during a taped interview with Nick Chrisman. Chrisman is the author of Charting the Unknown: How Computer Mapping at Harvard Became GIS, a new book and CD published by ESRI Press.

In Charting the Unknown, Chrisman, a programmer and research associate at the Lab from 1972 to 1982, turns the clock back to the early 1960s when computer mapping was in its infancy. He follows the progress of the technology, with an emphasis on Harvard’s contributions.

During a recent interview, Chrisman talked about how determined he and his colleagues at the Lab were to improve computer mapmaking and how their passion for the work coalesced at Harvard.

“It was the opportunity to make a difference,” said Chrisman, who prior to taking the position at Harvard worked on such projects as making a computer map that showed segregated housing in Boston in 1971 for a group involved in the school busing issue. “We knew that . . . if we could get everything to work, we were going to get somewhere. Harvard provided us with a place of leverage.”

Charting the Unknown, which comes with an accompanying CD, describes in detail how the Lab was founded; the staff projects, including the early SYMAP software and GIS prototype ODYSSEY; and the reasons behind the Lab’s closure in 1991. The CD’s video clips feature interviews of former Lab staffers, including former Lab director Allan Schmidt, Graphic Systems president Eric Teicholz, ESRI director of software development Scott Morehouse, and ESRI president Jack Dangermond. Their recollections, coupled with Chrisman’s painstaking archival research, provide insights into the early systems and software used to create maps and show how sheer determination and a love of computer mapmaking helped spur GIS pioneers to create smarter solutions.


Nick Chrisman

Launching the Lab

In Charting the Unknown, Chrisman describes how Fisher caught the computer mapping bug in 1963 while taking a short course taught by Edgar Horwood, a professor of urban planning and civil engineering at the University of Washington. “As soon as he saw Horwood’s maps, Fisher realized he could make better ones,” Chrisman wrote.

Fisher quickly hired a programmer, Betty Benson, to work on developing the computer mapping software program SYMAP. Then he launched a training course component to teach urban planners how to use it. His desire to get SYMAP into the hands of more map users, coupled with plans to reform thematic cartography, led him to pursue the Ford Foundation grant and a university research laboratory setting. The foundation gave $294,000 over three years to seed the Lab, which Harvard agreed to open. Fisher was appointed director.

The Lab initially focused on improving and selling SYMAP, which could produce conformant, proximal, and contour maps on a line printer and be used for a variety of projects, such as air pollution studies.

“Fisher wanted to be able to do spatial analysis,” said Chrisman. “He wanted to make contour maps. He wanted to make a whole variety of things.”

To an outsider, the Lab, which later expanded its role and name to become the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis, appeared to be a relative sea of calm during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a tumultuous time on college campuses with the anti-Vietnam War movement at its height. But the scene at the Lab was actually intense. The staff and students lived and breathed computer mapping, hunching over keypunch machines for countless hours creating the programs they used to make maps and create mapmaking software.

“We worked a lot. It was a 1 a.m. kind of time,” said Chrisman.

In a taped interview for the CD, Dangermond, a research assistant at the Lab from 1968 to 1969, describes burning the midnight oil programming the maps, keypunching at a machine, and then depositing decks of keypunched cards at the nearby Harvard Computer Center for processing. He said he thrived intellectually at the Lab and in his Harvard classes. “I think I learned more in that one year than I had learned in the previous 10 years in academic life,” said Dangermond. “You know when you drink seven cups of coffee how you feel? You are just hyper. Everything is magical, new, and exciting. It was, for me, like drinking out of a fire hose of knowledge.”

“What set the Lab apart from others experimenting with computer mapping in the 1960s was Fisher’s plan to sell the software developed,” Chrisman said.

Selling software then was a revolutionary idea, according to Chrisman. Sales in the mid-1960s focused on hardware, while software was often provided for free.

“The key difference for Howard Fisher’s Lab was that the software was going to be distributed to users,” Chrisman said. “[Some others] wanted to set up a service center. They wanted to be at the center of the network, and they wanted everyone to send their data into them and be processed at a central site.”

Customers snapped up SYMAP, along with SYMVU software, developed in 1969 to illustrate surface displays. The Lab also conducted correspondence courses, offering software discounts to people who earned certificates. Conferences about computer mapping brought together top professionals and students. Spatial analysis was folded into the mix at the Lab, and the staff worked on environmental planning projects with Harvard University’s Department of Landscape Architecture. In the meantime, the directorship of the Lab changed hands several times, Dangermond was getting ESRI off the ground, and the ODYSSEY system was being developed.

The ODYSSEY system was developed by a team that included Chrisman, Denis White, Scott Morehouse, and others starting in the mid-1970s. A vector GIS that provided spatial analysis, ODYSSEY became a prototype for modern GIS software. “ODYSSEY could overlay maps fast,” Chrisman said, citing a major advantage of the system. Together, the developers worked for years perfecting ODYSSEY for commercial distribution.

But in the early 1980s, Gerald McCue, then dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, indicated he wanted to stop the Lab’s commercial distribution of software. The Lab was part of the Graduate School of Design. He believed the Lab, being in a nonprofit university setting, should focus on research rather than going into the business of selling software, Chrisman wrote.

The decision spelled the beginning of the end for the Lab and dashed some people’s hopes of reviving the Geography Department at Harvard University, which had closed in 1948, according to Chrisman. “[From] ’67 to ’81, we were basically the de facto program in geography,” said Chrisman.

Limited sales of software continued in the 1980s, mainly to universities. But the ODYSSEY team broke up. White went to work for the Environmental Protection Agency. Chrisman also charted a new course by earning a Ph.D. and becoming a college professor. Today he’s a professor of geomatics sciences at the Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada, and scientific director of the Geomatics for Informed Decisions (GEOIDE) Network.

By 1991, the staff had withered, and the Lab was no more. In an interview with Chrisman on the CD, Morehouse laments that Harvard decided against commercializing ODYSSEY. “On the other hand, it was a very difficult challenge. Could anybody have figured out how to take commercial software technology from a university setting to a commercial setting in 1979–1980?”

Chrisman concurs that the Graduate School of Design, while a good place for the Lab in the 1960s, never fully realized the software’s potential. However, the Lab’s spirit lives on in the people who took what they learned there and applied it to build even more sophisticated mapping systems and software.

“The work at the Laboratory was not in vain,” Chrisman wrote in his book’s postscript. “Many elements of the modern GIS emerged in this very special place. The human value nurtured by the Laboratory remains, a triumph of the best of the human spirit.”

Geography Returns to Harvard

This spring, Harvard University opened the Center for Geographic Analysis (CGA). Described as a technology platform in the Institute for Quantitative Social Science, the center’s staff will help on research projects and offer classes in geographic information systems and spatial analysis.

Chrisman hails the decision, while underscoring that the center’s mission focuses on education and research rather than what the Lab did, which was work on software development.

“For those of us who were at the Lab, it is gratifying to see Harvard finally get back into the game,” he said, adding that Harvard is going in a new direction. “It’s a totally different thing, and it’s much more related to the academic role of the institution,” Chrisman said. “It is not going to be the national center or the international center for new developments,” he added. “It’s going to take quite awhile before they would get to that stage, and it would be hard to do it.”

More Information

Charting the Unknown: How Computer Mapping at Harvard Became GIS (ISBN 13: 978-1-58948-118-3 or ISBN 10: 1-58948-118-6, 232 pages, $34.95) is available at online retailers and bookstores worldwide or can be purchased at or by calling 1-800-447-9778. Outside the United States, contact your local ESRI distributor.


Watch interviews videotaped as part of the research for Charting the Unknown: How Computer Mapping at Harvard Became GIS.  The videotaped interviews reassemble some key members of the Laboratory’s staff.  The interviewees discuss important concepts and difficulties in the early technology.  Most importantly, despite the decades-long passage of time, the interviews capture the fascination of being present for the creation of a new technology–a true “charting of the unknown.”

Free Training Seminar: Getting Started with Lidar in ArcGIS

esriThis seminar introduces lidar in general, discusses how to manage lidar data using ArcGIS, and also addresses the needs of those who would like to know the benefits of using lidar data in ArcGIS.

Lidar datasets are massive and contain three-dimensional spatial information about features such as buildings, trees, power lines, etc. Lidar datasets are raw point cloud formats that are not easily interpreted. ArcGIS Spatial Analyst and ArcGIS 3D Analyst provide the functionality and tools you need to represent and extract feature information from lidar data.

The presenter will discuss:

  • Introduction to lidar
  • Understanding and interpreting lidar data using ArcGIS
  • Lidar applications and derived products using ArcGIS

More information

Spatial Modeling of Invasive Plant Spread on Roads and River Networks in Alaska

…from the Western Wildland Environment Threat Assessment Center, US Forest Service…

“Most of Alaska’s invasive plants are found only along the state’s limited road system, and Melilotus alba is one of the most widely distributed invasives in the state. Recently, Melilotus has been found to have moved from roadsides to the flood plains of at least three glacial rivers. In one of these cases, Melilotus has become a major component of the flood plain vegetation of the lower Stikine River in southeast Alaska, within the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness. The presence of Melilotus on the lower Stikine River points out the vulnerability of roadless public lands in Alaska to invaders dispersing via linked road-and-river networks. Because more and more noxious species are turning up in Alaska each year, and because they are also spreading along the roadsides, it is likely that other species will follow the roads-to-rivers route that Melilotus has taken. The objective of this project is to develop a simulation model of the potential spread of an invasive plant along roads and river networks in Alaska. The model will allow us to predict the rate of spread, and the number of years until an invasive plant will reach different roadless public conservation units. It will identify certain road-river interfaces and crossings as critical control points for certain public lands conservation units. This information will provide a means of prioritizing and evaluating the effectiveness of different management responses to invasive species in Alaska. The model will highlight which public lands are most vulnerable to invasion via linked road and river networks, as well as showing which lands are least vulnerable. We will be able to use the model to test hypotheses concerning climate change and changing flood regimes, for a variety of management actions and for a variety of invasive species. Initial model development will focus on a 10,000 km2 study area (100 by 100 km) comprising the rivers and roads upstream of the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), north of Fairbanks. This area is bounded on the east by the Dalton Highway, and on the west by the western boundary of the wildlife refuge. Kanuti NWR is entirely located in National Hydrography Data set subregion 1904, and although it has no direct road access, there are 13 major and 112 minor crossings upstream of the refuge, all on the Dalton Highway. When the model is functioning properly on this relatively small test area, we’ll expand it to larger extents, with the goal of scaling the model up to the full extent of interior and south-central Alaska.”

Arctic Sea Ice Reaches Third Lowest Minimum Extent

…from NOAA’s Environmental Visualization Laboratory…


“On Sept 12, 2009, the extent of sea ice in the Arctic reached the third lowest level ever recorded since satellite records began in 1979. The National Snow and Ice Data Center estimates that the overall extent dropped to 5.1 million square kilometers, well below the average minimum extent of 6.71 million square kilometers (1979-2000). Only 2007 and 2008 have had lower ice extents. The small increase in 2009 was mostly due to ice spreading caused by strong polar winds. Ice concentration and thickness, however, have not increased, making predictions about a rebound in Arctic ice premature at this moment.”

Map of the Day: Circumpolar Arctic Vegetation Map, Including Arctic Research Stations

…from the ESRI Map Book, Volume 24


“This map displays the Circumarctic Vegetation Map and Arctic Research Stations, which include the location, station name, contact information, facilities, equipment, communications, Internet link, and other basic information for stations supporting research in the Arctic region. The Arctic Station data layer is compiled by the Canadian International Polar Year Secretariat and was derived from the Canadian International Polar Year (CANIPY) Web portal and the terrestrial Circumarctic Environmental Observatories Network (CEON).

“The map shows the types of vegetation that occur across the Arctic, between the ice-covered Arctic Ocean to the north and the northern limit of forests to the south. An international team of Arctic vegetation scientists representing the six countries of the Arctic (Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and the United States) prepared the map by grouping over 400 described plant communities into sixteen physiognomic units based on plant growth forms.

“Both data layers can be visualized in the Arctic Research Mapping Application (ARMAP), a suite of online services, accessible at, to provide support of Arctic science. With ARMAP’s 2D maps and 3D globes, users can navigate to areas of interest, view a variety of map layers, and explore U.S. federally funded research projects. With special emphasis on the International Polar Year (IPY), ARMAP has targeted science planners, scientists, educators, and the general public.

“Courtesy of”