ArcGIS 10 Annoyances – Feature Construction Mini-Toolbar

I’ve been doing a lot of editing in ArcGIS the last few days, and have run into quite a few things that really annoy me about the new interface in version 10. The editing environment received a major facelift in this version, and that’s where most of my complaints are. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for trying out new things. I am attracted to shiny objects. The thing is though, once the shininess of an object wears off there has to be some functionality left in order for the object to remain useful. I’m pointing out a minor annoyance here because I want to keep this post short. However, there are a few more significant annoyances I plan on talking about in the future.

Feature Construction Mini-Toolbar

The Feature Construction mini-toolbar follows your editing cursor around within the data frame while you are using certain editing tools. This sounds like a very handy feature. You have quicker access to the tools on the mini-toolbar, since you don’t have to reach all the way back up to the docked toolbars every time you need a tool. In practice, however, I don’t find much benefit from it. The problem is, when it it follows your cursor around, it places itself directly below the cursor. Every time. About half the time, this means it’s directly in the path of my next mouse click. The image below shows the mini-toolbar getting in my way as I’m using the reshape tool to edit a stream feature. My next desired click is right were the toolbar is:
FeatureConstruction Mini-Toolbar
The default tools on the Feature Construction mini-toolbar are mostly available on the Editor toolbar, and of course all of them can be added there through customization.
FeatureConstruction Mini-Toolbar2
When I’m editing, I typically place or move dozens, if not hundreds, of vertices before needing to use an item on the toolbar. So, the mini-toolbar has dozens, or hundreds, of chances of getting in the way before I have a need to use it just once. This is not handy. This is an annoyance.

Turn It Off

I’m not a software developer, but I have dabbled in programming a little bit. It would seem to me that the mini-toolbar could be modified so that instead of plopping itself down right where you want to click next, it would anticipate your next move and place itself out of the way. Another option might be the use of a hot key, so it still follows your moves, but only reveals itself when a particular key is pressed. Until something along those lines happens, though, I think I’ll just turn the darn thing off and customize my editor toolbar with a few more tools. Here’s how to do that:
On the Editor toolbar, choose the drop-down Editor menu
Choose Options…
On the General tab, uncheck the item that says Show mini toolbar
EditorMenu EditingOptions

Buildout Analysis – Assemble the GIS

This might be a little rudimentary for most of you, but I’m going to start off by mentioning something too many GIS users forget. The first thing I learned from my first GIS professor on the first day of my first GIS class:

The acronym GIS stands for Geographic Information System. That system is made up of four essential elements: Hardware, software, data, and an operator.

Most of this post is going to concentrate on the data element. However, I’m going to start off by talking a little bit about software and the operator. I’ll leave the hardware part up to you.


Yes, it is possible to do a buildout without using a GIS. I’ve seen it done. I do not recommend it. Most non-GIS buildouts use something like Excel for the software and the local assessors database as the data source. They were popular a few years ago before GIS became as ubiquitous as it is today. Now, with so many people learning and using GIS, and so much GIS data available, spreadsheet buildouts are becoming very rare.

I use ESRI software for all of my work. I have been playing around with some open source OS’s and GIS software recently (e.g. QGIS, GRASS, SAGA), but ESRI is what I cut my teeth on, and I still use it every day. I’ll try to make a conscious effort to make these posts as non-proprietary as possible, but ESRI is what I know best, so some of the more specific examples will undoubtedly show that.

I’ve looked into specialty software occasionally, or software add-on/extensions that are supposed to make the buildout process easier. I don’t use them. What I’ve found is, the most tedious part of a buildout is getting the data into a condition that’s usable. That has to be done whether or not specialized buildout software is used, so why spend the time learning how to use it? (I welcome any feedback on this from anyone with a different point of view). Diving into the data and performing most of the buildout operations “by hand” forces the operator (next section) to become intimately familiar with the buildout study area. Performing these many tedious tasks reveals information about the municipality that never comes out during a workshop, survey, or focus group session.


The person performing the buildout should understand how planning works. A buildout is not just a mathematical equation applied to a bunch of digital map layers, it’s a planning exercise. Planning decisions are made by people and are often influenced by politics. Two towns might have nearly identical zoning laws, but the way they are implemented can be quite different. One recent example I ran into is a town that “rounds up” when a landowner requests a subdivision of a parcel that doesn’t quite meet the minimum lot standards. What they mean by rounding up is this: The town’s zoning code has a rural district with 3 acre minimum lot sizes. If a landowner has a parcel that is more than 3 acres but less than 6, they will allow the parcel to be subdivided into 2 new lots anyway, even though the zoning code does not specifically allow for this. (Yes I know what you’re thinking, but that’s a whole other series of posts 🙂 If the GIS operator were to go strictly by what’s written in the zoning code, that little tidbit of information would never be revealed. Less extreme examples of implementation variation involve allowing various amounts of wetlands, water, or other environmentally constrained areas to be included in the calculation of new lots upon subdivision. Some towns are very strict about this while others have a more relaxed attitude. Ultimately, the goal is to get the buildout to act more like the people involved in the decision making process, and less like the inhuman machine that it is.


Let’s start assembling some data. A buildout analysis requires data from nearly every level of government there is, from the local not-for-profit land trust, to the federal government. All of the buildouts I’ve done have been for local municipalities in New York State. My main source of data is the NYS GIS Clearinghouse website. However, a few layers are only available through local, county, or federal sources.  If you’re working in another state, I suggest starting your data search at that state’s GIS data site.

The following layers are needed to do a buildout:1 - Base Map

  • Municipal Boundary
  • Tax Parcels
  • Water
  • Streams
  • Wetlands
  • Flood Hazards
  • Soils
  • Topography
  • Zoning Districts
  • Federal, State, and Non-Profit owned properties
  • Conservation Easements
  • Orthophotos

There are others that you’ll want in order to produce a useful map at the end of the process, such as roads, railroads, neighboring towns, etc., but these are the layers I find absolutely necessary to perform the buildout operations. Let’s take a look at each one.

Municipal Boundary

I always start out with a definition of the buildout area. Usually this is a town, village, or city, but it can be a smaller neighborhood, or a larger region composed of multiple municipalities. The NYS GIS Clearinghouse has a layer that contains every municipal boundary in the state. I assume other states have similar layers. If you’re working with a smaller neighborhood area, a watershed,  or a region, you might have to generate the buildout boundary yourself.

The primary purpose of the municipal boundary layer is as an aid to assembling the other layers needed for the buildout. Most of the data will need to be clipped out of larger area layers, or combined from layers covering smaller areas. When I’m putting together a set of resource maps for a town I like to include the data from the surrounding area to provide some context. However, for buildouts I usually clip everything to the boundary of the study area. It makes managing the data a little easier, the processing and calculations happen faster, and it helps to focus the attention of the viewer on what’s in the buildout study area.

Tax ParcelsExample of Property Class layer

The tax parcel layer is where all of the action will take place once the other layers are assembled and cleaned up. Tax parcel data however, also has some unique characteristics. In NYS, the parcel boundary layer is maintained by county governments while the attributes are maintained by the local municipalities i.e. town, village, and city (Again, I welcome any info here about how other areas of the country operate). The problem here is that these two sources of data almost never match up completely. In addition, some counties do not maintain GIS versions of parcel data. If that’s the case, scanned tax maps have to be digitized, or if you’re lucky, CAD versions exist that can be converted into GIS layers. Some counties are better than others at supplying proper tax parce
l layers, but more often than not, I’ve found it takes a lot of work to get this layer into shape.

When acquiring the parcel layer, make sure the attribute table contains at minimum, a unique parcel ID code, Owners name, and property class code. If there is a field that shows the “year built” for each parcel, that can come in handy later on, too.

Water and Streams

There are multiple sources of data showing open water and streams. USGS supplies the National Hydrography Dataset (NHD), NYS OSCIC provides 1:24,000 scale hydrography, and many counties include these features as part of their tax parcel data. None that I’ve seen are totally complete, and they usually have to be edited a bit for accuracy.


The best federal source of wetlands data is the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wetlands Inventory (NWI). In NYS, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) provide layers delineating the wetlands under their control. I usually do not do any editing to the wetlands layers. Identifying wetlands requires special knowledge of aerial photo interpretation and field work. If you think the wetlands layers do not represent the true extent of the wetlands within the buildout area, I suggest using a hydric soils layer extracted from the soils data mentioned below.

Flood Hazards5 - flood

Flood hazard layers are notorious for being one of the most inaccurate layers available. There are some areas of the country that have been updated using LIDAR and other state of the art techniques, but if your study area is not in one of these high priority locations, you might be out of luck. FEMA produces a variety of layers showing flood hazards. I suggest starting your search at the FEMA Map Service Center website. You should also check with the local and county governments for the buildout area. If flooding is a problem in the buildout study area, chances are there is some flood map updating going on.


I don’t use soils data in every buildout, but there are times when it comes in handy. If the wetlands and flood hazard layers look a little sparse, or are not available at all, they can be supplemented by extracting hydric soils and flood prone soils layers from the data. One of the problems with soils data is that it is the most complex data source there is. The full soils database includes 64 individual tables. These tables have to be joined to each other and to the spatial layer properly in order to make use of the information contained in them. Luckily, there are only three tables that need to be used in most GIS resource mapping exercises. I’ll discuss how to extract the pertinent data in a future post. If you’re ready to dive into soils data, take a look at the NRCS Soils page.

Topography2 - topography

Using a digital elevation model (DEM), various slope categories can be produced to identify land that is unbuildable or constrained to development due to steep slopes. DEMs are also used to produce watersheds at a larger scale than what’s available through the Watershed Boundary Dataset (WBD). These catchments can then be used to evaluate the impact of the buildout on specific areas. If there are specific slope regulations in a town’s zoning or subdivision regulations, use those to produce the steep slope layer. Otherwise, I usually generate a layer that shows slopes over 15%.

Seamless elevation data can be downloaded through the USGS National Map Seamless Server. If this doesn’t work for you (and it hasn’t for me on occasion) individual DEM tiles can be downloaded and mosaiced together.

Zoning Districts

Zoning districts are defined by the local government. In addition to the zoning map, the zoning text and any adopted changes to that text should be reviewed thoroughly. Many times I’ve found discrepancies between the adopted map and the text that the town did not even realize existed before starting the buildout.

This is one layer that I often have to produce myself. The zoning district layer should include the minimum lot size or other density requirements for each district. If a buildout is being done for a town without any zoning, interviews with the local planning board members can reveal how decisions are made regarding subdivision of land.

Federal, State, and Non-Profit owned properties

This layer helps identify properties that will never be built upon because of government ownership. Most of this data can be derived by looking closely at the parcel layer’s attributed, searching through the property class code and ownership field. However, it helps to have these additional layers to verify the parcel layer and to fill in any blanks.

Conservation Easements

Most parcel data does not come with information regarding conservation easements on the property. A call to the local land trust will usually turn a layer or two with that information. If it’s not in GIS form, a list of properties is usually available. Although private property easement data is considered public information, some land trusts are reluctant to broadcast that information widely. They might ask that the data be kept confidential.

Orthophotos11 - aerial

Orthophotos are aerial photos that have been georeferenced and geometrically corrected. They are not used directly in the buildout process, but are handy for editing other layers and identifying missing features. Most states and a number of federal agencies can supply orthophotos. Using the latest incarnations of ArcGIS, imagery can be added through a Web Map Service, too.

Next Post

The next post in this series will be about cleaning up the data once you have it, getting it into a form that’s useable for the buildout calculati

< Back to Overview

Buildout Analysis – Overview

 The most common type of analysis I’m asked to do for my clients is a buildout. Buildouts are usually done in the context of a municipality’s comprehensive plan or zoning update. After assembling and examining a complete set of resource maps, my clients often request an analysis of how these resources interact, and where potential conflicts might occur. One way to accomplish this is through a buildout analysis.
In my 8 years working as a planner I’ve performed buildout analyses for over 25 towns and villages, often with multiple iterations per town. There are many websites outlining the process in general terms, but few get into the nitty-gritty tedious details neccessary to perform an accurate buildout. Most of those details I’ve learned through trial and error. One purpose of this series of posts is to share some of those details with others so they might avoid the pitfalls I ran into. If I’ve learned anything through my work with GIS it is that there is never just one way to do something. That being said, another purpose of this series is to encourage others to share thier experiences, and make suggestions about alternative methods of performing the many GIS operations required for a buildout.
Explaining the many steps involved in a buildout analysis in as much detail as I want to will require more than one post. So, I’ll start with an initial overview of the process and an outline of my plans for future posts which will include more of the nitty-gritty details.

Brief Description of a Buildout

Example of an existing residence map

A buildout analysis is an exercise designed to estimate the amount of development that can occur if all developable land within a defined area is developed according to a municipality’s land use regulations. The buildout analysis applies current land use regulations and typically considers environmental constraints that can limit development in certain areas.  It then calculates the total residential density allowed at full buildout of the area. The defined area can be a single parcel being contemplated for subdivision, a neighborhood, an entire town or village, or a larger region encompasing more than one municipality. For this series of articles I will focus on buildouts performed for a single municipality, typically a rural town or village.  
It is important to point out that these buildouts do not predict when full buildout will occur, at what rate it will occur, or where it will occur first. It only predicts the possible end result. There are some models that attempt to predict these characteristics, but my experience is that these models are wildly innacurate, especially when used for the small towns and rural areas I work with.

The Steps Involved

The general process followed to calculate full buildout conditions is:

Example of an environmental constraints map

  1. Identify areas that already have residential development and therefore would not allow new development
  2. Identify properties subject to conservation easements, or are owned by government entities not likely to allow development
  3. Identify areas in the town having environmental constraints that would not support new residential development
  4. Calculate the amount of new residential development allowed by the current land use regulations in the remaining develpable areas of the Town.

In essence, the analysis calculates the total land base of the town, subtracts all lands having environmental constraints and completely built areas, and then applies the various development rules to calculate the number of allowable new residences. For purposes of the analyses included in these posts, the buildouts will assume that all new development will be single-family homes.


It is important to note that the results of all of these calculations are only estimates. The GIS layers used are not exact replicas of what is actually found in the real world, only representations of what is there. The processing of the data also introduces a certain amount of error, and can add to the inaccuracy of the data. The only way to get an accurate count of allowed residential uses on a particular property is to do an on-site survey of existing conditions.

Outline of future posts

The following list outlines the specific steps involved in performing a buildout. I plan to describe these steps in much greater detail in future posts.

Example of a potential new residence map

  1. Assemble the GIS
  2. Clean the data, add and populate appropriate fields
  3. Identify existing residential land uses
  4. Combine the zoning layer with the parcel layer
  5. Identify parcels that are currently fully built
  6. Combine the environmental constraints layers with the parcel layer
  7. Identify remaining buildable area within developable parcels
  8. Perform the buildout calculations on the remaining buildable area
  9. Report the results

A few examples

For now. here are a few links to some buildout maps and reports I’ve done:
Town of Charlton Buildout
Callicoon Buildout Analysis
Callicoon Buildout Maps:

GISP? We Don’t Need No GISP!

Or do we?

Or better yet, what I’d really like to know – Do I?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been organizing and filling out the applications for a couple of professional certifications: the APA’s American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) and the GIS Certification Institute’s Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP). I have been working as an independent planning consultant specializing in the use of GIS for the past eight years, and thought it was time I got around to doing this. What’s been holding me up so far has not been that I did not qualify for either one, but my work load. It’s difficult to dedicate the time required to fill out the application forms, acquire and organize the documentation, and prepare for the tests when one has a full load of paying work sitting in front of them. Since my work load has slowed a bit this year, I figured it was time to take the plunge, and get it done.
At the same time I was assembling all of my documentation, there was a noticeable rise in the level of discussion about GISP certification amongst my Twitter followers. This is not unusual. The GISP topic comes up from time to time, and always seems to stir the emotions of the GeoNerds that hang out there. What did surprise me, though, was the level of animosity expounded toward GISP by some. I decided that before I follow through with sending in my $250, I should explore and analyze the requirements and potential benefits of becoming a certified GISP.
I decided to start my analysis by comparing GISP to the other certification process I am familiar with – AICP. The following table compares the two certification process requirements.




Education None required, but affects amount of experience needed Required – conference attendance can count toward education
Experience At least 2 years, up to 8 years if no degree At least 4 years
Code of Ethics Yes Yes
Contributions to the profession Only need a current APA membership Required, through combination of publication, association membership, conference participation, awards, volunteering
Test Yes, 150 multiple choice questions None
Fee $450 $250
Continuing education for maintenance/renewal 32 hours every 2 years Must accrue work experience, educational achievement, and contributions to the profession every 5 years
Renewal Fee No set fee, whatever the cost of the CM (continuing maintenance) materials or classes are $115


Surprisingly, AICP does not require any formal education at all. However, a graduate degree from an accredited institution does allow you to take the certification test with only 2 years of work experience. Lesser degrees require more work experience.
While the GISP does not explicitly require any formal education, it would be very difficult to satisfy the educational requirement through conference attendance alone. 300 full conference days would be needed to fulfill the GISP education requirement if the applicant had no degree or formal class time. That’s 60 full work-weeks worth of conferences.


AICP requires between 2 and 4 years of experience depending on the level and accreditation of the degree received (or 8 years with no degree). GISP requires 4 years of work experience regardless of the education.

Code of Ethics

Both AICP and GISP have written codes of ethics that members are expected to adhere to.

Contributions to the profession

AICP requires only current APA membership, while GISP requires the applicant to document their contributions to the profession. These contributions can include merely membership in a GIS organization, or more direct contributions, such as publication of a book or article, participation in a conference or workshop, or volunteering for a non-profit organization.

Test vs. No Test

The most obvious difference between the AICP and GISP requirements is the lack of a test for the GISP. Is this a problem for the GISP? Does it diminish its clout? Would a test improve its acceptance among the GIS crowd? Many of the anti-GISP commenter’s point to the lack of an exam as the main reason GISP is not a valid certification process.

My Thoughts

Amongst practicing planners, AICP is expected if you are to be considered a true professional planner. In GIS circles, GISP – not so much. Overall, I found the AICP application requirements easier to fulfill than the GISP requirements. Granted, the AICP application only allows me to qualify to take the test, but with my education and experience, I do qualify. I  do NOT yet qualify for GISP. Essentially the difference between the two boils down to test vs. experience. Which one is the better measure of professional ability? I come down on the side of experience. I believe the GISP certification process is as valid a process as any other. It emphasizes education and work experience more than does AICP. It expects adherence to a code of ethics  and rules of conduct. Most importantly in my mind, it expects contributions to the profession, (and continuing contributions to maintain certification) which AICP surprisingly does not. It’s these contributions to the profession that I lack, and will be working on the next few months so I will be able to become a GISP.

Why the Antipathy toward GISP from some GISers?

I believe GISers are a particularly independent lot, and feel like GISP is akin to following the herd. GISers are by their nature, non-conformists. GISers are a much more laid back group compared to planners. Compare the two photos below. The first is from the 2009 APA conference, the second from the 2009 ESRI UC.

APA Conference
Notice the suits, button down shirts, and ties at the APA conference.
Notice the lack of ties. There are a few button down shirts, but there’s also an abundance of polo shirts at the ESRI UC. One guy is even wearing flip-flops!

I know not everyone will agree with my analysis, but from my standpoint, GISP is a valid and valuable certification process. I believe it shows the holders of a GISP have certain qualities that those who do not qualify for GISP don’t. Over the next few months I will be working to fulfill the last few requirements, and sending in my application to become a GISP.

Blogs and other GISP related articles:

Roger Diercks’s Geofoolery blog post Trying to get to the GISP of the matter
Peter Batty’s geothought blog post: The GIS Certification emperor has no clothes
ArcUser Online article: Do You Want to Be a GISP?
The ENTCHEV GIS Blog post: Building a Brand The GISP Debate and A GIS Veterans Point of View
‘sproke: Are you REALLY a GIS Professional?

GIS is Dead – Long Live GIS

What is the state of GIS, and where is it going?

Wow, is it even possible to answer that? It seems to be the perpetual question asked at every GIS conference, and embedded into every keynote address given at them. In an attempt to describe the state of GIS, some (many?) are using the terms Paleo and Neo in an attempt to describe past and future tenses of all things geo/gis-related. I’m still not sure these are the correct words to use ( See my blog post titled “My Latest Lesson in GIS”), but they have become a part of the GIS nomenclature, none-the-less.
The impetus to write this post came from a recent discussion on Twitter about how to advise someone just entering the GIS field. It all started innocently enough with a Twitter post by Shawn Bichsel“I’m meeting a potential #geonerd for lunch to spread the GIS gospel. What’s one piece advice you would give someone entering the GIS field” Shawn did a great job summarizing the responses to his question on his blog – Bixel Is Outside.
My response to that question was “New GISers should view GIS as a tool, not a profession. Need to know enviro, transp, engineer, planning, helath, web, etc…”. Then Justin Houk followed up with a tweet “I like your thinking don. You should do a post on your views of GIS as a profession.” And so, here it is.

GIS is a myth

I apologize for the abundance of Twitter quotes in this post, but there were so many great ideas flying around that day, it’s just easier explain my thought process by using them. Bill Dolans said in one of his most profound tweets ever: “IMO, GIS is a myth. There are info systems/apps that use spatial data and methods but GIS doesn’t exist.” This then led to a few more exchanges comparing GIS use and using computers as “text information systems”. And that’s when the light bulb lit up in my head. We are probably at a similar point in GIS evolution as word processing was 30 or 40 years ago.

GIS and Word Processing

People have been drawing maps and communicating through the written word for thousands of years. There was a time when Word Processing was as much a profession as GIS is today. Read this description of word processing from the Wikipedia article, and see if it looks familiar to you GIS folk:

[In the late 1960’s] IBM defined the term in a broad and vague way as “The combination of people, procedures, and equipment which transforms ideas into printed communications,”

Now look at the definition of GIS from the ESRI website:

A geographic information system (GIS) integrates hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information.

Actually, if I had defined GIS that way on a test in my intro to GIS class, without mentioning that a person was needed to operate it, I would have gotten that one wrong.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is this:

  • There were writers before word processors, and there still are, and always will be, writers.
  • There were geospatial analysts before GIS, and there still are, and always will be, geospatial analysts.
  • Word Processing is no longer a profession, but word processors are still being used as a tool in many other professions.
  • GIS is on it’s way out as a profession, but GIS will continue to be used as a tool in many other professions.

My advice to someone that wants to get into the GIS field is – don’t, because it’s not going to be around much longer. What you should do is – get into a profession you really enjoy, and learn how to apply the various GIS tools to your work.

My latest lesson in GIS

My latest lesson in GIS came from Twitter

More difficult than deciding what to write about in my first blog post, has been deciding what to write about in my second. I want to keep some sense of continuity in my writing, and briefly thought about describing my learning progress and work experience through the years. However, I also want to keep the topics here current. So, I’ve decided to skip ahead (way ahead) to where I am today.
What have I learned most recently about the use of GIS in the planning field? I have been spending an extraordinary amount of time on Twitter for the last several months. This IS a good thing. Since I finished my graduate degree, and haven’t spent any time in a classroom in over 6 years, I have become increasingly aware of my isolation as a sole proprietor in a home office. I have been fortunate that my workload has kept me very busy, even through the recent economic meltdown. But, it has also kept me from getting out and keeping up with some of the advancements in the GIS world. In the fast-paced ever-changing world of technology, that is NOT a good thing. In order to overcome my sense of isolation, and to promote my business, I decided to increase my online presence.

Enter > Twitter

There has been a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of Twitter usage in the work place, and the jury is still out (for most people, anyway) on whether the benefits yet outweigh the costs. For myself, I believe Twitter has been a net benefit.
I’d like to describe why I feel this way through an example. A few weeks ago, there was a series of posts (or tweets) about the use of the term NeoGeography to describe recent advancements in the GIS world. In an attempt to describe NeoGeography, the concept of PaleoGeography was also discussed. While these terms are not new (see the Wikipedia article: There was a significant increase in the chatter on Twitter about the use of these terms. Some tweets were an attempt at definitions of the terms. Some were condemnations of the attempt to label GIS practitioners using particular technologies as new vs. old. Some were expressions of distaste for labels in general, and resulted in the new self applied label – GeoAgnostic.

My take on the whole discussion is this

(modified from a series of tweets on the subject):

The prefix Neo (new), is often associated with “good” while Paleo (old), with “outdated” or “bad”. While I disagree with this association, I can understand why some GIS/Geography professionals don’t want to label their work or themselves as Neo or Paleo. However, I don’t think GeoAgnostic is quite the right term, either. The word agnostic comes from the Greek word agnosis or “without knowledge”. It is usually used in a religious sense, to describe someone who feels the existence of God is impossible to prove, therefore unknowable, and therefore not worth bothering with. I don’t think any of those using the term GeoAgnostic truly feel this way about their chosen profession. My thinking is this: The Root word of agnosis is gnosis, or “knowledge”. Specifically it refers to knowledge gained through personal experience, not just taught by someone else. Again, in the religious sense, Gnostics were early Christians that believed they could grow closer to God by questioning and learning everything you could about your faith. In my view, we should all try to be GeoGnostics, praising and evangelizing the benefits of GeoGnostisism. We should encourage new Geography/GIS professionals to question and test everything, be open to new ideas, and learn as much as possible through direct experience.

What does all of this have to do with my perceived net benefit of using Twitter? Twitter makes me think. Were it not for Twitter, I never would have thought about the whole Neo vs. Paleo thing. I never would have heard the various viewpoints from GIS professionals, government agency officials, and students from a half dozen counties, and three different continents. It allowed me to post a few comments in a very informal way, and get some feedback on how others felt about those comments. I learned, not from a book, but through my own actions and experience. I became more GeoGnostic.
This is just one small example of how Twitter has helped me grow. There are hundreds more I could list. Some small and insignificant, some more substantial, but all of them, important. Twitter allows me to push the envelope with my thinking. Do I ever go too far? Absolutely, but when I do, someone always points it out in a friendly way, and I reel myself back in.

And as for the “label” thing? You can call me a

If you’d like to read up on some of the Neo vs. Paleo discussion, I suggest checking out these sites:
Peter Batty’s blog posts about NeoGeography:
James Fee’s blog post on Neo, Geo, GIS and Innovation:


My first lesson in GIS

My first lesson in GIS came from the back of an album cover

I can imagine one question runs through any persons mind once the decision is made to start a blog: “What do I say in my first blog post?” My goal for this blog is to talk about the use of GIS in urban and regional planning. I do not want to make it a personal/family blog, but a more personal and timely version of my business’s website.
So, where to start? Why not begin with my very first exposure to GIS and its application to planning. You might be surprised that this was through music. Back in 1978, I was an undergrad at a small NH liberal arts college, majoring in biology. My four years in NH opened my eyes to many new things, one of which was new wave/progressive rock. One of my favorite bands at the time was (and still is) Talking Heads. My favorite Talking Heads album, and the one that exposed me to GIS and the planning profession, is More Songs About Building and Food. The back side of that album shows a photo-mosaic of the United States made up of LandSAT images. The text on the inner sleeve describes it best:

More Songs About Buildings And Food back cover

The back cover is a reproduction of Portrait U.S.A., the first color photomosaic of the United States. It is made up of 569 photos taken from space by the LandSAT satellite. Each photo in the mosaic is made up of four separate photos of different parts of the light spectrum: Green, Red, and two different Infra-red regions. These light regions were chosen because they help bring out the differences in geographical forms and types of vegetation. Each image is made up of many scan lines, much like a T.V. picture… analog information is converted to digital information and then transmitted to various ground receiving stations. This information is then converted into a black-and-white picture corresponding to each spectral region. These can then be combined to make the color pictures that are used in this mosaic. In the version reproduced on the cover, the information from the green spectral region is printed as yellow, the red region is printed as magenta, and the infra-red region is printed as cyan. This is called a false color image. In this version vegetation appears as turquoise, rocks and soil appear as red, yellow, brown, and towns, roads, and water appear as black. Objects as small as 33 feet are visible on the LandSAT photos if the object is in contrast to its environment. The practical applications of the LandSAT photos are many, some of which are forest-fire damage, regional planning, assessment of land use: Which crops are being grown where, mapping of ice for shipping, mapping and detection of air and water pollution, and monitoring surface mining.
Portrait U.S.A. is copyrighted by the General Electric Co., 1976. It was produced by their Beltsville Photo Engineering Lab with the assistance of the National Geographic Society and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Not to be outdone by NASA, Talking Heads decided to take this concept one step farther, and put a photo-mosaic of the band on the front cover of the album, using 529 close-up Polaroid photos:

More Songs About Buildings And Food Front Cover

Of course great album cover art was never the sole focus of any band. The music mattered, too. And it was one of the songs on this album that really drove home, for me anyway, the importance of planning, and how it affects our everyday lives. It was overshadowed by the much more popular Take Me To The River (written by Al Green), but The Big Country (by David Byrne), was a much better song, fit the title of the album and the cover art, and as the final track, completed the entire album experience.
Many times, after sitting through a 2 hour meeting, presenting the results of a survey, a workshop meeting, a buildout analysis, or some other GIS analysis, I queue up this song, turn the volume up, and settle in for the long drive home. The lyrics are not a very positive commentary on our built environment. Actually, the opposite. The song asks the question “Why would anybody want to live the way we do?” I ask myself that same question all the time. What is it that keeps our elected officials from building places we would all love to live in? I don’t have the answer to that question, but for some reason, I get great satisfaction from the fact that one of my favorite bands asked the same thing, over 31 years ago, before I even knew what urban and regional planning was.

The Big Country Lyrics:

I see the shapes,
I remember from maps.
I see the shoreline.
I see the whitecaps.
A baseball diamond, nice weather down there.
I see the school and the houses where the kids are.
Places to park by the factories and buildings.
Restaurants and bar for later in the evening.
Then we come to the farmlands, and the undeveloped areas.
And I have learned how these things work together.
I see the parkway that passes through them all.
And I have learned how to look at these things and I say,
I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.
I couldn’t live like that, no siree!
I couldn’t do the things the way those people do.
I couldn’t live there if you paid me to.
I guess it’s healthy, I guess the air is clean.
I guess those people have fun with their neighbors and friends.
Look at that kitchen and all of that food.
Look at them eat it guess it tastes real good.
They grow it in the farmlands
And they take it to the stores
They put it in the car trunk
And they bring it back home
And I say…
I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.
I couldn’t live like that, no siree!
I couldn’t do the things the way those people do.
I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.
I’m tired of looking out the windows of the airplane
I’m tired of travelling, I want to be somewhere.
Its not even worth talking
About those people down there.
Goo goo ga ga ga
Goo goo ga ga ga