Globe on computer

New Minor on the Map: Geographic Information Systems

A new minor program in geographic information systems was formally approved through the Geography and Planning Department in fall 2008. The term GIS commonly refers to a collection of computer hardware, software, and geographic data that are used to capture, manage, analyze, and communicate all forms of geographically referenced information—essentially, information that can be put on a map.

Because its applications are almost boundless, a GIS minor can benefit students in many disciplines. For example, GIS can aid a company in determining the best place to open a new store, provide information to public health officials about the spread of a disease, describe the characteristics of residents of a neighborhood to someone thousands of miles away, or enable planners to manage infrastructure such as water supply and waste control.

“The uses for GIS are virtually endless,” said Wende Mix, associate professor of geography and planning. She is overseeing the minor program with Tao Tang, associate professor of geography and planning. Mary Perrelli, the GIS laboratory manager, is helping to develop and teach GIS workshops.

Mix recently used GIS to investigate house flipping and neighborhood change in Buffalo. House flipping is buying property and quickly reselling it for intended profit. “We took information from several databases,” said Mix, “and used GIS to show the information on a map of the city. We also used census data.” The project demonstrated not only the usefulness of GIS, but also suggested that greater use of GIS could improve the quality of the data. Mix used GIS when she served as a transportation engineer with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“We are working to expand the GIS course offerings,” said Mix, “because GIS is so widely used. Corporations, government agencies, academic institutions including school districts, and nonprofits all are using it.” This summer, she is teaching a course introducing students to ArcGIS, the most widely used GIS software in the world. The course will incorporate extensive hands-on experience using customized data sets and lab exercises.

To earn the GIS minor, students must complete three required courses in geography and planning and one elective from among four geography and planning courses relating to urban analysis, corporate applications, environmental assessment and planning, or interactive and Web-based mapping, respectively.

Geography and planning majors must also complete two courses from Computer Information Systems (CIS); non-majors must complete GEG 390: Quantitative Methods in Geography and Planning or an equivalent upper-level statistics course and one CIS course. Students can choose from among five CIS courses.