Inspired by world travel, students share ideas with USGS for The National Map

Thursday, January 10, 2013 - 3:20pm

by Chelsea Gilliam and Everleigh Stokes



From left: Shannon Grumbly, Cynthia Brewer, Chelsea Gilliam, Xinke Cheng, Rachel Passmore, Mingjie Li, Eric Aspril, Brandon Belajac, Kendra Martz, Shang Liu, Stacy Nowicki, Yiting Ju, Everleigh Stokes. Photo by Paulo Raposo.

Twelve Penn State students, one graduate student, and two professors visited the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) on November 28,  2012  to present suggestions to the director of the National Geospatial Program and other interested staff to improve The National Map and The National Map Viewer. The National Map Viewer is an online mapping service which allows users to create individual maps by selecting from various themes such as hydrology, population, and conservation. The students’ suggestions were derived from two semesters of CAUSE coursework at Penn State and three weeks of research at national mapping agencies from diverse locales, including Frankfurt, Germany; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; and Tokyo, Japan.


After spending a summer travelling the world together and enduring flights of up to ten hours at a time, the four-hour drive from State College, Pennsylvania to Reston, Virginia seemed like a walk in the park, and all of the students were excited to be together again. In the two weeks prior to the presentations each student worked extremely hard creating a research poster.

In one class session, the students printed entire 4 by 3 foot posters on 8-1/2 by 11 inch pages, which were pieced together. This allowed the students to make edits that might have been hard to catch on a computer screen and also to practice standing in front of a poster while speaking. Similarly, the night before the presentations in the hotel, each student frantically practiced their speech in front of their finished poster, trying to overcome anxious twitches and stumbling “ums” as they perfected their delivery.

The day of the presentations, after an introduction to the purpose of the trip by Cynthia Brewer and Anthony Robinson, USGS staff members took notes as each student presented four-minute talks about their unique research projects. Afterwards, the staff had the opportunity to approach students with questions and comments in two breakout sessions.

Student topics included physical theme updates:

  • cross-boundary conservation,
  • park and cultural history protection,
  • groundwater quality,
  • vegetation indices,
  • wind energy, and solar energy

as well as human theme updates:

  • infrastructure for water supply,
  • schematic maps of transportation networks,
  • food access,
  • infectious disease monitoring,
  • parcels and city planning, and
  • parking lot generalization.

Suggestions varied from recommendations to add data layers to the viewer that do not currently exist, to actual map mockups showing cartographic updates to existing National Map layers, with the goal of improving experience for both government, personal, and private sector use of The National Map. Lynn Usery, director of the Center of Excellence for Geospatial Information Science at USGS promoted the student session and welcomed our group at headquarters.



CAUSE students Kendra Martz and Mingjie Li unrolling their posters at USGS headquarters. Photo by Everleigh Stokes.



While the presentations provided a unique opportunity for students to practice presenting and defending research, the feedback time period revealed that many of the ideas presented are currently being addressed in some fashion by the USGS.

Stacy Nowicki was the first student to present. Her project suggested that the USGS National Map Viewer serve as a more centralized location for conservation data related to habitat and wildlife species. She was excited to learn from the Senior Advisor for the National Geospatial Program, Larry Sugarbaker, that her ideas were right on track.  He explained that the USGS is planning on rolling out a new map viewer called Bison, which will display conservation data for the United States.  


nowicki USGS

Geography major Stacy Nowicki presents her research as USGS staff members listen attentively to her suggestions. Photo by Everleigh Stokes.

Shannon Grumbly presented her research on wind energy. She recommended layers such as wind turbine locations, wind patterns, and bird migratory patterns be added to the national map to increase the amount of win energy harnessed in the United States, while at the same time decreasing the amount of bird deaths. Ultimately, these data layers would combine to reveal times of peak migration and, as a result, times when the wind turbines can be turned off.


Mingjie Li suggested new National Map Viewer layers related to solar radiation. He proposed new layers be created, using slope and aspect, in an effort to help researchers more accurately estimate radiation received by surfaces. He was enthusiastic to learn from Mark DeMulder, the director of the National Geospatial Program, that certain branches of the USGS are already working on solar radiation projects. One current research project includes analyzing solar panels on residential roofs. They are trying to determine how to best adjust the panel angels during the day to receive more radiation with respect to time of day.

A final example of a student presentation that received positive feedback was from Kendra Martz. Inspired by the thorough GIS mapping of water pipe infrastructure she saw in Germany and Abu Dhabi, she wanted to improve water infrastructure mapping here in the United States. Dalia Varanka, a Physical Research Scientist for USGS, commented that her ideas would be good to incorporate, but in a somewhat more limited form than the one proposed due to national security risks.