GIS: A New Kind of Mapping How Calvin students are at the cutting edge of digital mapping.

GIS: A New Kind of Mapping
What's your passion? Map it.

Two words: zombie apocalypse. Two more words: Calvin College.

No, you can’t major in zombies here, and no, you probably won’t be talking about them in class unless the television show, The Walking Dead, is a topic of discussion in a media criticism course. 

And you probably won’t witness a zombie apocalypse on campus unless your dorm chooses that theme for Chaos Day. 

So what do zombies have to do with Calvin?

You probably won’t believe us when we tell you, but here it is: A zombie apocalypse was the topic of one student’s digital mapping project in a course called “Introduction to Geographic Information Systems.” The student used public data on proximity to food and water in Grand Rapids to map out where you should hide in the event of a zombie apocalypse (see first pic in gallery). 


Zombie safeness zones? Seriously? But what if “zombie apocalypse” is a metaphor for something real, say a catastrophic blizzard or influenza epidemic? Then a map that showed you the best sources for food and water in Grand Rapids could be a very helpful thing. 

And that’s the power of GIS, or Geographic Information Systems, best known to you as the system that runs your family’s GPS device and Google maps. But it’s also so much more.  

GIS is a way to visualize complex information on a digital map. This isn’t your grandma’s old, crumpled-up map of Florida in her Buick’s glove compartment. 

Instead, it’s an interactive map on National Geographic’s website showing you the best adventure locations in the United States, or a New York Times map you can use to see your county’s unemployment rate. It could also be a digital atlas in a place where there are very few maps—developing countries like Niger, Nepal and Madagascar.


So what do Calvin students map in their GIS courses? 

Many GIS projects have serious topics: things like Liberian refugee distribution, ash fallout from Mount St. Helens or ideal locations for a new construction business.  

But the point is, in this course, you can map things relevant to your studies or things that generally rock your world. That’s exactly what GIS professor Jason VanHorn wants you to do: 

“What do you pound the table over? What are you passionate about? Map that,” he says.  

Students map things like trail conditions in their favorite hiking locations, optimal bike routes to an off-campus internship and even longboarding routes near Calvin’s campus. Some projects have a theme of service or justice: routes to improve the efficiency of recycling vehicles, or access to healthy food in urban areas. Still more projects have travel motifs inspired by Calvin’s study-abroad programs: tourist sites in Jordan, a guidebook to Budapest, Hungary, or transit routes in Seoul, South Korea. 


 • GIS is one of CNN Money’s top 100 jobs in America.
 • Visit Calvin this fall and you may be able to participate in the second annual geocaching tournament on campus.
 • You can use GIS in any career, especially in international relations, engineering, public health, international development studies and environmental science.


HOMETOWN: Ithaca, N.Y., and Grand Rapids, Mich.
MAJORS: Spanish, environmental studies and geography
WHAT SHE LOVES ABOUT GIS (geographic information systems): the ability to visualize important social and environmental issues on a map


Emma hasn’t been bored at Calvin. See the things she’s been involved in:

 • McGregor Summer Research:
Assisted Professor Jason VanHorn on a GIS project, mapping terrorism in Madrid.
 • Teacher assistant: Traveled with professors VanHorn and Johnathan Bascom to help teach GIS to geography professors in Ethiopia.
 • Lab assistant: Got paid to teach other students how to use GIS software.


So why is this GIS stuff such a big deal? After all, look at Calvin’s academic program list and you won’t find it there. In fact, you won’t find it until you dig into the list of geography courses. 

It’s a big deal for two reasons: GIS jobs are expected to increase between 10 and 20 percent in the next 10 years, making it one of CNN Money’s top 100 jobs in America. And second, GIS skills are desirable in almost any field. 

Are you going into public health? Imagine being able to map potential outbreak rates for a communicable disease in your area. Going into business? Map premium real estate locations for your future company and include it in your business plan. English major? Map urban literacy rates as a way to determine where you should volunteer your time helping kids with their reading skills.

According to VanHorn, GIS is more than just a technical career option. It’s a whole new way to communicate. 

“It’s about so much more than information. It’s about communication—visual communication.”

GIS graduate Emma DeVries ’12 agrees:

How is GIS any different from cartography or just making maps? 

“The power of GIS is in its ability to analyze space. It goes beyond just representing information and making a map out of it,” said VanHorn.

Basically, you’re not just plotting out the locations of Grand Rapids, Chicago and Detroit on a map. You’re using a powerful system called ArcGIS to crunch numbers and come up with solutions to a problem, like travel time between cities, urban density, the number of LEED-certified buildings in them, or anything else you can dream up. 

“It really should be called ‘Geographic Analysis Systems,’ but you can guess why they decided not to call it that,” quipped VanHorn. 

Emma DeVries '12 and Prof. Jason VanHorn discuss a GIS project that they've worked on together.
Emma DeVries '12 and Prof. Jason VanHorn discuss a GIS project that they've worked on together.


When you hear that GIS entails crunching numbers and using specialized software, you’re likely to think you need to be a nerd to take GIS courses. Not so, says Emma.  

“You don’t have to be a computer whiz to do it if you are committed to learning it. And when you finish your first map, it’s so rewarding. A lot of people think maps are cool, but you made this one! It’s awesome,” she said.  

And VanHorn is there to walk you through the mapmaking process. “I work very hard to make GIS accessible, especially for people who are not necessarily computer people but need basic knowledge of GIS for their career.” 

In the course of two GIS classes (an intro and advanced course), you’ll go from knowing nothing about GIS to being able to create an interactive map (called a “mashup”) that you can post on the Web or integrate with Google maps. If it’s something that could be useful to a government agency or organization, you could get service-learning credit on your transcript for submitting the map to them.


According to Prof. VanHorn, nearly all GIS projects in his classes have some sort of service component. Each semester, students work together to create digital atlases for developing countries such as Madagascar, Niger, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Nepal. Another lab involves doing 3D modeling of changes to sand dunes on the west Michigan shoreline. Advanced GIS students might also work with him on a cutting-edge research project: mapping vulnerabilities to terrorism.  

So whether you’re mapping HIV rates in Niger, long-range missile trajectories or, yes, zombie apocalypses, you are likely doing good.  

And doing good for others, in this case, is good for you and your future career. 

One geology grad, Jim Kuipers ’11, demonstrated an ability to think spatially in his first job as an exploration geologist in Nunavut, Canada, and was promoted to a senior analyst within just months. Now he’s headed to the Northwest Territories to discover and map precious metals. Another grad, Abbie Belford ’11, used her knowledge of GIS in part to gain a spot in the top graduate program for urban planning at the University of Illinois. 

The question is, what will you map, and where will your map take you?

VERGE: fall 2012

First-Year Experience