GIS Studies at Shasta College
● By Jon Lewis
The Right DirectionOctober 2015
By Jon Lewis
Photos: Thomas Shedd
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are in use everywhere these days—from smart phones that can summon street maps with the push of a button to indispensable planning tools that can tell officials where to locate a highway or hospital—and Shasta College instructor Dan Scollon is helping keep the North State in front of the emerging technology.
By definition, GIS is a celebration of all that is nerdy. In essence, it is any system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage and present all types of spatial or geographical data.
For Scollon and his students, GIS is an emerging field packed with real-life applications and brimming with possibilities. “It’s a reflection of these various tech revolutions going on around us. Google Maps is all of a sudden something we take for granted. Ten years ago, you didn’t have that information at your disposal. GIS is pulling maps from all these technologies in different forms and using them for different applications.
“It’s gathering data to address questions of need, analysis and planning on where new infrastructure will be built,” Scollon says. “And it’s building cool-looking maps people like to look at.”
Scollon has taught GIS at Shasta College for 20 years and has helped build the program to where the school now offers stand-alone courses, a 24-unit GIS certificate program and a two-year Associates of Science degree in applied GIS. “It’s definitely a field with a lot of levels,” he says. In June, Scollon received the Excellence in Education Award from the California Geographic Information Association, an accolade he calls “a nice recognition of what we’re doing in the North State in applying GIS.”
Redding resident Emily Sachs began her GIS studies with Scollon and is now using her background at the University of California at Berkeley, where she’s studying for a degree in anthropology. “Data can often be very complicated and is usually boring to read, but GIS is a way to communicate that information in ways that make it easier— and even fun—for people to understand,” she says.
“Being able to actually show someone how much crime is in which neighborhood or how quickly a fire has spread are obviously important, but less obvious is the ability it gives us to see things like what our local rivers looked like before Shasta Dam was built, or what things will look like once it is raised,” Sachs says. “GIS can be used to show us patterns in almost anything. It gives us a visual representation of the way things are, how they are connected and how they’re changing.”
GIS technology and tools are in daily use by people involved in transportation, natural resource management, social services, firefighting, municipal utilities, land use planning, mapping, agriculture and countless other fields.
“With social media and smart phones, things have really taken off. A lot of people are familiar with consumer uses, like Map My Run, but it’s also rolled over into business and government things,” Scollon says. “Now, there are inexpensive ways to collect data on trails and infrastructure things and there are tools to push that information. There are a whole range of tools out there of interest to recreationists and important tools for agencies and businesses.”
The Shasta Regional Transportation Agency has been a big GIS proponent, with its members using the technology to support grants by demonstrating how planners are reducing the generation of greenhouse gases by altering traffic flows and locating roads, trails and walkways.
The agency “has been looking at things like non-motorized transportation planning and looking at traffic flow models to see where traffic is concentrated. They’re trying to encourage people to drive fewer miles and create hubs of growth rather than sprawl,” Scollon says.
Other agencies are all-in with GIS, Scollon says. The Western Shasta Resource Conservation District uses GIS to analyze what wildland areas have burned in the past and which areas are likely to burn in the future; FireWhat, Inc., a Dunsmuir-based tech firm, has been singled out for its use of GIS in assisting firefighters across the country; Vestra, a Redding-based engineering firm, uses its GIS professionals to assist clients with pesticide application, crop analysis and other “precision agriculture” programs.
GIS has become a hot commodity, Scollon says. “A lot of people working in other fields will come in and get GIS skills. GIS has become this go-to tool for all these different disciplines. Students realize they need it to increase their value.”
In his classes, Scollon is constantly on the lookout for ways students can use their new skills and expertise. “A big thing we’re trying to encourage at Shasta College and at www.farnorcalgis.org (the clearinghouse site for GIS in the North State) is ways to provide
services to the community.”
Examples are maps that point out community service organizations with one-click portals that provide location, hours, services offered and contact information. Scollon says students are encouraged to go out and map new things, like storm drains or hiking trails, and then figure out how to coordinate that data to maximize its usefulness.
“There’s tons of data out there now. The world is awash in technical data,” Scollon says. The larger principles of GIS involve an understanding of the tools needed to use that data and apply it in a useful way.
North State GIS professionals are planning a variety of school
workshops and community events to coincide withNational GIS Day
on Nov. 18. Details can be found at www.farnorcalgis.org.