Learning GIS at Selkirk College

What happens in the lab; a showcase of GIS Student creations & other good stuff.

Category: Student Blogs (page 2 of 3)

Publishing GIS data in Adobe Creative Suite

~ A guest blog post by ADGISer Barry McLane

I’m a big fan of Adobe Creative Suite, and have been working with Photoshop and Illustrator for some time. Last fall [in GIS 321] I discovered that ArcMap can export to Illustrator (AI) files, and I’ve since been finalizing all of my maps in Illustrator. The publishing capabilities of ArcMap are decent – especially in contrast with other GIS software – but the output quality eventually caps out.

Some of the graphic design features of Photoshop and Illustrator are absolutely necessary to reach a high level of cartographic quality.

Color management and opacity settings – to name only a few – are areas where Illustrator really outshines ArcMap. The library of raster effects in Photoshop are really useful as well, and can give maps a very customized look.

I recently had the opportunity to work with Tourism Rossland, and created maps for their new road biking brochure. I sourced all the spatial data, and compiled the map layers in ArcMap 10.2 using fixed extent data frames for each map. I then exported the raw layers into Photoshop (rasters) and Illustrator (vectors). This workflow offered up a good change of scenery, as 90% of the work was done using non-GIS software.

The fixed extend data frames are really key. They enable the user to continually make changes/additions in ArcMap, and import them into the existing Illustrator file without the need to re-align layers. Illustrator maintains the grouping of layers, which is very helpful.

Map elements, such as scale bars and legends, are also separated into groups.

I used Illustrator to do the vector work: feature symbolizing, text labels, symbols etc., and Photoshop to build the base maps, which are a composite of multiple hillshade and DEM tiles. I exported the hillshade and DEM rasters as TIFF files, and stacked them into a single Photoshop (PSD) file. This allowed for maximum flexibility with the tone and contrast of the basemaps. The elevation profiles were made using the Strava route planner. I imported screenshots of the profiles into Illustrator, and used them as templates to create new profiles from scratch.

This project was a great learning experience for me, and I feel lucky to have worked with such professional people. The graphic designer, Shelley Ackerman, and author Terry Miller really did a bang up job. The brochure design is top notch, and the tongue-in-cheek ride descriptions are hilarious. It has been published as an 8 panel, double folding brochure that Tourism Rossland distributes to events and storefronts across the region, to promote Rossland as a road cycling destination.

The process of exporting ArcMap documents into Illustrator isn’t without it’s nuances, though. Here’s a few tips/lessons that I’ve learned over the past 6 months:

  1. In ArcMap, no layers can contain any level of transparency, otherwise they will be exported as an un-editable full-page raster. This is usually the main source of problems when exporting to AI.
  2. The resolution at which you export will also affect the vectors, which strays from the traditional concept that vectors are “resolution independent”.
  3. Only one raster image can be exported at a time. Multiple exported raster layers will be flattened into a single layer on the AI side. I find it simplest to export rasters as TIFF files, and place them in the AI document separately.
  4. The layers nest themselves in groups in AI, and 2 clipping masks are created for each layer. The concept of clipping masks can be annoying and difficult to grasp at first, but they are ultimately what allow users to add newly exported layers without the need to re-align. More info on Illustrator clipping masks here.
  5. Keep features simple when exporting, and do all the symbolization in AI. No need to duplicate the process.
  6. Exporting text from ArcMap to Illustrator is in general pretty buggy, so I just don’t bother. I do the annotation work once in Illustrator, where it is more flexible anyway.
Check Barry’s fine work in detail on his own site.  Front & back of the brochure


smart phone GPS compared to traditional recreational GPS, what’s the deal?

Guest blog post by ADGIS student: Sean Fredrickson

First off: it is a generalization that smartphones have come into the mainstream use of everyday people. I think it is a fair generalization, I mean, look at how many users are dependent on smartphones to give them real time data, and the use of the coveted GPS (global positioning system) apps. From navigation in vehicles within towns or cities, to a wide variety of outdoor recreation uses, and even in work scenarios, we use these apps.

The question is; what are the differences between using your phone for GPS and a traditional handheld unit?

We all know the advantages of personal hand held GPS units (we’re not talking about carrying around a Trimble here to hike down a trail), interchangeable batteries, better reception, somewhat ease of use, and relatively good precision.

But the advancements of mobile phone GPS are significant.….At first it was AGPS, assisted GPS, in which a phone requires a connection for its GPS to work (i.e. a cell connection) whereas  new smartphones these days (eg. iPhone3G,  Nokias),  have proper GPS, so one can use them anywhere in a country or out on a boat.  No reception required.

It seems like the advantages of just using an iPhone GPS (or any other new smart phone GPS) are starting to take over the competition from the trusty hand held GPS device. Uploaded satellite imagery is probably one of the greatest tools, having the ability to see the actual overview image is unbelievably advantageous to the user. As well as the interface – we’re all getting used to and seem to be internally programmed to be able to understand (to a certain extent) our phones, whereas sometimes hopping over to the handheld GPS device requires a few mental reprograms in itself. Touch screens make it easy to make waypoints, select areas, make tracks, etc. as well as managing your inbox and text messages.

I was that old user of a plain flip phone, and a horribly slow text message writer.  While working in the forest industry I carried my flip phone and a Garmin 60cx (my stand alone GPS unit).  This was until a co-worker was packing around his iPhone showing images of the cut blocks we were going to, finding the best routes through the bush via old roads, cut lines, creeks, tree stand types from images, and really helping us move around easier. I then realized the potential.

It is up to the users to see where these applications are helpful and useful to themselves.

But, as a note from experience, it is a lot easier to change a couple AA batteries in a Garmin, than finding your way back to your truck to charge your phone.

An experienced student’s perspective: Employed and self taught vs. student and formally trained

~ A guest student blog post by GISer Kailee

Going back to school has always been a priority of mine since graduating University. So when I was accepted into the ADGIS program at Selkirk College, I didn’t think twice about leaving my full time job as a Geomatics Analyst to enhance my education.

My background in GIS and remote sensing is almost exclusively self- taught. The theories and software I wanted to learn was seldom taught at my university. The majority of my classes in the field were special topics working along side graduate students and aiding to find solutions to their problems.

               Self-teaching has some advantages and in my personal experience helps to develop vital workplace skills for example, problem solving. To be able to never give up on a task laid before you, persevere until it is solved and overcome issues in a timely manner is a very productive skill to an employer. Problem solving is my personal favorite thing in Geomatics.  I love a good challenge.

For the introductory GIS/ Remote Sensing skill set, self-teaching can be practical. With many of the software’s there is a wealth of online information from manuals to forums. The downside of self-teaching is when you bump heads with the theory of what you are trying to solve.

At some point tasks can be too complex too simply “Google search” them and at that point having a sound knowledge of the theory behind is critical.

When one has a solid foundation of the theory, it makes you that much more intuitive to knowing how to find the solutions.

To grasp theory is not necessarily an easy task when employed. The learning curve while working in my experience has a very focused approach. The scope of what you do and learn is limited to what the end task is. In a situation where you are working in a specific field of work, that does limit your scope of knowledge.

Advanced education gives you the opportunities to learn about different scopes of GIS that you may never have been exposed to.  It also aids to narrow your specific interests in the field. For example, if you really don’t like Autocad, than its probably a good idea to avoid applying to engineering firms after graduation. On the other end, it also provides you with the tools (and time) to learn aspects that you may have always wanted to know more about. An example for me personally was my desire to learn Python programming language. Unfortunately I never had the time to on my own and wasn’t provided with an opportunity while employed. Its also important to be aware that employers could be more inclined to hire someone with an established knowledge base in a field vs. investing in training.

Going back to school was a choice I made for my own personal career aspirations. I wanted to take Geomatic’s more seriously by developing my knowledge base of it. College has been a combination of new concepts, filling in the gaps of my knowledge and a lot of  “aha” moments. Ideas and theories that I didn’t quite grasp the concepts with before are starting to become more solidified. The amounts of times I have thought to myself “I wish I would’ve known about this before!” in the past month and a half is enough to make me certain that my choice to continue my education was the right one.

In summary I feel it is completely worth it for myself personally and career wise to return to school. And I feel that I will have a stronger grasp on the field and thus be more of an asset to future employers after graduation.

Don’t stop growing



~ A guest blog post by GIS student Christie Rajtar

DNA, the genetic “fingerprint” of all life, can be thought of as a barcode for any species. Genes are encoded in our DNA and have specific functions—ever heard of the bonobo? It’s a human’s closest extant relative, based on common “gene relatives”.  DNA barcoding can easily determine a species from a sample in the field. A gene called the cytochrome coxidase I is a common gene among Animalia and has uniquely evolved to each species.  Plant and Mold DNA barcoding use different genes as a reference barcode in order to determine different species of plants and molds.

DNA techniques such as sequencing can identify the DNA nucleic acids (A, C, G, and T) encoding a gene. They can be visually represented as colourful bands that are referenced to determine a species. The image below is an illustrative barcode based on the four nucleic acids of the Molossus rufus COI

bar code of life

bar code of life

The Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD) database provides provides both specimen informatics such as GenBank sequence data, and geographic data including GPS coordinates.

The benefits of adding geographic information to specimen data can allow us to expand our knowledge of diversity patterns and physically visit these locations for specific field studies or research work.   An interesting study by Stahlhut et al. in 2013 used DNA barcoding to identify over 900 species in Manitoba, CA. The diversity of parasitoids in their study sites implied a high level of host diversity in the same range since parasitoids cannot reproduce without hosts.

bar code of life

bar code of life

Geographically relevant areas for diversity studies can be chosen based on clues to the presence of cryptic host-parasitoid interactions offered by DNA barcoding (Stahlhut et al., 2013). University of Guelph has a BIOBus (Biodiversity Institute of Ontario) which is a mobile field research vehicle. It visits biodiversity hotspots where students and researchers can collect specimen samples for molecular analysis at the Canadian Center for DNA Barcoding and identification by taxonomists.  The International Barcode of Life project (iBOL) is creating the digital identification for life—it has an updated list of species with barcodes. The barcode library is still growing…is there a limit?

Butterflies and bar codes

Butterflies and bar codes

Using GIS on a Humanitarian Level

~ guest blog post by Allie Winter

Two years ago, I spent time working at a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) co-op in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. CSAs are small-scale local based farms that offer shares to receive weekly fresh produce. This allows the CSA to have better management of their crops because they are growing for a predetermined amount of people. However small, working for a CSA peaked my interest in sustainable food sources.

On a global level, food insecurity and sustainable food sources are constantly effected by changing events, both human and natural, affecting more than 90 million people worldwide (WFP, 2013).

GIS plays an important role by storing, manipulating and analysing data to manage food production and food security levels. 

The World Food Programme (WFP) is a great example of a humanitarian organization who use GIS to organize data and do analyses to provide aid and relief to populations in need. To collect data they use georeferenced household surveys, which asks questions about water supply, crop yields, and market value of products, and they also compare satellite images from different seasons  (WFP, VAM, 2012). Data is organized into quantitative data (populations, number of people affected, etc.) or qualitative data (geographic location, natural disasters, weather trends etc.) and it is used predict the status of each country’s needs.


map shows the food insecurity level of Zimbabwe in July 2013, and the predicted changes for January 2014. This prediction is based on a number of reasons; WFP can plan to provide aid based on these prediction (WFP, 2013).


map illustrates the food vulnerability level of Eastern Africa, showing that a portion of S. Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, & Ethiopia would be one phase worse without the help from humanitarian aid (WFP, 2013).

I am interested in the data and how it is used to predict and provide a humanitarian service to people in need.

I’m excited that GIS can help better serve a growing population and help manage food security issues. While there are many ways GIS is used in humanitarian projects, I would personally like to be an analyst who uses the compiled data to make conclusions and suggestions as to where aid is needed the most. As populations grow and climates continue to change, it is essential to have a handle on which populations are in need, to what scale are their needs, and how we can provide aid if they are experiencing increased vulnerability.


World Food Programme (2013). Responding to Emergencies, Our Work, Emergency Preparedness.             

World Food Programme (Oct 2013). Global Food Security Update. Tracking Food Security Trends in Vulnerable Countries.     

World Food Programme (2012). Vulnerability Analysis & Mapping (VAM). Food Security Analysis       




~ a guest blog post by GIS student, Su Fordyce




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