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Because GIS is rapidly expanding its presence in web architecture, manifested in such features as "data as a service", online software tools, hubs and portals, customizable web apps, and sharing capabilities, skills in coding and computer science are growing in importance for all who are involved in the geospatial field.  I and my team frequently receive questions from faculty and students about specific skills that should be taught and learned, for students to be successful in a career that is focused on the computer science side of GIS.  After consulting with some colleagues at Esri and in academia, I would like to share the following starting points.  I am mindful that this list can and should change, going forward, and I intend to update this post as needed.


Skills and Platforms

What are the programming topics and software necessary in the geospatial industry, and therefore which ones merit attention in education?  I would say:  Scripting (Python with ArcPy, and inside ArcGIS (such as with Arcade scripts)), GIS database programming, work with Jupyter notebooks, GIS algorithm implementation and optimization, desktop application development (C#, Java, ArcGIS Runtime SDKs, GDAL), Mobile app development (ArcGIS Runtime SDKs and ArcGIS API for JavaScript), Web application development (JavaScript with APIs from ArcGIS and others), work with statistics (R, Matlab), and Big Data analytics (Tensorflow, Hadoop, Spark).   


What are a few ways to learn about these?  The easiest way to get started is by using Arcade, a scripting language inside ArcGIS Online.  By configuring popups, or creating filters, beginning with a 1-line Arcade expression, and then moving to simple but powerful 3 to 7-line expressions, helps students understand how scripts work, and the results are instantly seen on the resulting map, as I describe here to calculate the percentage of 18-21 plus 22-29 year olds out of the total population for a set of cities.  If the expression's syntax is wrong, that is fine!  Fixing code and expressions is a valuable and important way to learn.  Another way to encourage students to "think like a computer" is to begin using ArcGIS Insights, a data analytics tool.


One of the best resources to learn GIS coding is the tutorials on the Esri Developer site.  These include tools such as Python, REST API, PRO SDK, App Studio, and JavaScript.  The tutorials are set up with instructions for inserting or adjusting pre-existing blocks of code; for example, see the Javascript tutorial on creating a starter app below.  As students work through the tutorial and work with the code, they see how the code (top half of the screen below) drives the map (bottom half of the screen below); the map changes instantaneously as they progress through each tutorial.  I like to think of it as "instant gratification" and find it a very effective means of learning!


ArcGIS Developer Site

One of the tutorials on the ArcGIS Developer site.   Another one to look at is this one, with a spiffy color animation and time slider



Finally and perhaps most importantly, the advent of Jupyter notebooks inside ArcGIS Pro (and soon inside ArcGIS Online) brings the power of Python to GIS users in an approachable and powerful way.  If you have access to ArcGIS Pro, the notebooks are automatically included--nothing further to install, no libraries to add. My colleague Canserina Kurnia wrote an essay, here, recently exploring how to begin using these notebooks.   Why does this matter?  Now you can leverage the power of Python directly inside ArcGIS Pro--the best of both worlds.  It is thus seamless to access and combine python libraries from ArcGIS Pro and open source Python in one integrated environment.  The content in your map can also be easily accessed through code in the notebook window.  You can work simultaneously with the notebook and the ArcGIS Pro user interface (UI).  This integration makes it easier to incorporate python programming into your GIS courses. See what these Notebooks look like inside ArcGIS Pro, below.


Jupyter Notebooks inside ArcGIS Pro.

Jupyter Notebooks inside ArcGIS Pro.


While this essay is focused on higher education, let me add here that I believe that some of these tools can and should be taught at the secondary school level.  I am dismayed by the relative decline in the amount of computer science taught nowadays versus in the 1980s and 1990s, when given the demands in society, I believe computer science should be taught more often now, not less.  On the brighter side, I have personally observed many secondary students and teachers doing rigorous computer science work in schools in Colorado, Texas, and elsewhere.  Another thing to consider is that teaching computer science with GIS is fun and engaging--most people love maps!   And, if students enter the university or community college with some coding experience on their tool belts, they can soar even higher. 

Connecting Academic Computer Science Programs to GIS 

How can faculty think about how many GIS programming courses of different levels should be provided, and which levels should be required for prerequisites and completion of courses and a program?  Courses that would be valuable include:

  • Introduction to programming concepts.
  • Labs that focuses on debugging skills.
  • Introductory and Intermediate courses on JavaScript.
  • Introductory and Intermediate courses on Python.
  • Other Computer Science courses as electives (for example, algorithms)


I am keen on hands-on work with GIS and programming languages--the best way to learn it is by doing it.  Most people cannot simply read about GIS or programming in a book and then apply it successfully.  And with the resources provided here, and, I hope, ones that the community may share in the comments below, there is no shortage of ways to roll up your sleeves and get started. 


Certain tools and languages are critical for all GIS students, such as Python, for example. Understanding basic programming concepts and the modern web GIS architecture helps provide many career pathways once students graduate. Not every student needs to be proficient in building websites or native applications, but if they have the basics, then they will be more adaptable and employable.   


Are our students prepared to meet the programming needs from industry yet? How do we bridge the gap?  There is a spectrum of needs in GIS that ranges from little-to-no-programming-skills-needed to fully custom application building. Does every GIS student need to be able to program at an intermediate level, for example?   


How should pedagogy change given the change in dominant languages over the past 50 years (for example, FORTRAN vs C vs Python)? Have students changed in ways that requires a different approach in pedagogy?  The fundamentals of “how” programming language work hasn’t changed all that much (in terms of variables, data structures, control structures, and so on (though some may argue this point). These fundamentals can be applied across a variety of languages.


What is changing very rapidly is advances in some of the programming languages, themselves. Web browsers and JavaScript is a great example of unbelievable rapid change. One challenge and goal might be to keep curriculum as current as possible without stressing that everything used is the "latest and greatest"  Students will still get much training on the job, and thus I encourage university faculty to focus equally on teaching students flexibility in how to learn programming languages and to learn how to adapt. 


Beyond the specific tools, make sure you are infusing broad troubleshooting skills across a variety of systems. Troubleshooting and finding creative and multiple ways to solve problems has long been a mainstay of work in GIS.  Indeed, GIS was created back in the 1960s for exactly that--to solve problems.  Teaching the ability to adapt and change based on requirements from your instructor, or from your future manager, is important to infuse in your courses.  The ability to get comfortable in inheriting, improving, or maintaining systems that you didn’t create is also a reality in the workplace that can start in a community college or university setting.  These programs, routines, or modules may be outdated and potentially involve unsupported implementations or implementations that don’t use best practices. Dealing with some of this "messiness" will be the reality that students will face in the workplace, so don't feel that you need to clean up everything before you give a set of code--or a web map or GIS database, for that matter, to students.  


One important message for students is that GIS is not simply mapping a database nor is it just a flavor of computer science.  GIS is more than a technology; it is keenly tied to a way of thinking--about patterns, relationships, and trends, over space and time, where scale matters, interconnections matter, and systems matter.  Focusing on the value of the "where" question, in transportation, health, planning, public health, engineering, and many other sectors of society, could help gain traction in convincing deans and provosts to support and fund GIS coding courses and programs. 

[[COVID Update June 2020: The Education Summit will be online only, Aug 5,6,7. See FWG271 and FWG273.]]


The "best event in town" for a GIS-using K12 teacher just got better for those at a school with an ArcGIS School Bundle. K12 teachers attached to the Bundle can attend all four days of the Esri Education Summit for $100.


The Education Summit features two days, Saturday plus Sunday, just with educators, in plenary sessions, user presentations, and hands-on workshops, plus hours of the best networking around, with hundreds of GIS-using educators swapping tips and strategies. Then we join the launch of the main Esri Users Conference, in the vast auditorium with nearly 20,000 GIS users, for the Monday plenaries followed by the afternoon reception up in the Map Gallery in a forest of amazing maps! And finally Tuesday, in the enormous Expo, with Esri staff from technical, training, and industry teams, plus hundreds of companies, agencies, non-profits, and partner organizations. If you can extract yourself from the Expo, you can immerse in any of hundreds of technical sessions and user presentations.


registration page screenshot


The screenshot above from the registration page appears about 6 screens into the actual registration process. When registering, be prepared to provide your Esri Customer Number, ArcGIS Online Org "shortname" (the part of the URL before ""), and "login with Esri access," along with your standard information.


For $100, K12 teachers can be part of the world's largest GIS event, with education everywhere you turn! Be there! See!

We are pleased to announce that the 2020 Esri User Conference will offer university-level students full conference access at the discounted rate of $125! The Esri User Conference is the perfect opportunity to grow your peer network such as Esri Young Professionals Network, meet GIS professionals from numerous industries, and strengthen your own GIS skills through workshops and sessions. If you are unable to attend the entire week, consider the UC Student One Day Complimentary option.


Esri UC is the world's largest GIS conference and will take place July 13-17, 2020 in San Diego, California at the San Diego Convention Center. The UC University Student rate gives you access to 5 days of expert-led workshops, over 1,000 sessions, various networking events, hands on training, and demonstrations on latest GIS technology. Follow the instructions below on how to register.


Instructions for UC University Student registration:

  1. You’ll need an Esri Account. If you don’t have one, please create an Esri account here
  2. Go to the 2020 UC Registration page and click “Register Now
  3. Sign in to your Esri Account
  4. Select if you are registering yourself or someone else
  5. Under the heading “Customer Information,” select “I don’t have a customer number
  6. Select that you are an Attendee
  7. Select that you are attending UC, click Next
  8. Select UC University Student rate for $125, click Next
  9. Complete the required fields on the Personal Info page and click Review & Pay
  10. Enter payment details. Payment by credit card or check is required prior to UC –no cash will be accepted onsite
  11. Review the policy regarding personal information and check the box under the Notes field, if you consent
  12. Review the cancellation policy and check the box, if you agree
  13. Click Submit
  14. Your registration has been submitted and is pending review


You will receive an automated email with a link to book your hotel room at the conference rate. You will book your hotel online using this link provided in the automatic email. Each attendee has a personalized link, therefore, only one hotel reservation can be made per link.


For hotel questions, please contact the Esri Housing Bureau.


We can't wait to see you there!

Ever since they were created by my colleague Allen Carroll and his team, I have been an ardent supporter of story maps. I teach story map workshops regularly.  I also give many presentations throughout the year, and in many of those, story maps are the means by which I give the presentations.  One example is my presentation Geography:  Key to Resiliency and a Healthy Planet, which was the keynote address I gave at a recent conference of the Geography Teachers Association of Victoria Australia.   It has been amazing and heartwarming to see how they have been adopted by the GIS community and non-GIS community alike.  Allen told me that by late 2019, over 1 million story maps had been created; they communicate in just about every conceivable field from archaeology to zoology! 


Those of you reading this blog know that we are focused on education here, and in the education sector, story maps are used in many ways.  Instructors use them to teach content (such as ocean currents, biodiversity, population change, and much more), and to teach skills in working with GIS tools, spatial data, and the ArcGIS platform.  They are also useful in teaching about issues such as data quality, copyright (can I use that image in my map?), crowdsourcing, and to foster skills in communication.  Students use story maps to document and showcase their work, to their peers, to their instructors, and as a living online resource that they can also show prospective employers.  Students in my online courses regularly create story maps and send me the URL so that I can assess their work.  In my face-to-face courses, students use them as a resource as they give oral presentations to myself and their peers instead of a standard PowerPoint or Prezi.  


When I teach workshops focused on story mapping, I always say, "Make a story map of your CV or resume."  Why?  (1) It shows your prospective employer that you know something about web GIS tools; (2) It helps you to "stand out in the crowd".  There is nothing wrong with a traditional text-based resume or CV, certainly, and I recommend that you provide a link to your story map CV on your traditional text-based CV.  In fact I still lead with my text-based CV.  (3) It is an interesting and engaging way to tell your story; (4) It provides a method for you to share your interactive maps, services, and multimedia (videos, audio, photographs) in a way that traditional methods do not allow; (5) It is a great way of encouraging yourself to keep current in story maps tools.  Since you know your own story best, it is an easy way to get started with story mapping, and it is something you can revisit quarterly or whenever you need to add to it; (6) It provides your colleagues and readers with encouragement that they could do this as well, thus spreading the geo-love.  Indeed, as my colleague Bern Szukalski wrote in his essay "Things you didn't know you could do with story maps", CVs are listed along with newsletters, guides, tutorials, annual reports, promotions, engagements, and more as some of the things you can easily and powerfully do with story maps. 


If you need some inspiration, here are some examples.  Amanda Huber of Minnesota has probably received more attention than anyone about her story map, where she included examples of her own work and also sections on why GIS matters! 


Part of Amanda Huber's story map CV. Part of Amanda Huber's story map showing one of the apps she has created. 


An early but still compelling example here uses a Map Tour to feature "stops" along this person's journey.  Kiara Dawson made sure she included her career objectives in her story map


A 2019 Esri student volunteer, Jessica Liew, used the new express map function in the story maps tools for her story.

Story map featuring express maps.

An effective use of the new express maps in this story.


The example below from Leilei Duan uses a Story Map Series with the side accordion layout, providing a compelling way for prospective employers to learn more about Leilei and also see her GIS work through interactive maps, including a very impressive CityEngine scene.


The example of a "GeoResume" from Renato Salvaleon uses the Story Map Journal to profile accomplishments and projects using a mix of media and maps. Since Journal organizes things into section, this enables a logical arrangement of important resume facts and examples.  His GIS buttons start things off in an eye-catching way!


Renato Salvaleon's story map CV.


One of the best things about story maps and other web mapping applications from Esri is that they can be embedded in other types of multimedia.  For example, Jon Montgomery's story map is embedded into his own Weebly-powered web page.  Kate Berg hosted her content on GitHub and showcases two different styles of story maps, here.  


Part of Jon Montgomery's story map, which is embedded into his web page.

Part of Jon Montgomery's story map, which is embedded into his web page.


After years of preaching "you should do this" I got around to creating my own, in Cascade style.  After I spent a little while on it, I wondered why I had waited so long.  It was a blast. I have the story map, a video about me, and my text-based CV linked to my website.  In the map I included some 2D and 3D web maps associated with curricular items that I created, selected story map presentations (so, yes, a story map embedded in a story map!), and some of my favorite geeky photographs of myself, and some of my favorite landscapes and features, including the 1964 world's heaviest globe in New York City, below.

 That is ONE big heavy globe!

That is one big globe!  It was created for the 1964 World's Fair. 


But most importantly, my story map includes a web map with some of the accomplishments I wanted to feature.  What will I do with my CV story map next?  My next task is to create a section that includes some of the people I have been most privileged to collaborate with.  That will be fun and a kind way to acknowledge those who helped me along the way.


Part of my own storymap CV--Joseph Kerski.

Part of my own storymap CV--Joseph Kerski.


Explore but don't feel confined to these examples:  Be creative and do your own thing!

Are you using Esri GIS technology to better understand a UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) and to report progress or inspire action? If so, showcase your work by participating in the Esri GIS Technology poster competition at the 2020 American Association of Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting in Denver Colorado USA. In this session, you will learn from others as you discuss your poster with people from all over the world. Cash awards in 4 categories will be given, but even more importantly, this is an opportunity for your students and colleagues to showcase the innovative things they are doing with Esri GIS technology to help understand and solve the most pressing local-to-global problems of our time.  For more information about posters at AAG, see this page.   The deadline has been extended for this competition to:  10 March 2020!


Your submission can be a printed poster to be displayed on a bulletin board OR a StoryMap or other digital format that can be displayed on a monitor. If the latter, it has to be shared with the public and accessible without a password. This session is open to anyone registered for the 2020 AAG Annual Meeting. Student participation is especially encouraged. Your submission must demonstrate the use of at least one component of the Esri ArcGIS platform, which could include ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS StoryMaps, ArcGIS Pro, Insights for ArcGIS, ArcGIS Community Analyst, Survey123, Collector for ArcGIS, or other Esri technology.


Submissions will be judged and awarded in the following 4 categories:


  1. Best Application of GIS to Solve or understand a UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG): How effectively does the poster show why GIS is an appropriate toolset to apply to a SDG? How effectively does the presentation show how GIS was applied to this specific issue?


  1. Best Use of Spatial Analysis Methods: How are techniques such as spatial statistics, overlay and proximity, multivariate mapping, space-time cubes, or others being used to analyze the patterns, relationships, and trends in the data, rather than simply displaying data on a map?


  1. Best Use of Cartography to Tell a Compelling Story: How are classification methods, colors, 2D and 3D symbols, basemaps, multimedia, and other cartographic elements and techniques being used to clearly explain the problem or issue being examined?


  1. Best Use of Components of Esri Technology (ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Pro, Insights, etc.): How and to what extent are Esri GIS tools and functions being rigorously applied to display, analyze, and communicate the results of the research or the extent of the problem being examined?


Do the following to register:

(1) Register for the meeting and submit your abstract to AAG, here.   Yes, we are past the deadline, but the AAG has generously allowed us to extend the deadline for this competition.  Register and then contact the AAG via and explain that you are applying for the AAG Esri GIS Poster Competition.  

(2)  Use this form once you receive your confirmation from AAG - remember to do so by 10 March 2020.  All best wishes. 


Collage of poster competition from the 2019 AAG Annual Meeting.

 Collage of poster competition from the 2019 AAG Annual Meeting.

"WHOA! COOL!" is by far the most common phrase uttered when people do one simple step with a simple webapp I created for demos. Adults or students; I've tested as young as age 8. See this "comparison" app, which starts in Hawaii. When the app opens, look in the top left corner of the left map and click the "-" button 3 or 4 times: Open this example app:


Example app showing Hawaii in left and right panes


Comparison is a time-tested powertool for learning. Seeing two different presentations of the same location at one time is huge for proving that there is always more than one way to think about any given scenario, and nothing demonstrates at once more powerfully and simply this fundamental capacity of GIS. The left map is a 2D view (Web Mercator projection, standard these days, for better or worse), and the right is a "3D" scene (on a flat screen, starting in "overhead" view). The displays are synchronized, to the degree possible; both can pan, zoom, and rotate, but the right map (being a scene) can also "tilt." Both can swap the basemap with one in the lower right corner, expanding comparisons. This duo uses only basemaps and default tools. It took about ten minutes to set the basics, and another ten to test/tweak/save/repeat. The template can mix or match content types and locations, but coupling a 2D map and a 3D scene generated the desired impact.


Example app showing Hawaii tipped and rotated in 3D


  1. Make a basic map focused on the area of interest, and save it.
  2. Make a basic scene focused on the area of interest, and save it.
  3. Open the map, choose to share, choose to make a web app from a configurable template, choose the "Compare" template, and save the web app.
  4. Configure (this is the time-consuming part), save, and test the web app.
  5. Share the map, scene, and web app (all three items) alike.


Example app showing global versions and measure in left pane


The example above was done using a public account, with no special data or tools. Notice that, using the 2D measure tool, you can see that flying the shortest distance from the northernmost tip of Alaska to the southernmost tip of Africa would involve flying almost due north over the North Pole; you can, of course, confirm it using the line tool in the 3D display. For another situation, I did a similar 2D/3D comparison app using my Organization login, and focused on a single local watershed, showing a downstream trace from a special location and the upstream watershed, so users could tip and rotate and grasp the environment. Careful planning of layers in the map and scene can yield huge impact. Embedding the app in a StoryMap lets the creator provide a little context or instruction (for use in or away from class), and lets the user launch out into full screen.


Many effective activities and lessons are possible with "simple tools." These technologies are not simple under the hood, but their concepts are easy to explain (map, scene, basemap, pan, zoom, rotate, tilt, measure, etc), which lets the user focus on powerful content and instruction. It is much more impressive seeing educators do powerful things with simple tools than simple things with powerful tools. The ArcGIS School Bundle has a great array of tools, all available free to schools and clubs for instruction, around the world. Good teachers master the basics, including the power of simplicity.

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