10 Ways to teach about population change, demographics, and lifestyles with Esri Web GIS Tools and Data

12-26-2019 12:26 PM
Esri Frequent Contributor
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Teaching and learning about demographics and population change in an effective, engaging manner is enriched and enlivened through the use of web mapping tools and spatial data. These tools, enabled by the advent of cloud-based geographic information systems (GIS) technology, bring problem solving, critical thinking, and spatial analysis to every classroom instructor and student (Kerski 2003; Jo, Hong, and Verma 2016).  Several developments make this the ideal time for educators to embrace these tools and data sets for teaching these topics. First, population patterns change over space and time, providing the perfect data and themes for investigation using 2D and 3D maps in a GIS environment. Second, web GIS is a platform enabling the maps and applications to be saved, shared, and embedded into presentations and multimedia in a collaborative learning environment. In addition, analytical and cartographic tools have migrated to the web, enabling their use on any device at any time, using only a standard web browser (Manson et al. 2013). Third, the open data movement places an array of rich, varied demographic data sets from the local to global scales in the hands of educators and students. These data include those from the U.S. Census Bureau and other national statistics agencies. Fourth, GIS was created to be a tool to investigate real-world issues, and therefore teaching with GIS is conducive to a multidisciplinary, problem-solving learning environment using real data (Milson and Kerski 2012).

Why teach about population change, demographics, and lifestyles?   These themes are (1) Multi-scale, (2) Multi-disciplinary, (3) Connected to content standards, and (4) Relevant to 21st Century issues.

Why teach with interactive mapping tools that are tied to web-based GIS?  Consider the following reasons.  GIS tools and spatial data offer resources that are:

  1. Tied to Problem-Based Learning (PBL).
  2. Aligned to an Inquiry-driven approach. What if we ________?
  3. Helpl students engage with with real-world, complex, important issues using real data.
  4. Build community connections.
  5. Offer the opportunity for fieldwork.
  6. Represent a way to infuse technology in meaningful ways. 
  7. Are tied to scale and systems thinking.
  8. Promote spatial and critical thinking.
  9. Foster multi- and cross-disciplinary thinking.
  10. Are served on a cloud-based platform with nothing to install.
  11. Offer ways to collaborate.
  12. Foster skills in media fluency.
  13. Foster skills in communication (multimedia, oral).
  14. Foster discussion on copyright, location privacy, data formats, file management.

Let me describe 10 ways to teach about population, population change, demographics, and lifestyles:  (1) Examining world population and demographic data by country.  (2) Visualizing and understanding migration over space and time in 3D.  (3)  Examining demographic patterns in selected cities.  (4)  Examining world population density vs. latitude, altitude, and ecoregions.  (5)  Examining regional change using satellite imagery.  (6)  Examining local changes using historical USGS topographic maps.  (7)  Examining local changes using satellite imagery.  (8)  Examining median age, income, behavior, and diversity at state, county, and neighborhood scales.  (9)  Examining population change during the Dust Bowl by county in the USA, and (10) Exploring population dynamics via the NASA SEDAC CIESIN Global Population Estimation Web Mapping Application.

These tools all use the ArcGIS platform, from Esri, and specifically, ArcGIS Online (www.arcgis.com).  The platform includes (1) spatial data; (2) maps; (3) analysis, classification, symbology, and measurement tools; (4) field apps; (5) web mapping applications; (6) a community of users.  Over 1 billion maps are served daily in this platform!

Now let's discuss how to use each of the 10 ways in more detail: 

(1) Examining world population and demographic data by country.   The Living Atlas of the World (https://livingatlas.arcgis.com/en/) is a curated and growing body of content covering a multitude of scales. Population growth, ethnicity, density, cities, and other themes can be quickly accessed, combined with other layers, queried, and used in presentations. Many of the layers contain data extending back in time; others have forecasted growth and demographics into the future.  Using this web map that includes some of this Living Atlas content opens the door to investigating population growth rate, life expectancy, birth rate, and other variables.  Some of the variable can be analyzed over time, by opening the table associated with the maps, and also by using the time animation slider bar.  For additional analysis, modify the map and add other layers from the Living Atlas or from ArcGIS Online.

Population by country map

Comparing demographic variables by country using ArcGIS Online.

(2) Visualizing and understanding migration over space and time in 3D.  One of the maps in the Esri "Cool Maps" gallery is this 2D and 3D map visualization of incoming and outgoing migration, by country, for 4 different tim....  This map presents estimates of the number of international migrants by destination and origin. It uses the data set called Trends in International Migrant Stock from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. This data set contains time-series of estimates and projections of the number of international migrants in the 232 countries or areas for the years 1990, 2000, 2010 and 2013.  Compare one country's change over time in terms of numbers, and in terms of where migrants travel from and where they travel to.  For example, you can visualize the increase in Australia's immigration from South Asia and East Asia relative to its traditional immigration from western Europe, and the increase in its absolute numbers of migrants as well.   The same map can be used to investigate the immigration to the UAE to support the infrastructure development there, as well as the continuing challenges facing Somalia and the resulting out-migration from there.  Which patterns did you expect to see, and which were surprising to you?  Why? 

Migration map.

  Visualizing incoming migration to the UAE across space and time with the Global Migration Map.

(3)  Examining demographic patterns in selected cities.   The Urban Observatory is a mapping and visualization tool that allows for over 100 cities around the world to be compared across more than 50 themes.  The Urban Observatory was created by Richard Saul Wurman (founder of TED), RadicalMedia, and Esri, and makes an easy-to-use and powerful teaching tool. Themes include work (such as zoning), movement (such as roads, transportation noise, airports, and traffic), people (such as population density and growth), public (such as the ParkScore and health resources), and systems (such as current temperature and flood zones).   Click on "Launch App" to compare cities and themes of your choice.  These will be displayed in three side-by-side maps that are interactive and at the same scale.  Because some variables are from real-time feeds, you can use the Urban Observatory to teach about commuting, time zones, and seasons.    How does the site and the physical geography of each city affect population density? Which of the urban geography models (Ch 9 Urban Geography - Open Geography Education) apply to each of these cities? I use the data service's senior population theme frequently in conjunction with population pyramids to compare Tokyo to Accra, for example.  Why is the senior population for Tokyo so much higher than for Accra or Lagos?  If you find the Urban Observatory data fascinating, and want to dig deeper, see my colleague Jennifer Bell's content items in ArcGIS Online.

Urban Observatory.

Comparing senior population in Accra, Lagos, and Tokyo using the Urban Observatory.

(4)  Examining world population density versus latitude, altitude, and ecoregions.   Using an interactive map in ArcGIS Online of ecoregions and population density (http://www.arcgis.com/home/webmap/viewer.html?webmap=8b6d6ce07c4244bc8b3a9f7c1c274e48)  allows for study of the effect of latitude and altitude upon the distribution of world population density and of ecoregions. Which ecoregions are most under human pressure due to high population density? The scale can be changed, the basemap can be changed to highlight landforms or the human-built environment (such as roads, parks, and railroads), the measure tools can be engaged, and the transparency on each layer can be adjusted to focus on the relationship between map layers.   Why on the map below, for example, is the population density so much higher along the Ganges River in India than a few hundred kilometers to the north?

ArcGIS Online map

Investigating which ecoregions could be most under pressure from high population density.

(5)  Examining regional change using satellite imagery.  Regional changes can be easily detected using a variety of Esri mapping tools, including the swipe tool in the Landsat Explorer app, and the Landsat Lens web mapping application.  Using the Landsat Lens and with no sign in required, you can examine any region of the planet, in several different wavelength band combinations, for five different time periods.  This resource can therefore be used to investigate urban growth, deforestation, volcanic eruptions, glacial retreat, agricultural expansion, and other human- and natural-caused earth changes.  Specific issues such as the advancement of the Sahara Desert southwards into the Sahel, urbanization in Abu Dhabi (see below), the drying up of the Aral Sea, and the continuing activity at Kilauea volcano in Hawaii can all be studied to fit any instructional time period allotted. 

Examining change with the Landsat Lens. 

Examining change in Dubai, UAE, using the Landsat Lens over a 15-year period.

(6)  Examining local changes using historical USGS topographic maps.  Using the Esri USGS historical topographic map explorer, you can quickly examine changes in your own community and in other communities across the USA using 75,000 historical maps at a variety of scales covering a century of history.  Finding a place is easy with the search box, and transparency and timeline tools make it easy to customize and investigate places.  With no sign in required, study how your own school or university campus has changed, and the surrounding neighborhood, and compare it to the direction and amount of growth in other communities nearby or across the country.  Why do communities change?  Why do some communities change rapidly while others change much more slowly?  What did your community look like 60 years ago?  How will your community change in the future?  Can you spot evidence of deforestation or reforestation, of mining and mining reclamation, of paving over of agricultural lands vs. reclaiming of urban greenways?  In 2019, this web mapping application was improved so that now you can easily save the maps you are examining to your own web maps in your own ArcGIS Online account.

Esri USGS historical map explorere

Examining nearly 100 years of change in Wylie, Texas, using a 1929 and 2020 topographic map in the Esri USGS topographic map explorer.

(7)  Examining local changes using satellite imagery.    Using the Wayback imagery in ArcGIS Online opens a window on the world's changes from human and natural causes to you by simply using a web browser.  High-resolution imagery for the past five years covering the entire planet is at your fingertips with this web mapping application.  The app begins in Las Vegas, one of the most evident examples of rapid change over a short time period.  In Las Vegas, the direction and magnitude of urban sprawl can be studied, and, panning to the east to Lake Mead, the decrease in the elevation of the reservoir over the past five years is starkly evident.  Click on "only versions with local changes" to focus attention on specific years that cover your area of interest. Use the plus signs to the right of each image layer to save desired images to your own ArcGIS Online map, where you can then add additional layers such as population change, cultural features, ecoregions, or elevation.   Use this tool to examine coastal erosion in England, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China, the results of wildfires in Australia and California, urban sprawl, landslides and volcanic activity, and much more--right down to construction of your own school or university buildings. 

Wayback imagery for Las Vegas Nevada USA.

Examining urbanization in Las Vegas Nevada USA using the Wayback imagery.


(8)  Examining median age, income, behavior, and diversity at state, county, and neighborhood scales.  Using ArcGIS Online's map viewer, you can investigate the relationship between such variables as median age and median income, explore consumer and other behaviors, study the patterns of diversity, and examine how many of those variables change over time.  For example, begin with this ArcGIS Online map that contains about 10 different layers.  Where is the median age lower than the surrounding areas, and which factor(s) are pulling down the median age (certain types of employment, a military base, a university campus, a prison)?  Where does the median income increase as the median age increase, and where does that trend break down, and why?  How does your community compare to others that contain roughly the same population, and why?  What are the projected trends for some of these variables into the future?  To investigate this last question, use this ArcGIS Online map containing 2018 Census data projected to 2023 to incorporate the temporal componen....  I opened this map, changed the scale to the zip code level, and changed the style to reflect changes in 2018 median household income compared to that projected in 2023, as shown below.

Examining changes in 2018 median household income compared to 2023 projections, by zip code.

(9)  Examining population change during the Dust Bowl by county in the USA.  This map invites investigation into the climate, agriculture, and population change during the decad... in the American Great Plains and in California.  The map is tied to a lesson that is part of the GeoInquiries collection, which are designed for brief but intensive investigations that can be used across many curricular areas and in many educational levels and settings.  In the case of the Dust Bowl map and lesson, data layers include the percentage of land in each county involved with agriculture, population change from 1930 to 1940, change in the number of farms from 1930 to 1940, precipitation graphs, and more.  

Dust Bowl map

ArcGIS Online map showing the percentage of each county in farms in 1930.

Dust Bowl Lesson

Part of the hands-on geoinquiry lesson inviting investigation into the Dust Bowl.

(10) Exploring population dynamics via the NASA SEDAC CIESIN Global Population Estimation Web Mapping Application.  Having been a long-time fan since my days as a US Census Bureau geographer of NASA SEDAC (the Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center) and CIESIN (the Center for International Earth Science Information Network), I asked their staff at the 2018 Esri User Conference if they would consider building a new web mapping service.  They did so, much to my appreciation, and this application provides the educator, researcher, and student with a valuable, easy-to-use tool to examine the distribution and demographic characteristics of the world’s population.  The result is their NASA SEDAC Population Estimator). Population, demographics, and pyramids can be calculated for any user-defined area, allowing regions to be easily compared, opening the door for research as to the reasons those differences exist and implications for the future. Compare how population growth will occur in places with a younger population, such as northern India, to that of central Japan, and the impact of population growth on natural resources, infrastructure needed, and city size.

The CIESIN population mapping service.

The CIESIN population mapping service.

Want to dig deeper?  Here are two ways to do so.  First, the National Council for Geographic Education’s journal The Geography Teacher has compiled a special issue for teaching about the 2020 Census with background on the planning and execution of the census and discussion regarding the use of data. Several lesson plans provide an orientation to materials available from the Census Bureau’s Statistics in Schools program, and others offer guidance in using geospatial technology.  Routledge, in partnership with the National Council for Geographic Education, is excited to announce that The Geography Teacher special issue, 2020 Census, is available to read with free access until May 1, 2020.  I, Michael Ratcliffe from the US Census Bureau, and others have all authored articles in this issue of the journal:  https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rget20/16/3?nav=tocList   My article provides additional teaching foundations, references, and background to the above content. 

The Geography Teacher special census issue.

The Geography Teacher special 2020 Census and population issue. 

The second way to dig deeper into the above content is to use my Microsoft Sway version of much of the content described in this essay, at the following URL:  Teaching population change, demography, and lifestyles with interactive mapping tools.    This presentation is suitable for use in teaching as the links are all live, and some of the web maps are embedded in the presentation. 

I hope you find this to be useful, and I look forward to hearing how you use these resources in your own instruction.

Wait!  A few more additional fascinating maps and data sets.    Here are some new and absolutely fascinating interactive maps in ArcGIS Online that you might find useful for your work, perhaps especially for those of you in instruction.  When Americans move from one state to another, their change of residence is recorded by the IRS when they file taxes in a new state.   The data was processed via the Distributive Flow Lines tool for each state to visualize the quantity of population migration in both the inbound and outbound directions. This allows seeing where people are moving to and where they are coming from.


State to state outflow migration.  The flow lines are not literal paths that people took, but rather a directional flow. The pop-up for each state shows how population migration has changed between 2011-2016 for each state.  https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MinimalGallery/index.html?appid=586413c94b3e4a3dab22636206b718c5#    Why do Texans tend to move to other warm states?  Why do people who move out of North Dakota tend to move to Minnesota?


State to state inflow migration.   This shows how population is moving toward each state from all other states. Note how many of the inflow patterns for a state are similar to a state’s outflow migration and how many are quite a bit different:  https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MinimalGallery/index.html?appid=f26ab17257e34acd9e23c6a5fbdad3f5#


If that weren’t all, there are 20 COUNTY-LEVEL incoming and outgoing migration maps listed in the second half of the essay where the above maps are linked:



On this topic, 3 more of my favorite in-flow and out-flow web maps and data sets are as follows:


The US Census Bureau flow mapper.  County-by-county in-migration and out-migration:



The state-by-state migration map from the NY Times:


If you are maxed out on your NYT views, here it is on another site:




Jo, I., J. E. Hong, and K. Verma. 2016. Facilitating spatial thinking in world geography using web-based GIS. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 40 (3): 442–459.

Kerski, J. J. 2003. The implementation and effectiveness of GIS in secondary education. Journal of Geography 102 (3): 128–137.

Manson, S., J. Shannon, S. Eria, L. Kne, K. Dyke, S. Nelson, L. Batraa, D. Bonsal, M. Kernik, J. Immich, and L. Matson. 2013. Resource needs and pedagogical value of web mapping for spatial thinking. The Journal of Geography 113 (1): 1–11.

Milson, A., and J. Kerski. 2012. Around the world with geospatial technologies. Social Education 76 (2): 105–108.

About the Author
I believe that spatial thinking can transform education and society through the application of Geographic Information Systems for instruction, research, administration, and policy. I hold 3 degrees in Geography, have served at NOAA, the US Census Bureau, and USGS as a cartographer and geographer, and teach a variety of F2F (Face to Face) (including T3G) and online courses. I have authored a variety of books and textbooks about the environment, STEM, GIS, and education. These include "Interpreting Our World", "Essentials of the Environment", "Tribal GIS", "The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data", "International Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS In Secondary Education", "Spatial Mathematics" and others. I write for 2 blogs, 2 monthly podcasts, and a variety of journals, and have created over 5,000 videos on the Our Earth YouTube channel. Yet, as time passes, the more I realize my own limitations and that this is a lifelong learning endeavor and thus I actively seek mentors and collaborators.