On Tuesday, Cornellians in Martha Van Rensselaer Hall literally walked all over New York State — shedding their shoes to explore the 15’-by-20’ fabric map that covered the floor of the atrium. The giant map was only the beginning of Cornell Mapping Society’s celebration of the 20th International Geographic Information Systems Day.
From using Google Maps to find a restaurant to studying the effects of poverty in the boroughs of New York City, mapping allows regular people and scientists to understand and influence the world around us— and many Cornell researchers are taking advantage of it.
To mark the 20th International Geographic Information Systems Day, Cornell’s Mapping Society hosted a slew of events to celebrate.
“GIS Day is a chance for people to share with the public but also a chance to share with your professional colleagues that you wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to,” Prof. Diana Sinton, soil and crop sciences, MSC’s faculty advisor, said.
The day kicked off with people tip-toeing across New York’s 62 counties and hundreds of cities and towns on a map created by National Geographic. Explorers had the chance to participate in a scavenger hunt — designed by Susan Hoskins, senior extension associate in soil and crop sciences — using stamps and other markers to identify different landmarks.
The goal of the display was to have people leave with a better appreciation for the importance of map accuracy, detail and clarity.
“It’s a great way for people to explore some of the tools of geography and have some fun,” Hoskins said.
Next in the lineup of events, researchers had the opportunity to give quick “lightning” presentations on the integration of mapping technology in their work. Ranging from conversations on land use options for coastal adaptation to mycotoxins in farming systems, the diverse group of scholars all connected through their work using GIS.
The day concluded with a festive “Mappy Hour” at the Big Red Barn.
According to its website, MSC describes its mission as “to grant students opportunities to engage in mapping and related geospatial activities that address challenges at local, national and global scales.”
For MSC President James Zhang ’21, mapping is a way to provide data to address social, economic and political issues around the world.
“Spatial research in particular has a lot of potential for social good and finding novel things that hopefully might lead to more informed decision-making,” Zhang said. “You have to be able to take action and work with whatever community, political power, that can implement a vision for good.”
Zhang learned the power of mapping after a summer internship for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, where he used spatial data to analyze trends in fare evasion in New York’s subway system. According to Zhang, GIS allowed him and his team to piece together the factors that decided where people jumped turnstiles most.
“Anytime you are trying to understand geographical patterns, you can’t do it without GIS,” Zhang said.
Zhang also highlighted the importance of mapping on how individuals perceive the world, citing examples of rectangular map projections that make Africa look small in comparison with other countries, such as Russia.
“They way things are projected to us on maps influences the way we think, not only physically but also geopolitically,” Zhang said.
Sinton hoped the day was “a chance to have fun on a snowy cold day and to be thinking about maps, and to know there is a club called the Mapping Society at Cornell.” While relatively small right now, Sinton hopes MSC will continue to grow as the field of GIS continues to grow.
The giant map was co-hosted by the Institute for Resource Information Sciences (IRIS).