Academics & Research

The New Cartographers

GIS weaves technologies to record, display and analyze an array of geographical information.

In June, Brian Rigney spent an afternoon in Villa Park on the Sugar Creek Golf Course, but he wasn’t there to golf. Instead of toting a bag full of irons and drivers, Rigney was carrying a global positioning system (GPS) unit mounted on a backpack.

A geography major at Elmhurst, Rigney was using the high-tech equipment to collect and record the geographical coordinates of some fifty points—tee boxes, bunkers, the back edges of greens—of special interest to golfers trying to navigate the course. His afternoon of data-gathering was a preliminary step in a project that would put the enor-mous analytical potential of geographic information systems (GIS) at the service of Sugar Creek’s golfers.

GIS brings together an array of technologies to record, display, and analyze geographical information. By combining and layering various kinds of collected data, GIS experts produce maps and other visual displays that reveal patterns that would not otherwise be visible. GIS is commonly used (to cite just a few examples) by public-health researchers to trace disease outbreaks, by police to track criminal activity, and by companies to plan and map distribution networks.

Rigney’s project would add yet another application to the list of ways GIS can be put to work. “I’d never heard of this technology being used in quite this way before,” he says.

Working with his faculty advisor, Assistant Professor Rich Schultz, Rigney plans to put the data he collected on the course into GIS computer mapping software. By layering the data with aerial photographs of the course, the software will help Rigney produce flip-book maps of the course’s nine holes. The maps will provide golfers not only with highly accurate displays of the yardage from one point on the course to another, but also let them visualize the layout and topography of each hole. Rigney says the yardage readings collected with the GPS unit are accurate to within a few centimeters.

For tech-savvy golfers, Rigney hopes to produce an even more remarkable tool. Using a computer animation program, Rigney would create a “fly-over” animation that golfers could view on the Web or even on their video iPods at the course. The fly-over would give them a moving aerial view of each hole, from tee to green, with all the doglegs and hazards along the way.

Rigney’s project was launched with help from Jack Cashman, an Elmhurst trustee and a member of Sugar Creek’s board. “This project is a great example of the kind of real-world opportunities Elmhurst students have,” says Cashman. “It also shows how the College interacts with and contributes to the community.” Rigney also worked with Don Chapman, chairman of the board at Sugar Creek, and Jeff Siegmund, the course’s golf professional.

Rigney became interested in GIS while taking a course at the College of DuPage. “I’ve always had an interest in the visual arts and in science, and GIS is the perfect blend of the two,” he explains. “You’re building maps, you’re trying to create something that’s aesthetically pleasing as well as accurate.” His interest in GIS and geography led him to transfer to Elmhurst, which began offering a minor in GIS last fall. (Two years ago, the College launched a certificate program in GIS for working professionals.)

The ever-expanding number of real-world applications for GIS is making the subject an increasingly popular choice for students. “Making the map is just the beginning,” says Schultz. “It’s about taking maps and using layering techniques to see patterns.”

Rigney plans on pursuing a career in the field. “It’s cool and it’s cutting edge. Everyone from the military to big corporations is using it,” he says. “My ultimate goal is to make a career in the GIS field as an analyst."

Photography By Jean LaChat

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