Independent GIS Projects and How to Start Them

When the topic is independent GIS work, ArcGIS Online is a great option for those looking to create maps to help their communities – without having to spend exorbitant amounts on licensing fees. But while the tools to work with digital maps are out there, those with otherwise great ideas may find themselves discouraged when there aren’t simplified, approachable ways to learn about GIS.

Seeing these potentially helpful local projects being shelved, along with their lost potential, served as a source of disappointment for me. It also worked as a contributor to my motivation in writing for the field of GIS, in a style that’s more approachable to those who are more casually interested in this field. Although the more articles I wrote, the more I found the need to create an organized, archived series that anyone could reference when they’re looking for quick help.

The digitization of online reference text has provided huge opportunities for technical writing, particularly when creating content about working hands on with software. The ability to quickly reference maps, applications and other work through code makes learning about a field far more convenient than traditional text. Noticing that this convenience made individuals more comfortable with approaching a new technical skill, I decided to take on a personal challenge in project management: designing and publishing a series of free content on independent GIS work, entitled Grassroots Mapping, in the fall of 2017.

Starting a digital publication was a task that required me to work extensively with Adobe’s Creative Suite, in tandem with ArcGIS Online’s software. Photoshop and Illustrator were the primary tools that I’d use for design work, making covers and other graphics for each booklet’s content.  Scriptwriting and formatting was done through InDesign – I’d utilize the interactive PDF functionality of this software to create publications with a variety of multimedia. I’d film playable video, incorporate gifs and provide linked content.

As mentioned, a huge contributor to my motivation for this series was the goal to bring smaller GIS projects from hypothetical to actualized concepts. Often, I’d see people looking to develop content that didn’t have mind-boggling data sets – ones that would take very little time to create, but could serve as a great use to others. These people were smaller groups or individuals who had ideas of what they could do for their communities, but didn’t have an idea of where to start. They wanted maps that conveyed narratives of the unique demographics in their locale – accessible routes, shortcuts through towns, gender-neutral restroom locations – and to display them in a way that only other locals could. This smaller sub sect of “humanized,” or person-oriented maps deserved to be out there.

Grassroots Mapping is in part a series designed to reach out into that field of prospective GIS hobbyists, alongside those looking to incorporate this type of technology into their projects and community involvement. While promoting this series at smaller conferences, I got to meet and work with others who often provided ideas of what to include in the series. I also had the chance to hold an interview with the VerySpatial team – an educational GIS podcast – to talk about this series and how GIS can be more than a strictly STEM-oriented field.

However, while the series focused on providing technical writing for others, it was also an opportunity that provided new insight for myself. It allowed me to delve into the more creative aspects of GIS, and the ways I could incorporate graphic design into geographic work.

Grassroots Mapping Issue

This series has truly helped me hone my own skills in creative direction and project management. It required me to design all media, record videos and follow up with tasks that some organizations would delegate between members of a larger team. For several of the issues, this wasn’t a difficult task. At times I would find myself working extensively without an issue, easily finding a way to bring the idea for that booklet’s topic to its final print. Other times, it’d be difficult to come up with a concept altogether. But this is the type of challenge that I believe is crucial for those in any profession to develop. Challenging yourself with performing a task consistently while still evolving it – however minutely – is one that both tests and improves your skills.

Over the months that I’ve worked on this series, I’ve found my experience surrounding Grassroots Mapping incredibly interesting.  It’s a project that has helped me learn about how vast the world of geospatial development is. I feel that those working in GIS have the opportunity to extend their reach beyond solely working with data, and have options out there to develop creativity in their GIS, and increase engagement with the people interacting with their work.

I invite those reading this article to look through the series, I hope it gives them an idea to create their own challenge, one that helps them engage with others in their community – and the types of maps that can be made from it.

Visit this project’s page here.


More From Olivia Harne


Like this article and want more?

Enter your email to receive the weekly GIS Lounge newsletter: