Demystifying Mapping: GMTaC’s GIS/Lidar Workshop

A blog post by Research Assistant Rachel Thompson ’19. 

Self-driving cars, home insurance rates, drone surveillance, and water resources management might seem like disparate areas, but the truth is that if it can be mapped, chances are it requires GIS, lidar, or both. GIS, standing for Geographical Information System, and lidar, an acronym of “Light Detection And Ranging” come together to allow us to analyze, understand, and manage spatial data about our physical world.  Though highly technical, with underlying software packages robust enough to facilitate the incredible accuracy these technologies require, the tools to work with these data and conduct useful analyses are more accessible than we might imagine.

GMTaC recently hosted a GIS and Lidar Workshop in collaboration with Daniel Sheehan, Program Head of GIS and Statistical Software Services at MIT. The workshop offered the Lab’s Research Assistants and members of the MIT community an opportunity to learn more about GIS and lidar mapping techniques in the newly-opened GIS & Data Lab housed in MIT’s Rotch Library. During the workshop, our team worked with Daniel to build a framework for better understanding mapping data types and analytical systems, and then we had the opportunity to practice that knowledge by exploring Massachusetts-centric datasets on GIS software. In particular, we layered various kinds of maps of Cambridge that bring with them various kinds of data, including historical buildings, sidewalks, and airports. We also worked with point cloud elevation models of Cape Cod processed from lidar data (pictured below).

GMTaC Research Assistant Iago Bojczuk manipulating a point cloud displaying lidar data from Cape Cod.

GMTaC and MIT students, all from varying backgrounds and with different research goals, provided rich questions and a stimulating learning environment. These perspectives allowed students to collaborate and assist each other, facilitating cross-disciplinary work on projects like a mapping opportunity to benefit survivors of the recent Camp Fire in Northern California, spearheaded by Matt Graydon ’19 (pictured below). Last year at MIT, following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, students gathered together to provide crucial mapping services that helped deliver more effective aid to the island. Other mapping projects have helped to reveal the pervasiveness of environmental inequalities, such as the toxic proximity of American correctional facilities to Superfund sites. Through this mapping workshop and future opportunities, we hope to add to the growing body of students prepared to apply GIS knowledge and other data analysis skills to innovative research and the public good.

GMTaC Research Assistant Matt Graydon and MIT graduate student Josefina Buschmann collaborating on a workshop exercise.

The workshop participants found immediate benefit in gaining mapping software literacy once the mapping logics and software were demystified. Using these tools will support the ongoing research efforts of our team and will also allow for a broader understanding of their role in knowledge production across different media spaces. Another introductory and experiential workshop is currently being planned for Spring 2019. Keep an eye out on the GMTaC website for more news and opportunities to collaborate during upcoming events.