Friday, July 21, 2006

Intro to Geographic Data from Penn State World Campus

In my first 30 years of life, (the second began on May 14) there have been a handful of truly memorable learning experiences that truly change the way you see the world. Here are a few.

The Tree and the Triple Integral

I make no claim to have been a good student while in engineering school. I had kind of fallen into Civil Engineering by accident, and I wasn't sure exactly what a Civil Engineer did until about 2 years after graduation. So as a student, I was a bit unsure of my future. But that doesn't mean that I didn't learn anything. Au Contraire.

I am horrible at arithmatic. I cannot add, subtract, multiply nor divide. I constantly mix up 8*4 and 9*7 (in fact I just used windows calculator to figure out which numbers I mix up). This is why I loved metric. You just slide the decimal place. It took me a few months to stop doing that once we moved back to the US. (40 FT is NOT 400 INCHES) However, I had serious fun in high school with geometry and trig.

I really kinda dug calculus from the get go, but third semester was the one that stands out.

I remember sitting there in the laundry room in the dorm while I was doing my homework, and looking out the window at a tree. I immediately saw the tree as a f(x) rotated about the Z axis. I could picture it in two dimensions and spun it around to make three.

It was awesome.

I began wondering if everything could be explained in terms of a triple integral. Easy ones- trash cans, pencils, sure, but what about cars, Barbie Dolls, cheesesteaks?

Despite this epiphany, I received a C in the class.

This might help explain my recent obsession with the Playdoh Fun Factory and Corridor Models. They both involve choosing a typical section to extrude and stretch over a series of X,Y,Z variables.

RICH DAD POOR DAD by Robert Kiyosaki
It says: Best Selling Author. NOT Best Writing Author

I read this book as part of the "Give it to Dana, She'll Read Anything" Club during donut Fridays at Stantec. My job was to read a book and give everyone the reader's digest version over donut time (15 mins) on Friday mornings. RICH DAD POOR DAD was number 2 on the list.

Despite the often cumbersome language, grammar problems and misspellings (which HAD to be left in on purpose) I couldn't put the book down. Paradigm Shift may be a buzzword, but it is the only words close to what happened in my brain when I saw his diagrams about Assets vs. Liabilities and Income vs. Expenses.

That book completely changed my approach to life. It is why I drive a beater, live in a hovel, and have my own LLC. It is also why I went to the merchant marine academy and flew a plane in wait...

Geographic Data vs. Fortran.. Holes in the Brand Name Engineering Education

While it is quite possible that I was sleeping on the Mason Building couch when they covered the topics of Coordinate Systems, TINs, Projections, Mapping, etc., I find it very strange that I can still write a snippet of Fortran, but until I took the first course in Penn State's GIS Certificate two years ago, I was a complete Geographic Moron.

I took this class in 2004 after I received a contract to do a data layer creation for a local gov't office. They said- "You know GIS?" and I said "Suuuuure". When I got home, I signed up for the class.

In a few months, I learned about projections, coordinate systems, mapping, topography, remote sensing, TINs, GPS, mapping, theming, and many other elements of Geographic Data.

By the end of the class, the fog of mystery that had always hung around me when people started talking about transforming from local to state plane coordinates, and NAD 83 vs NAD 27 had lifted.

When you start taking advantage of all of the free GIS data, raster imagery, DEMs, etc. out there, unless you have a really good grip on what you are importing, why it is important and most critically- how to transform it to come in to your drawing at the right place. (noting that Move/Scale/Rotate is often not solution due to re-transformation onto a different projection in addition to changing location).

As a direct result of this newfound knowledge, I could not peel an orange for over a year without taking the skin and tearing it into a Mercator projection.

I can not count how many times I have gotten tech support calls from otherwise incredibly sharp engineers who can't get Map data to come in right, and when I ask about coordinate systems they either look at me blankly or give me an incomplete answer- such as "Latitute Longitude" or "State Plane".

The important question it not "How do I change Lat Long to Northing and Easting", but WHICH lat long to WHICH Northing and Easting.

In addition to demystifying coordinate systems, I could finally explain how a TIN is built and how to tell if it needed adjustment.

This let to an interesting incident at Bootcamp in Dallas where Beth and I attempted to teach the architects from our office how a TIN is built using cherry tomatoes and kebob skewers. They weren't impressed.

I honestly do not know how I would possibly function in today's GIS driven Civil world without this class.

Go take it. It is an online class- open to the world. I wish I had taken it sooner.