New UM-Flint program teaches mapmaking

Students will get real-world experience

By Sarah Schuch
The Flint Journal

FLINT, Mich. (AP) — If a business owner wants to know the best place to build, University of Michigan-Flint students have it covered.

They can also help with road maps, government maps or maps that track trends over time.

It’s a skill that is in high demand, university officials tell The Flint Journal.

A new program at UM-Flint will train students in mapmaking software, while providing services to local municipalities, businesses and other organizations.

The goal is that the final product will produce information and perspectives to help the groups make important decisions for their futures.

The Geographic Information Systems Center, which will open at UM-Flint in the fall, is being created to train students on software to make maps that help with planning and improvements. It will give students real-world experience while providing clients help at a lower cost, said Greg Rybarczyk, assistant professor of geography at UM-Flint.

“The idea is to have a central location to produce maps for real clients,” Rybarczyk said. “There’s a high demand for people who know how to work with Geographic Information Systems.
There’s not a week that goes by that I’m not entertaining a request by either faculty at UM-Flint or an outside agency.”

How does the GIS work? Data is compiled to create a variety of maps, such as temperature, road or population change maps, as well as maps that plot out traffic accidents and other problems in an area. A color-coded map with a legend is created to make the data more visual and understandable.

The data can also be used to map out the best areas for certain businesses.

Geographic Information Systems are used by professionals and academics all over the world to investigate problems ranging from the spread of disease to the damage caused by hurricanes. Locally, they might be used to help figure out where the best location is for a sanitary landfill.

But the students wouldn’t stop there. Those trained in the system would also make sense of the data and figure out the best way to use it, Rybarczyk said.

“Everyone loves maps. Everyone uses Google maps. Everyone uses maps for something,” he said. “There’s real data behind the roads. There’s a database behind the map. Combining databases, skills and cartography is something people really rely on. ... Really we are looking at ground zero for the skills needed to produce high-quality maps and high-quality online

Matt Gilbert, a UM-Flint graduate student, said the center will benefit the community, surrounding businesses and the students.

It is a high-demand skill for many different businesses, whether retail, medical or government, he said. For businesses, census data can be used to figure out the demographic of different areas and find the target audience for a message or service, he said.

Gilbert, 33, of Fort Gratiot Township, had the opportunity to work with the city of Grand Blanc monitoring land use and ownership trends between the 1800s and the early 1900s.

“It was really cool. It actually allows you to prove your skills,” Gilbert said. “It’s a highly versatile skill that is very useful in many different disciplines. I think it will ultimately benefit the reputation of the university and the reputation of the students and assist the local organizations.”

Rybarczyk said he has already been speaking with Flint planners as they are going through their master planning process. The software can be used to reproduce maps officials already have or to create new maps that look at areas with vacant homes.

Municipalities can also use it, for example, to take data from bicycle accidents, plot where they happen most and then figure out why, Rybarczyk said. The GIS center would give a central location for the services.

“I’m really excited that we’ll be a resource for the community. I’ve been in Flint almost four years now and I just see there is a need for something like this to help Flint with their planning process and to give students a real-world experience before graduation or going to grad school,” Rybarczyk said.