Geographic Information Systems in Decision Making Situations

This course was developed over 24 years, from 1995 to 2013 at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and from 2013 to 2019 at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Policy and the Boston Architectural College. The syllabus, lecture notes, web-based tutorials and exercises are all free to use. Some of the links may no longer be working, but all of the tutorials and exercises can be completed using the sample data-sets provided with each workshop. I would be interested in working with a teacher who is interested in modifying the workshops and exercises for QGIS or ArcGIS Pro.

Lecture Outlines and weekly exercises with demo data-sets are linked at the bottom of this syllabus.

Course Objectives:

This course will provide opportunities for students to acquire the following capabilities:

  1. Design and evaluate research projects involving geospatial processes and data.
  2. Organize and manage data and research products for collaborative and on-going projects.
  3. Create and evaluate maps involving categorical, quantitative, and topographic data.
  4. Develop credible arguments using Vector and Raster data models.

Themes and Threads:

Improvements in quality and accessibility of geographically referenced data present new opportunities and expectations for decision makers. This course provides students with a conceptual framework and technical skills for using geographic data, maps, and geographical models in research and decision-making contexts. Each week we will meet for three hours for a presentation and technical demonstrations that weave together several threads:

Historical context of GIS and information infrastructure: History provides an understanding of the problems that geographic information systems have evolved to address, and the direction that these technologies are headed; particularly in terms of research, planning and administration. At a more technical level, the historic viewpoint on GIS reveals how the two primary tool-kits for spatial analysis: Vector/Relational; and Raster/Map Algebra have evolved to simulate particular sorts of spatial processes and relationships.

A Model-Based Approach to Describing Decision-Making Situations: Each workshop and exercise in this course demonstrates a method for framing a decision-making question as a conceptual model that involves specific sorts of things and conditions involved in some kind of spatial mechanism. The trick of forming a useful question lies in finding data and procedures that can represent the conceptual things, conditions and mechanism. This Data Model can then be portrayed on maps and used as laboratory for testing possible outcomes of one considered action versus another. There is a lot of technical stuff involved with this, but the essential skill in modeling lies in forming a clear question that is suited to the data and the tools that you have in hand.

Framework for Evaluating and Improving GIS Models, Data and Questions: The methodology we develop for framing questions conceptually and with data and tools allows us to answer the question: Are these particular data-sets and GIS procedures useful for understanding the type of situation that we have in mind? The answer to this question is often “No.” Participants in this course will learn a simple routine for criticizing the fitness data and models to answer the questions: What sort of data and GIS procedures would we need in order to make a credible recommendation for taking a specific sort of action in one location versus another? This critical approach points the way toward the development of more useful questions and data models.

Information Management and Exchange: Each workshop explores geographical problem-solving from the perspective of information management. Technical aspects of information encoding, organization, and exchange have been the backbone of geography since its inception in 500 BCE and into the age of the World Wide Web. Students will develop and demonstrate their capacity to participate in the culture of geography as each exercise extends their well-documented, re-usable and transferrable collection of data, map documents and models.

Effective, Credible Cartography: Anyone can use computers to produce maps. But choices involved with presenting information and arguments with maps are not automatically handled by even the best software. There are many technical issues involved, but the most important skill in map making is understanding how graphics are transformed into useful or misleading information in the minds of decision-makers and critics. Each week we focus on the cartographic challenges inherent in supporting analytical arguments using different sorts of data.

Workshops and Hands-On Demonstrations

Each course meeting will feature technical demonstrations that begin with a specific question and intention, develop a conceptual model, evaluate data-sets as proxies for elements of the model, and apply procedures to create a map or analytic model. This aspect of the course will provide students with a “How to do it” capability and a credible analytic mindset that will be practiced each week as each student investigates questions that they choose for themselves.


For the first six weekly exercises, students will develop a well-organized collection of data, metadata, and map documents designed to represent many aspects of place of their choosing anywhere within the state of Massachusetts. Each week will extend the collection to cover a specific aspect of geography, data, and cartography. Students will be challenged to frame their own questions about changes that might affect the people, things or conditions in the place of their choosing.

Each weekly exercise follows a similar pattern of conceptualization, data modeling and critical discussion:

  1. Frame a decision-making question as a conceptual model that may be approached with the data-set of the week.
  2. Gather data and organize it in your re-useable collection of data, metadata and map documents.
  3. Understand data in terms of fitness for use in a specific decision-making context.
  4. Apply principles of cartography portray your data in the context with a map that will be interpreted in a predictable way by an audience that is unfamiliar with the place.
  5. Communicate your understanding of data in light of the common pitfalls of map and data interpretation.

Writing and Graphic Standards: To earn an excellent mark, a project should be crafted as if it was to be presented in a professional setting. Each of the weekly assignments calls for a demonstration of the following:

Term Project

Our exclusive focus on Massachusetts in the first six weeks of the course will allow a high degree of freedom to explore different sorts of geographic phenomena and decision-making situations using the very consistent and well-documented data sources provided by the Massachusetts Geographic Information System (MassGIS).

While weekly workshops and exercises focus on general fundamentals of applying GIS in a variety of contrived situations, the term project provides an opportunity for students to explore how geographic information systems are applied within a content domain and geographic area of the student's own choosing. The term project is has three deliverables:

Weekly Workshops and Exercises

The workshop notes for each week provide an outline for a short conceptual lecture and a hands-on demonstration. Most of the lecture content is covered by the resources linked in first half the outline text. Each workshop involves a hands-on demonstration that makes use of data-sets in the technical documentation linked in the second half of the outline. All of the technical and conceptual information required for each exercise are discussed in the tutorial pages linked in the exercise description. Each exercise builds on the skills covered in previous exercises.

Topic / OutlineExercise
Introductory Slideshow
1Geography in Decision-Making Discuss Data in Decision-Making Context
2Organizing Data for Re-Use Begin your GIS Data Collection
Research Review Due week 9
3 Nuts and Bolts of Mapping Create a Re-Useable Basemap
4Data Formats, Relational Database Fundamentals Create a Simplified Land Use Map
5Making Sense of the Census Mapping Intensive Statistics
6Data Models for Comparing Alternative Futures Geoprocessing Scenario Comparison
7Raster Data & Digital Elevation Models Mapping Terrain
8Intro to Raster Overlay Models Raster Overlay Analysis
9Advanced Raster ModelsTerm Project Proposal
10USDA Data Safari! No new assignment
113D Modeling with GIS Create a 3D Model
123D Viewshed Analysis Term Project Poster
Concluding Slideshow