The Colgate Scene
January 2000
Table of contents
Geography answers a 911 call
by John D. Hubbard

Paul Hartnett, left, and Marc Alvord of Madison County 911 underscored the students' contribution during a visit to Deanna McCay's class.
Senior and volunteer firefighter Jeb Benzing knows firsthand how important accurate 911 mapping can be.

     During the fall semester, the Hamilton Fire Department, along with Benzing, responded to a call at Woodman Pond just outside the village of Hamilton in what is actually the Madison fire district. Such dispatching errors can tie up two departments and pull volunteers out of work, class and away from families unnecessarily.

     Ironically, the call came at the same time Benzing was taking Geographic Information Systems, and the experience became the basis for a final project on which he and Mike Ragan '00 collaborated.

     Colgate's involvement with the 911 project began with some small-town serendipity. Millie Sandleben, senior buyer in the purchasing department and chief of operations for the Southern Madison County Ambulance Corps (SOMAC), learned at a Madison County Chiefs Association meeting that 911 officials were looking for help in the groundwork for the emergency notification system. Sandleben asked geography department Chair Bob Elgie if there were students who might be interested. Elgie, in turn, contacted Assistant Professor Deanna McCay, who was teaching the GIS class. Since her students had to do a mapping project anyway, McCay gave them an option.

Amanda Rongey, left, handles the mouse while Charlotte Davet '00 works the keyboard and Deanna McCay monitors the project in the geography department's geoprocessing lab.
     "There was such interest and excitement about the 911 project," said McCay. "It's a source of pride."

     Not only would students be working with real data (rather than hypothetical lab assignments), many also viewed it as a way of making a contribution to the community.

     GIS students took to the field -- particularly around Lake Moraine -- laden with Global Positioning System equipment and clipboards. They were able to communicate with satellites that beamed coordinates pinpointing locations. Receivers recorded latitude and longitude at each location the students mapped and those data were downloaded onto a computer to generate maps. The XY coordinates were then compiled into a single data file, which ultimately will be used by the 911 system. Locations will be put into the county's existing system, allowing for more precise dispatching.

     Houses were mapped, but also roads, intersections, driveways and even utility poles.

     The purpose of the course (which was first taught in the spring of 1999), according to McCay, is to teach students, "to use geographic software to analyze and manage spatial data." The class, a mix of geography majors along with concentrators in environmental studies, political science, theater and art, generated land cover maps of the Bewkes Center, campus water lines and 911 sites.

     "The level of interest in working on this project has been extremely high -- much higher than I could have ever envisioned," said McCay. "I had so much interest in the project that I had to schedule not one, but two, field sessions. And 18 out of 20 students participated in this project. The only two that didn't had schedule conflicts. Throughout this project, I have heard from many individuals how excited they were to be involved in it. I think that part of the reason why it was so exciting to them was because they were using really impressive technology and applying what they had learned to something that would actually have some utility."

     "There is a sense this might be beneficial to the area rather than just a project we turn in," said Ragan, who worked with Benzing to create overlays of coverage areas for emergency medical services, fire departments, police and utilities.

Crews, armed with antennas and other pieces of GIS equipment, were able to collect accurate data to produce 911 maps.
     Andrea Rongey '00 opted to map Colgate's Beattie Center on Bonnie Hill, but found her 911 experience in class rewarding.

     "It was fun to see people respond to us. They were kind of surprised we were helping out. It felt good to be able to give something back."

     Paul Hartnett, director of Mad-ison County 911, underscored the students' contribution during a visit to McCay's class.

     "Madison County has to learn to draw more on institutions such as Colgate while providing students with practical projects and realistic experience. Without accurate GIS data, 911 addressing is worthless."

     Rongey agrees. "It's really im-portant for Colgate to be involved with the community. It made the work rewarding and I think students performed at a higher level, too."

     An environmental biology major, Rongey saw the interdisciplinary aspects of GIS skills.

     "It is going to change field research in biology. When you read data, it can lead to certain conclusions, but when you put the data on a map there is the possibility of seeing different trends."

     Ragan, a biology major, enroll-ed in the GIS course after working for an environmental consulting firm. He feels what he has learned during the 911 mapping experience complements his biological studies and is impressed with the power of visuals to teach and explain.

     "Being able to do the field work gave us a better sense of how the process works."

     For McCay, the GIS class and the 911 project were an introduction to Colgate.

     "It has been a very exciting first semester for me because of the high caliber of the students here. In my GIS class, the students are creative, thoughtful and very independent. I have to give them minimal supervision to complete exercises, and that is all they want and need. If they run into problems as they are working through exercises, they are savvy enough to troubleshoot on their own. The students were very motivated in this class because they recognized the market value of the skills they are learning. Many students also take extreme pride in the maps that they have created throughout the semester, and although I don't grade based on their cartographic skills (I evaluate their analytical skills), they spend hours and hours on making very high quality maps."

     When it matters most, it might just be the efforts of these students that save a life.

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