The above maps are part of a hypothetical presentation on the effects of expanding an airport in a dense residential area. The spatial relationships between noise pollution, schools, population density, land use, the existing airport, and proposed airport expansion area are all depicted. All maps were created using ESRI’s ArcMap, U.S. Census data and data provided by UCLA’s Geography Department.
Upon opening ArcMap for the first time, it was obvious that it was a professional program. Gone was the friendly GoogleMaps browser interface with the ludicrously simple “Create new map” link. The linear and “user-friendly” neogeographic mapmaking experience of Google had been replaced by such esoteric ESRI-isms as “Cadastral Editors,” “Raster Painting,” and “COGO.” After exploring the program briefly, I understood why the UCLA Geography department is offering five GIS courses this winter quarter. It was clearly a complex program and it would take time to master.
With most complex software programs, complexity translates into power. ArcGIS is no exception; it is an analytical beast. In terms of data extraction, manipulation and presentation ArcMap is unrivaled. ArcMap can extract data in a variety formats (aerial photos, tabular data, spatial data, images) and manipulate them into a uniform format. This format homogenization process allows one to compare apples to apples. Once the data is homogenized, statistics based on the relationships between these datasets can be generated. This allows for the testing of hypotheses.
ArcMap is also a powerful visualization tool. Most humans are incapable of interpreting large sets of numbers, they need to see the data presented with the patterns highlighted. ArcGIS can depict these patterns in a digestible way.
Overall, ArcGIS is presents a steep learning curve and is not for the lay-user. This is the largest problem with ArcGIS. It is also an inherent, unavoidable one. A program that can do so much must be complex, and is therefore not accessible to the casual user.