Tim Ormsby, Laura Bowden, Eileen J. Napoleon, Robert Burke, Carolyn Groessl - Getting to Know Arcgis Desktop

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Getting to know ArcGIS Desktop (Workbook for learning ArcMap)

Nov 25, 2011 (Updated Nov 25, 2011)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Very well organized. Excellent data, exercises, mxds. Easy to follow, helpful, abundant illustrations.

Cons:Software CD single-use; not re-registerable. USED books might be missing Data and Software CD.

The Bottom Line: GIS students, teachers, interns and professionals will appreciate this workbook and exercises. There is no easier way to learn ArcGIS than with Getting to Know ArcGIS Desktop!


I recently taught some GIS classes for an Online university. I used Getting to Know ArcGIS Desktop as the workbook for my Introduction to GIS (Geographic Information Systems) Class. My class included about a dozen college students scattered around the US, and each student purchased this workbook and installed the trial (3-month) subscription to ArcView 10. The CD which accompanies the book also contains the workbook data and sample map (mxd) files for each exercise.

I recommend buying this book in NEW condition, because if the single-use software included has already been installed and registered, it can't be re-registered on another machine. You can, however, obtain a trial copy of ArcGIS Desktop from esri.com/esripress. I did have a couple students who were missing the trial CD from their textbook because they bought it USED. Luckily, we were able to mail a CD with the data and exercises to the student. A teacher could also put this data and exercises on a Dropbox account, for example, to help students who are missing their CD. Keep in mind, the software, data and exercises are copyrighted.

Software Version discussion: ArcGIS Version 10.0 (SP 3) is the most current version of the software, although version 10.1 is currently in Beta testing. You may have some students who currently have access to ArcGIS version 9.3, which is gradually becoming obsolete. I recommend all students upgrade to version 10, because this book showcases the latest techniques and capabilities of the software. Also, the exercise files may not be backward compatible. Once students install ArcGIS software onto their computer, they will need to register it and upgrade to the latest service pack. If you're teaching the class, make sure to direct students to the download website and help them with any technical issues that arise.

Minimum system requirements for ArcGIS are: 2.0 Ghz processing speed, 2 GB RAM; 3 GB free hard disk space, .NET 3.5 SP1 and Windows 7, Vista or XP or Windows Server 2003 or 2008. Macs must be partitioned and running Windows on the partition to run ArcGIS.

Workbook Content: Sections, Chapters and Discussion

This 583 page, soft-cover workbook is an excellent resource for an Introduction to GIS class, because it starts with the very basics of GIS and ESRI software, and gradually introduces the capabilities of ArcMap for exploring, querying, and designing maps and reports. The presentation of the topics is logical and orderly. Each chapter progresses at a good pace, and builds on the knowledge learned in previous exercises. Even for me, a teacher and consultant who's used ArcMap for many years, I found myself enjoying the clarity and explanation of each technique presented. I am the type of person who likes to learn something  new every day, and while teaching my class with Getting to Know ArcGIS, I learned a few new things myself! ArcMap is such a complex and full featured software, there are generally several ways to approach any task. So, I appreciated learning what ESRI considers its most basic and preferred ways to approach the bread & butter tasks of mapping, data capture and analysis.

You can use this workbook in several ways. Students could work through the exercises in order, or they could skip around to learn specific techniques they may need for a project at work or in school. Students completed assigned exercises and emailed me PDFs of their finished maps and reports. Be sure to explain to students that they can't send layer files or mxds for credit ~ these file types do not transfer easily.

The exercises and sample maps each stand alone, so they don't need to be worked in order in order to function properly. I like the change of scenery and map themes between chapters, because it can get boring to keep working with the same data and/or regions without a break.

Section 1: Getting to Know GIS
This section introduces the basic concepts of GIS and its components. The purpose  is to understand how GIS is a tool for spatial analysis and combining data to answer particular questions or create maps. Then, ArcGIS desktop is introduced, with a general explanation of capabilities, layout, extensions (additional modules which require licenses), mobile and online GIS and web data services, such as those provided by ArcGIS Online.

Section 2: Getting Started with maps and data
What better way to start learning about GIS than to open up a blank map document (mxd) and start adding data? The first exercises let the user chart Amelia Earhart's flight path from the US through South America, Africa, Asia and Polynesia (until her plane disappeared). Students learn how to navigate by zooming, panning, and opening a Magnifier window. Also, a discussion of tabular data associated with point, line and polygon data, and how to calculate basic statistics is timely.

Section 3: Displaying Data
This is an important section which covers many related topics. Students learn the nuts and bolts of GIS data types, including Geodatabase, Feature Class, Layer Files and Shapefiles. Arc Catalog is introduced as the software tool for searching, viewing and manipulating GIS raster and vector data files. Using the Earhart map and data, a raster image of bathymetry is added to show the sea floor near the plane's disappearance. Finally, Chapter 5 provides detailed exercises for symbolizing data, which is choosing point, line, polygon and raster symbols and color schemes to show their location, attributes, size, density, characteristics and/or distribution. Elevation and hillshading properties are discussed for choosing color ramps for raster data. Next, classification methods are discussed with several themes using Africa data. Finally, labeling is introduced, with an exercise to label archaeological sites in Central America.

Section 4: Getting Information about Features
ArcGIS excels at data storage and retrieval. In a traditional database, queries can return subsets of the data for identifying trendsa and statistical analysis. GIS combines traditional database query tools with the ability to identify features visually and through spatial (location based) queries. Chapters 8 and 9 explain how to join and relate attribute tables to merge data from one source with another. Two different industries are used as examples: real estate, where properties and homes for sale data are examined; and  Environmental data for abandoned oil field data is queried to determine sites for cleanup. Useful reports are generated in each exercise.

Section 5: Analyzing feature relationships
Location queries are featured in this set of four chapters, which really get to the heart of GIS capabilities. When layers with different data features are combined, location questions can be asked and answered. Location queries often use a boundary, such as a political or natural zone or buffer, to select features from another feature layer, such as roads, streams, parcels, wells, or other point, line or polygon data.  Polygons can be merged together, using the Dissolve tool, or separated into smaller regions by "cutting" them with the boundaries of another theme. The four analysis chapters suggest combining tools in useful steps to answer a question, such as which areas of the forest should be logged, based on political and environmental criteria. In GIS, multiple steps are often required for even a simple analysis, so it's important to understand how to combine data logically and in the correct order to achieve an accurate result. I feel these chapters handle multiple steps in a concise and visually instructive manner, using screen shots from different tasks to illustrate the results of buffering, spatial selecting, calculating areas and combining attributes from different layers.

Chapter 13 deals with a tricky subject for many students: Data Projections. It starts with the basics of how projections take data from the earth's spherical surface, and assign it to a flat surface. Of course, many GIS data have X,Y and Z (elevation) values, so even projected data can represent three dimensions. A series of Map illustrations of the continents are useful for seeing how different projections preserve or distort data in different ways, for example area, shape or distance. The chapter explains how to project data, choose or define a projection or reproject data to match a coordinate system.

Here's a notable quotation from the textbook to keep in mind: You might (create an entirely new coordinate system), for example, if you were making a map of a newly discovered planet, since ArcGIS only has predefined coordinate systems for planets in our solar system.

Section 6: Creating and editing data
Chapters 14 - 17 deal with building geodatabases, which are file based systems to store location and attribute data in distinct feature classes. Instructions for constructing new features, such new parcels, with the Editor toolbar are given. We did not get to this material in my Intro Class, because there wasn't enough time to cover editing. My opinion is that a separate class (to follow the Introductory class) could cover methodologies and tools for database construction, organization, digitizing and editing spatial and attribute data. This section also covers geocoding addresses, which was a great refresher for me to read ~ although I've geocoded several times before.

Section 7: Presenting Data
Students learn how to customize map templates by specifying the map extent, adding a graticule (lat/long lines for example) and adding coordinate data (XY). Locator maps, scales and other elements are covered in the exercises.

Section 8: Modeling
We didn't have enough time to cover Model Builder in our Intro class. Model builder is useful for automating a process you may want to repeat multiple times. The book relates it to building a blueprint or flow chart diagram which encompasses all the steps in your methodology or analysis. Personally, I haven't used Model builder, and this tool seems like it could be very useful in the workplace to automate recurrent procedures. The exercises discuss how to automate one of the analyses performed in previous chapters of the workbook.

Summing Up: My students and I found the exercises in this workbook, and helpful tips and procedures, very instructive for our Introduction to GIS class. We combined ArcGIS knowledge learned from the workbook, with a standard GIS textbook and discussion questions, to achieve a well rounded understanding of what GIS can accomplish, and ways to use GIS tools in a variety of industrial and government settings. This book excels in breaking down fairly complicated procedures into simple step-by-step actions. The book's plentiful examples and illustrations accompany each exercise and make it easy to visualize how to use the software correctly. The data and maps included are very well organized and tailored to the concepts in each chapter. I was able to easily answer my students' questions about the material, but for the most part, students were able to work through the exercises with little trouble. The workbook makes an excellent resource for any GIS class, either online or in a traditional setting. It would even be appropriate for self-study.

This review is a late entry in the Geography WriteOff. My motto is always: Better Late than Never.

Related reading:

ArcView GIS Even Better In Version 10, Still Some Bugs (Updated)

Got Maps? Why ArcView is great GIS software ~ my personal recommendation

GPS Pathfinder Office Software Review


Recommend this product? Yes


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