Novel app offers layers of maps

Digital tool lets students view multiple details of a landscape’s soil, vegetation and water.


Just as the inventors of Google Street View vastly improved on paper maps, a team at the University of Alberta has developed an innovative digital tool that shows natural landscapes in penetrating detail.

On&Off DigiMapping is a GPS-based learning tool that places a stack of geospatial maps for three regions of the province into an iPad app, based on where UAlberta students of environmental and conservation sciences, and of forestry, go for their field school research.

Holding the tablet, students working on a plot of land in the bush or rural area can call up precise and up-to-date maps that show them the landscape’s contours, geology, vegetation, soils, rivers, streams and wetlands, and the industrial and human activities taking place there, such as roads, trails, pipelines and powerlines.

The maps can be layered over top each other, or added and subtracted in any combination. By zooming in or out, users can better understand how the various features of the landscape, both near and far, relate to each other. With a finger tap, a wealth of data about such individual elements as soil saturation or surface deposits also pops up.

“It’s easy and it’s convenient,” reported one of the students who tested the tool during the Environmental and Conservation Sciences Spring Field School (RENR 299) near Lac La Biche, in May. “It’s a well-thought-out idea,” another wrote in the evaluation.

The idea also seemed timely to co-creator Guillermo Hernandez Ramirez, a soil scientist in the Department of Renewable Resources. The government and industry jobs that graduates will likely land in this field are already using similar apps, so students need to build their familiarity with the technology, he said.

“I see students looking and saying, ‘Oh, I get it now,’” he said. “It’s a skill that’s very beneficial and lasting.”

Also, these days about half the students enrolled in environmental and conservation sciences do not come from a rural background, so they lack personal experience observing landforms and their naturally occurring neighbours, he said.

“A way to supplement (their knowledge) is to introduce maps which show that things have some spatial patterns, different distributions, correlations,” said Hernandez Ramirez.

The trouble is that, until now, the detailed digital versions of those maps were only available for desktop computers or on paper. The DigiMapping project compiles 20 existing digital maps from provincial ministries and federal departments, and adjusts them so that they can be accessed via an existing, user-friendly software.

Hernandez Ramirez and Anthony Ralston, UAlberta’s director of teaching and learning technologies, co-created the application and its eLearning component.

The team also includes renewable resources professors Miles Dyck, Sylvie Quideau and Derek MacKenzie and project assistant Leanne Chai.  

With a deadline of this fall, Dyck is busy rewriting and reformatting the curriculum for the course Soil Formation and Landscape Processes (RENR 441), so that it is also available on the mobile app for students’ convenience.

Another course likely to use the app in the future is Geographical Information Systems Applications (RENR 426), and Hernandez Ramirez is already discussing with the Faculty of Science how it could be used by geology students.

The DigiMapping project is supported by UAlberta’s Centre for Teaching and Learning's Enhancement Fund.

To see a demonstration of the DigiMapping project, drop by the ALES Atrium on the main floor of the Agriculture Forestry building on Thursday, May 25, from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.