“Our World is All About Spatial Data”: A Conversation with Anita Palmer

Photo by Becky Hale

Recognized as a “hero” in her industry, Anita Palmer has over 25 years pioneering the perception and education around the framework of geographic information systems (GIS). Anita is National Geographic’s first-ever GIS-focused Education fellow

The growing field of GIS is continuously evolving and shaping the way we view geography beyond static maps. To further raise awareness and push the conversation around this focus, an annual celebration of the technology known as GIS Day was created. 

Ahead of GIS Day, Anita sat down with National Geographic Society’s Education staff for an interview to discuss all things geography, information, and systems. 

“Go forth and do.” Anita’s passion for GIS is infectious, and she’s open to sharing her knowledge with anyone willing to listen. As a framework, GIS gathers, analyzes and visually displays data to help individuals understand connections, spatial patterns, and relationships. The broader implications are what Anita enjoys as it allows for discovery of real-world problems to be critically addressed by educators and students. From her perspective over the years, GIS and education go hand in hand, and although the community is small, it continues to grow in an organic manner. 

In order to remove barriers and the notion that GIS “has to be hard,” Anita shared a few favorite resources. She recommends Undercover Mapper, Esri’s GeoNet community, Story Maps and GeoInquiries, ArcGIS’ Living Atlas, and @GISEd on Twitter for further learning and relationship building. In addition, she encourages educators to ultimately start simple. One tactic is to teach content with maps and find a comfort level through that process, especially when starting at the elementary school level. 

In turn, the empowerment of educators reflects the engagement in the classroom. She emphasized that students, who will become our future adults, need to understand that GIS exists and to be able to conduct a simple analysis. “Kids get excited about something that is not fake. [GIS] is real, it’s authentic.” 

“Our world is all about spatial data.”  Before her journey in GIS began, Anita worked in accounting writing macros to inspire others to become excited about computing. In 1993, her career path changed when she decided to return to school for teaching. She soon secured a position as a technology coordinator at Carson High School in Nevada, where she created courses for students around computer ethics skills such as keyboarding, animation, and computer repair. As the courses rolled out, the signups rolled in with eager students looking to take in the knowledge. Observing the excitement around her classes, Anita’s co-workers began approaching her for lessons. This sparked the opportunity for there to be support of technology in an educator’s lesson plan, and to bring in local professionals and the community into the fold to empower the student curriculum. 

Around the same time, Anita became involved with National Geographic. She was introduced to GIS by another peer who emphasized learning with geographic systems was an important tool for students to focus on in the future. After acquiring proper software at her school and continuing her education in the field, Anita began to teach a GIS course at her school with a focus on collaboration with her students. 

Following attendance at multiple annual GIS workshops over the years, Anita, along with her husband Roger and current Esri education manager Joseph Kerski, saw the value in training educators in this discipline. With permission from her school, Anita began to travel around Nevada in the summer of 2000 to teach GIS and the interest among teachers “really began to build in lots of ways.”

Understanding the need for GIS to regularly be in the classroom, Anita later focused her efforts through her company, GISetc, to provide geospatial professional development and curriculum support to K–12, higher education teachers, and students. 

“We all need that affirmation that what our expertise is and what are passions are is important for the world. I’ve been able to marry my passion of spatial thinking with an organization that has helped me to get the word out.”

“Geography to me is the basis for everything.” Because of her parents’ love for travel, Anita’s passion for geography was cemented at an early age. Now, she wants to instill knowledge in others to show that this subject is more than memorizing capitals and states, but about experiencing the world. 

“We are being accosted with data. If we do not have a tool to help us to really understand what those data are saying, then we’re lost.” Luckily, the tool is GIS and Anita sees its future to be bright for all. 

Happy Geography Awareness Week and GIS Day! 

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