MapTeach project spreads Alaskan geographic knowledge online

MapTeach project spreads Alaskan geographic knowledge online

3D Visualization of landscape above Ophir Creek in Alaska. Credit: Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys

Traditional, rural Alaskan knowledge can now spread globally thanks to a joint effort between UW-Madison’s Environmental Remote Sensing Center and the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys. Their MapTeach effort, or Mapping Technology Experiences with Alaska’s Cultural Heritage, is designed to combine geospatial information with traditional knowledge as a teaching tool.
“On one hand we have native knowledge, and on the other Western science,” said Timothy Olsen, the project’s director and a member of the ERSC. “We’ll build off the local knowledge of the landscape, people who have lived off the land for thousands of years and have great knowledge about what exists.”

Networking in the cold north

The MapTeach project started when De Anne Stevens, a DGGS geologist, attended the UW-Madison environmental monitoring graduate program to bring some fresh ideas to Alaska. Working closely with Olsen, the two discussed the possibility of creating new methods to share geographic maps and resource control, hitting on the idea that technology could make the information more accessible.
Stevens said that DGGS typically works with a village for one to two years and then leaves, without establishing strong enough connections. “We needed to do more outreach and connection, give them a sense that they can make more informed decisions for village planning and resource development,” Stevens said.
To help establish this connection, MapTeach looks to build a geospatial network that will incorporate several technologies for mapping the landscape, such as GPS satellites and aerial photographs of the state. The system will create a topographical map offering links to information about the region, including video files, remote sensor data, and multiple photographs.
Since oral stories are one of the main traditions in Alaska, the site will incorporate first-hand experience of the land from village elders, captured on audio and video recordings. The site will evolve as people provide new information, gathering data on travel, hunting, and natural resources. A curriculum will be designed to work with students and teachers in Alaska, bringing them together from all parts of the state and getting their input on shaping the system.
“I think we have a great team of people, tremendous experience working in Alaska with local folks, students and teachers,” Olsen said.
While the project is “logistically challenging,” Olsen said, it has several factors working in its favor. Alaska’s size means that people working there are used to coordinating efforts over a distance, and the existing GPS transmitters in rural areas mean that the researchers will not have to start from scratch. Additionally, some of the villages involved already have a small technology base, with coordinating the systems one of the only challenges in some parts.
“A village may be several hundred people and be completely isolated, [but] on the other hand they do have access to the Internet,” Olsen said.
Olsen said that the project can have a potentially dramatic effect on Alaska’s economy, particularly to native corporations and oil companies. With the ability to provide exact maps of large areas such as the Bering Strait, programs such as forestry and mining will have an extra tool to learn which areas are fit to work in. Tourism industries would also receive an extra boost, with maps able to assist hunters and campers.

Putting Alaska on the map

Thanks to an $869,000 grant recently awarded to the MapTeach program by the National Science Foundation, the project is ready to move forward. Olsen said that this year will consist of curriculum development and field research, working closely with Alaskan students and teachers to determine how the program can best affect the state. The project will be implemented in the interior region around Fairbanks in 2006, and will move to more rural regions of the state and the Seward Peninsula.
Stevens said the final vision of the project is for a student in Alaska to call up an interactive map and be able to see any part of the state, linking to topographical data sets and photos of each region. By simply clicking on a point of the map, the student can listen to a recording of an elder talking about the significance of the land and its resources, getting a personal perspective unavailable otherwise.
“It’s about being able to look at the same land through many different eyes,” Stevens said.

Les Chappell is a staff writer for WTN and can be reached at