Geospatial Analysis for Pandemic Response

Why studying Applied Geography is more important than ever

Today was going to be Ryerson University’s Open House for prospective students, those already admitted for Fall 2020 as well as those considering a late application to our programs. The event was cancelled as a consequence of the distancing measures taken to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. As undergraduate program director for the BA Honours in Geographic Analysis and past graduate program director for the MSA in Spatial Analysis, I would like to share some thoughts about why it is now particularly important to recruit bright students into Geography programs.

As you monitor the #COVID-19 news coverage, you can’t help but notice an abundance of maps and graphs. Many politicians and administrators refer to the importance of “the data” to make evidence-based decisions. The data in question are public health data – confirmed and suspected cases, recovered and deceased, tests completed, etc. – and as always, location information is a key component of these data. Geographic concepts such as distance, connectivity, clustering, and scale are at the very core of the issue, since the nature of an infectious disease such as COVID-19 is inherently spatial. But Geography is a meta discipline, its concepts apply across almost all areas of human activity. In addition to public health, it determines retail location decisions, financial transaction monitoring, environmental pollution and conservation efforts, crime pattern analysis, and transportation planning, to name only a very few examples.

Ryerson Today story from February 2018, outlining extensive career opportunities for Geography graduates

Geography programs across North America are struggling to recruit students because it is notoriously difficult to explain our subject matter compared to seemingly clear disciplines such as psychology, outline career opportunities compared to say business or law degrees, and show its visible impact compared to e.g. urban planning. Therefore please pardon me for using the coronavirus crisis to explain the importance of recruiting some of our best high school students into Geography programs. Canada needs these graduates to take on some of the most important analyst, planner, and decision-maker roles in our society!

Geography at Ryerson is deeply committed to offering programs of study and courses that are directly relevant to today’s community needs. In the BA in Geographic Analysis and, at an advanced level, the MSA in Spatial Analysis, we teach technical skills and critical thinking for data analysis, visualization, and interpretation. This winter 2020, students in my course GEO641 “GIS and Decision Support” first used professional geographic information systems (GIS) software to identify areas for possible urban expansion in the Toronto region within the constraints of the Ontario Growth Plan. We then moved on to create indices of neighbourhood wellbeing in Toronto and visualize them in Esri’s Operations Dashboard product, the tool used by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering for their now-famous coronavirus map. The final lab assignment in my course is a web map to explore the United Nations Human Development Index, another real-world example of using GIS to address some of humanity’s greatest challenges.

Esri Canada’s online interactive geospatial dashboard within their COVID-19 resource hub

Along the way, students learn about integrating disparate datasets, handling missing values, properly normalizing indicators, applying sound cartographic styles, and correctly interpreting the results. These are issues encountered in many of the “viral” visualizations of COVID-19, as discussed by Kenneth Field in “Mapping coronavirus, responsibly“. For example, my favourite Toronto newspaper, along with other news outlets and social media influencers, are still mapping global COVID counts using graduated colours (choropleth technique), which conveys false information about the spread of the virus and must not be used for decision-making. The world needs more geographers who are ideally positioned to tell stories behind the data and turn valid insights into proportionate action.

Some of the information collected for Esri Canada’s COVID-19 resource hub is sourced from another industry partner of Geography at Ryerson: Environics Analytics, a “leading data, analytics and marketing services company specializing in geo-demographic segmentation, site evaluation modeling and custom analytics” ( Environics Analytics provides $10,000 per year in scholarships to our students, attesting to the immense importance of geospatial technology training for their business and growing workforce.

Ryerson geographers working as junior and senior GIS analysts as well as undergraduate and graduate interns at BlueDot (as of 2016)

Another example of the connection between Geography and Public Health is BlueDot, a research and consulting firm founded at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, just down the street from Ryerson. BlueDot was widely credited in the media for being one of the first organizations to warn of the novel coronavirus epidemic in China and the threat of its global spread. BlueDot conducts infectious disease modeling and monitoring using big geospatial data, geographic information systems, and artificial intelligence. About 20% of BlueDot’s staff as of early 2020 are Ryerson Geography graduates, primarily working in data engineering and software development, and BlueDot is currently seeking to expand these teams.

A university education in Geography goes well beyond the conceptual and technical competencies needed to analyze and interpret geospatial data in the workplace. Geographers are also equipped with critical thinking skills required to solve complex problems and understand the limitations of analytics. In the context of COVID-19, I notice concerning reports about the extent to which individuals are tracked using cellphone data (e.g. Germany, Israel), the use of drones for policing curfews (e.g. Spain), and general calls for drastic social isolation measures that could become politically dangerous and detrimental to our mental and physical health. Geographers know what is technically possible but also what is at stake, and are therefore among the few professionals that I would trust to balance decisive crisis response with concerns about its long-term implications. We need many more geographers to make the world a better place!

Reflections on a Decade and a Half of Teaching Cartography and Geovisualization

This past fall semester of 2019 marked my 15th time teaching our graduate cartography course. When I joined Ryerson University in August 2006, I had already taught MSA 9050 Digital Cartography at the University of Toronto for three years, in Fall 2003, 2004, and 2005. The course was part of the joint Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) program between UofT’s and Ryerson’s Geography departments, and was also cross-listed with UofT’s graduate course GGR 1913H of the same title. The course had been taught by Byron Moldofsky, who retired as Manager of UofT’s GIS and Cartography Office in 2017, after 37 years of service as a staff member, and continues to be active as an executive member of the Canadian Cartographic Association and a free-lance cartographer.

Then, and now as SA8905 Cartography and Geovisualization, the course “introduces [traditional] cartographic principles and their application to the design of thematic maps with [modern] GIS software” – the words “traditional” and “modern” were removed from the Ryerson calendar course description at some point, without altering the core message. While the lecture portion has remained consistent over the years, heavily relying on three subsequent editions of Terry Slocum’s comprehensive textbook “[Thematic] Cartography and [Geographic] Visualization”, the approach to the hands-on lab component has changed significantly. Expanding on Byron’s design, the earlier iterations of the course saw students select a mid-sized Census Metropolitan Area (CMA), complete a series of weekly lab exercises using socio-economic data from the Canadian Census, submit one or two intermediate lab assignments and one or two reading summaries (later replaced by a map critique), and prepare a final lab project. One lab assignment let the student select, present, and analyze an issue of data normalization, classification, or colour choice. In 2004 in conjunction with a teaching technology grant, students chose their “good” map from the first assignment to turn into a web mapping application as the second assignment. The final project was a thematic atlas plate containing three or more maps portraying the student’s choice of Census data for the selected CMA. The final assignment also required a sketch map or editorial plan for instructor feedback during the term.

Through a series of annual changes to the evaluation scheme, the current set of assignments emerged, consisting of a map poster with two or three maps and a geovisualization project. The map poster is a logical extension of the atlas plate assignment, though students are now free to use any data for any geographic extent, making the assignment more suitable for students across all fields of study in the MSA program (business/retail, social/community, and environmental/physical). The range of topics and data sets being mapped has been impressive; these are the most recent poster topics from Fall 2019:

The map poster assignment includes an early proposal, students’ in-class presentation and discussion of a draft map poster, and final submission. Students are free to use the GIS software of their choice, and many also use graphics tools to finalize their posters. To ensure the student’s preparation for the map poster proposal, the lecture component of the course is now compressed into the first half of the term. This was also possible because most MSA students now enter the program with solid GIS and mapping skills, so that the lecture and textbook material usually serves as review rather than new information. Nevertheless, practice in examining data distribution, selecting adequate cartographic options, and creating “correct” and meaningful thematic maps is still sorely needed by most students who take the course!

Before we move on to examine the second major assignment, the geovis project, I would like to highlight some outstanding student work with respect to the map poster. To my knowledge, three SA8905 students have received external awards for their map posters:

  • Brad Carter, Broken Windows and Violent Crime in Philadelphia: 2nd place winner of the 2012 National Geographic Award in Mapping. Brad’s map poster also won Honorable Mention in the Student Maps Category of the Cartography and Geographic Information Society’s 39th Annual Map Design Competition.
  • Yishi Zhao, Earthquake Intensity and Population at Risk – California, USA (2006-2014): 2nd place winner of the 2015 National Geographic Award in Mapping.
  • Nebojsa Stulic, East Asians in USA – Demographic Trends of Diverse Population: winner of the Canadian Cartographic Association’s 2019 President’s Prize for excellence in student map design at the university level. Nebojsa’s map poster also won Honorable Mention for the Arthur Robinson Award for Best Printed Map in the Cartography and Geographic Information Society’s 46th Annual CaGIS Map Design Competition.

Several MSA graduates and “SA8905 alumni” have become part of what I call the Toronto School of Mapping, a loosely defined group of part-time mappers who use open data to create thematic maps for issues of public interest and distribute them via social media, whether as individual map images or as illustrations within write-ups such as blog posts. The blog by Jonathan Critchley at includes the three dot density maps from his Fall 2011 map poster, along with examples of his later work. Of note, Jonathan teaches our department’s Web Mapping course since he graduated!

Another former student, William Davis, became Data Analyst and Online Cartographer with the Toronto Star, Visual Journalist for Dow Jones Media, and finally Infographic Designer for Sun Life Financial. His personal blog,, contains numerous examples of his work, primarily interactive maps published in support of Toronto Star articles or on his own initiative. William also collaborates with another MSA graduate, Tom Weatherburn, on the award-winning mapping collective mapTO at

William Davis and yet another former SA8905 student, Michael Markieta, were the first exhibitors in the Student Gallery of the Ryerson Image Centre, who were neither photographers nor Image Arts students. Their three-week show “Geographies of Urban Form” in October/November 2015 abstracted the structure of global cities through skeletal maps of their road networks using OpenStreetMap data.

Two other SA8905 alumni, Sean Marshall and Igor Dragovic, maintain active blogs in which they utilize their cartographic skills to support in-depth analyses of urban issues ( and trends in real estate (, respectively.

Some of the interactive maps by William Davis and others, as well as the pursuit of cartography as an art form by Davis+Markieta, are echoed in a second major course assignment introduced to SA8905 in Fall 2013 as a “Mini Research Paper” and then in Fall 2015 reconfigured as the “Geovisualization Project”. While the idea behind the research paper was to improve the students’ writing skills through a 2,000-3,000 word description of a web mapping or GIS automation project, the focus of the assignment quickly shifted from the write-up to a more in-depth technical experience. The geovis project expectations are to “develop a professional-quality geographic visualization product that uses novel mapping technology to present a topic of your interest”. This product, which can e.g. take the form of an online and/or animated map, digital or physical 3D model, or a story map, is accompanied by a tutorial published on, in which the students provide enough information for others to be able to replicate the projects. The three grading criteria reflect whether the project is “cool, comprehensive, and compelling”.

The MSA curriculum structure has been consistent since the start of the program in Fall 2000 and due to resource constraints, our objective to add courses in topics such as programming and web mapping as well as the inclusion of advanced analytical software such as R and Tableau has been difficult to achieve. The SA8905 geovis project however provides each student with an opportunity to test their interest in, and develop or expand their skills with, one or more tools that are not formally taught in any MSA course. The following list of Fall 2019 geovis project topics states the technology in the project title or in parentheses; tools included Python, R, Tableau, CARTO, Mapbox, Esri Operations Dashboard, Esri Story Maps, ArcGIS Pro, and QGIS. This year, only one student created a physical (in contrast to digital) project; in other recent years, several students would select 3D printing, wood cutting, Raspberry Pi, or other “maker technologies” to create their final product. In addition to the geovis technology, students are also exposed to writing concise technical reports in the form of the tutorials created within Ryerson’s WordPress site.

The most noteworthy external recognition of an SA8905 geovis project assignment was for Melanie MacDonald’s “Geovisualizing ‘Informality’ – Using OpenStreetMap & Story Maps to tell the story of infrastructure in Kibera (Nairobi, Kenya)” (Fall 2017). As part of the project, Melanie led a one-week mapathon to add building footprints for an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, to OpenStreetMap. She then created a story map (shown below and still available at to explain the background and mapping process. In addition, Melanie also created a line art print as a tangible project outcome “formalizing the informal”. At the 2018 meeting of the Canadian Cartographic Association (CCA), Melanie received the best student paper award for her presentation on this outstanding course project.

Melanie MacDonald’s “Geovisualizing Informality” project (Fall 2017)

The final submission of the geovis projects also includes a departmental or public presentation event. In 2015, the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies together with the Ryerson Library’s Geospatial Map and Data Centre organized a GIS Day event that included speakers and an exhibit with SA8905 geovis project displays. In 2016 and 2018, students presented their geovis projects at the user conferences of our industry partner Environics Analytics with an audience of some 500 data analysts and marketing professionals. In 2017 and 2019, projects were presented in the GIS lab to a departmental audience, including undergraduate students as prospective MSA applicants. Photos and tweets from four events are shown below.

For other awesome geovis project examples, I recommend searching the tutorials at for keywords such as: acrylic, hologram, Lego, Minecraft, table-top AR, translucent maps; food aid, parking, polar ice cap, street art, and street grid. Without prejudice, these were some of the most “cool” (unusual, innovative) and/or “compelling” (high-quality) projects that I remember ad-hoc. The “comprehensive” grading criterion, which represents the scope of the project and the student’s level of investment has been very high for all students. In other words, I have been amazed by the results of this assignment year after year. They have become a display of graduate student engagement, hands-on learning, and professional development for the MSA program well beyond the cartography and geovisualization course.

Gaining Work Experience in Russia – My Internship Placement at ESRI CIS

Guest post by Nikita Markevich, BA in Geographic Analysis candidate, Ryerson University

As an international student, I was facing some bureaucratic hurdles obtaining an internship in Canada. However, my program, the BA in Geographic Analysis, requires the completion of 350 hours of work experience, usually on paid practicum placements in the private or public sector. Given the need to complete this requirement for timely graduation next spring, my attention shifted to my home country, Russia. I was able to arrange an internship with ESRI CIS, the Russian subsidiary of the world-leading Geographic Information Systems (GIS) vendor, ESRI Inc. The placement in Moscow was arranged through the help of networking and contacts I made during the 2015 International Geographical Union conference in Moscow, which I attended as well.

During my placement between May and July 2016, I have obtained valuable experience which shaped my sense of the work environment of a large GIS vendor. I was attached to the GIS specialist team and my supervisor helped me a lot on the first stages of my placement. I was introduced to my project, which involved creation of a massive geo-database coordinated by ESRI software packages, particularly ArcMap 10.2 and ArcCatalog 10.2. I was tasked with data mining routines, maintaining attribute tables and working with relational databases. The project focused on the transformation of polygonal data into a geo-database according to technical standards, which were set by a client.

Once the routine workflow was formed, ESRI offered me a choice of attending additional ESRI certified training courses, from which I completed two: ESRI ArcGIS 10.3 Essential Workflows and ESRI ArcGIS 10.3 Effective Editing. Both courses helped to solidify my skills in editing polygonal data and conduct analyses using geoprocessing tools. Working in an environment with experienced professionals in the GIS field, especially programmers involved in the creation of Web GIS scripts, helped me improve my GIS programming skills, including those, which facilitate and automate routines related to attribute information editing.

Overall, my summer internship at ESRI CIS allowed me to practice and deepen the essential skills of a GIS specialist, which will come as an asset in my employment search in Canada. I also spent some time exploring my hometown – visiting museums and suburbs – and traveling to the neighbouring Baltic countries Latvia and Estonia.

Geography – The Secret Sauce of Data Analytics

For GIS Day 2016, the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies joined forces with Environics Analytics, “Canada’s premier marketing and analytical services company”. This year’s Environics Analytics User Conference on November 16 attracted 675 data analysts from 350 organizations and featured 16 client presentations, numerous software demos, and one great party!

eauc2016-alliwitz-secret-sauce eauc2016-alliwitz-tweet-tps-ea-geo

The core role of Geography and location in data analytics was emphasized by many presenters. Environics Analytics founder and president, @statslady Jan Kestle, is quoted with identifying “Geography as the secret sauce” that integrates data for advanced analytics. The Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Ryerson University received shout-outs and accolades for training the next generation of data analysts through its BA in Geographic Analysis and MSA in Spatial Analysis programs.

eauc2016-ryersongeo-maps4 eauc2016-alliwitz-msa-students3

We joined the Environics Analytics User Conference with a GIS Day-themed display of geovisualization projects from the MSA cartography course and with a 15-year reunion to celebrate the 2001 class of MSA graduates, the first-ever group of students receiving a graduate degree from Ryerson University. Since then, over 300 students have obtained the MSA degree and joined the ranks of data analysts, who shape the regional economy, public services, and environment.

A timeline of all conference-related tweets can be found at Thank you, Allison Urowitz (@alliwitz), for the pertinent tweets reproduced above.

Victoria Fast and Daniel Liadsky receive Ryerson’s top award

Blog post co-authored by Victoria Fast, Daniel Liadsky, and Claus Rinner

Ryerson’’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies is celebrating two gold medal recipients this fall. The Ryerson Gold Medals are the University’s highest honours, presented annually to one graduate of each Faculty. Victoria Fast (PhD in Environmental Applied Science and Management, supervised by Dr. Claus Rinner) received the Gold Medal for the interdisciplinary programs housed at the Yeates School of Graduate Studies, while Daniel Liadsky (MSA in Spatial Analysis, supervised by Dr. Brian Ceh) received the Gold Medal for the Faculty of Arts.

Victoria’’s PhD research investigated the potential of novel geographic information techniques to reshape the interaction of government with community organizations and citizens through crowdsourcing and collaborative mapping. The study applied a VGI systems approach (Fast & Rinner 2014) to actively engage with urban food stakeholders, including regional and municipal government, NGOs, community groups, and individual citizens to reveal and map uniquely local and community-driven food system assets in Durham Region. The Durham Food Policy Council and Climate Change Adaptation Task Force are currently using the results to support informed food policy and program development. Victoria’s research contributes to, a SSHRC Partnership Grant on the impact of the participatory Geoweb on government-citizen interactions.

Daniel’’s research in the Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) examined how dietary intake is mediated by individual, social, and environmental factors. The Toronto-based study was stratified by gender and utilized self-reported data from the Canadian Community Health Survey as well as measures of the food environment derived from commercial retail databases. The results uncovered some of the complex interactions between the food environment, gender, ethnocultural background, and socioeconomic restrictions such as low income and limited mobility. In addition and as part of an unrelated investigation, Daniel undertook a feasibility study into a mapping and data analytics service for the non-profit sector.



Congratulations 2015 MSA Graduates!

Another year has passed and another ‘generation’ of professional Geographers has completed our Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) degree. Congratulations to the 17 graduates of the Fall 2015 class!

All 17 MSA graduates after Fall 2015 Convocation (photo credit: Vadim Sabetski)
All 17 MSA graduates after Fall 2015 Convocation (photo credit: Vadim Sabetski)

MSA students are required to conduct an independent research project that is documented in a major research paper. This MRP is formally defended and subsequently revised prior to degree completion. This year’s MRPs span the range of applications from sustainable development, Toronto’s SmartTrack transit plan, food retail and foodscapes, health-care service locations, bank branch networks, crime patterns, urban heat islands, and housing. Methods chosen by the students include visual data exploration, multiple regression, multi-criteria decision analysis, risk terrain modeling, self-organizing maps, and many more.

The abstracts for the following 17 major research papers are available from the MSA program homepage at Supervisors are listed in parentheses.

  • Kaylin Chin: Evaluating Sustainable Development Across the Continuous United States: Application of the United Nations’ Indicators of Sustainable Development (Dr. Shaker)
  • Kiyomi French: Analysis of Distribution Centre Locations for a Major Retailer in Canada (Prof. Swales)
  • Adrien Friesen: Smart Track Station Evaluation in Toronto: Ridership Forecasting and Feasibility Analysis of Station Catchment Areas (Dr. S. Wang)
  • Alexa Hinves: Developing a Methodology for Measuring Access to Services: A Case Study of Access to Food Retail Services in the City of Toronto (Dr. Hernandez)
  • Elmer Lara Palacios: The Social and Spatial Patterning of Stress in Canada (Dr. L. Wang)
  • Jacob Levy: A Spatial Analysis of Distribution of Practicing International Medical Graduates in Canada, Ontario, and Toronto (Dr. L. Wang)
  • Daniel Liadsky: Exploring Toronto’s Foodscapes: Measuring The Food Environment and Healthy Eating Behaviours (Dr. Ceh)
  • Bernardo Melendez: Analyzing Change in Bank Branch Networks in the Toronto CMA (Dr. S. Wang)
  • Jessica Miki: PySAL an Open Source Development Framework for Spatial Analysis for Health Data (Dr. Vaz)
  • Nicia Moran: Site Selection using Geographic Information Systems and Multi-Criteria Decision Model (Prof. Swales)
  • Tyler Munn: Spatial Analysis of 911 STEMI Calls for Toronto Paramedic Services (Dr. L. Wang)
  • Ricardo Sanchez: Transformation of Book Retailing in Canada (Dr. S. Wang)
  • Maxwell Stiss: Ground Level Retail and Mid-Rise Development Trends along the ‘Avenues’ of the City of Toronto from 2010-2014 (Dr. Hernandez)
  • Shannon Strelioff: Examining Street Level Robbery Predictors in Durham, Ontario using Statistical and Risk Terrain Modeling (Dr. L. Wang)
  • Kirk Suitor: The Spatio-Temporal Analysis of Toronto Housing Prices (Dr. Kedron)
  • Christine Valancius: Comparing the Cooling Ability of Green Spaces in Suburban and Urban Areas using LST and NDVI (Dr. Forsythe)
  • Yishi Zhao: Cluster Analysis of Injury using Self-Organizing Maps – A Case Study of Extended Golden Horseshoe (Dr. Vaz)

Among the achievements of the Fall 2015 MSA class is Daniel Liadsky’s Ryerson Gold Medal, as described at, as well as Yishi Zhao’s 2nd place in the National Geographic student mapping competition (official announcement still not posted anywhere) and her MSA Award of Distinction, presented at the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies Awards Night on November 4, 2015.

I would also like to note that four students are extending their MSA research phase by one or two semesters to write an MSA thesis. The first student to complete this option, Heather Hart, graduated in Spring 2015 with a thesis on “Maps as Evidence in Health Care Service Improvement and Monitoring” (supervised by Dr. Rinner), which was also recently added to the list at