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Multimedia GIS-- A New Tool For Ecological Education

This paper presents the concept of multimedia geographic information systems (MGIS). Authors: H. Olenderek,A. Nowicki, M. Czajko,D. Korpetta, W. Karaszkiewicz

Department of Spatial Information Systems and Forest Geodesy,
Warsaw Agricultural University


This paper presents the concept of multimedia geographic information systems (MGIS). The main goals to be achieved by merging multimedia technology with GIS are better educational tools, richer methods of presentation of data, easier systems for novice users and enhanced management of spatial phenomena. The paper proposes to develop a Multimedia GIS for the Białowie¿a Forest Promotional Complex, one of the forests chosen to be test sites for the new Polish forest policy. It identifies the sources of input data and points out the possible benefits. Finally, the Internet is mentioned as a means of distributing the gathered data along with a brief discussion on the quality ofmultimedia-based systems.

Table of contents:

1. Introduction
2. The need for more efficient education
3. Goals and objectives
4. The sources of data
5. Software and hardware considerations
6. Methods of presentation and some important considerations
7. Bibliography



A very rapid and dynamic development of information technology has been taking place over the past years. It is particularly true in the fields of geographic information and entertainment. While the latter seems somehow irrelevant from the educational point of view, we will see that it carries with it an enormous potential that could be used in education.Before going more deeply into it, let us begin with some basic definitions so that we have a common base for further discussion.

Geographic information systems (GIS) are computer-based systems that enable users to collect, store, process, analyse and present spatial data. One should not, however, view them as a pure software applications or mapping software since they encompass a broader scope including issues related to people, data quality, law, institutions, procedures, etc.More information on this topic can be found in Aronoff (Aronoff, 1991).

The entertainment business was a place where multimedia technology has seen the most dramatic development. Multimedia is a technology that encompasses various types of data and presents them in an integrated form. There are several types of data that are used by the technology, including text, graphics, hyperlinks, images, sound, digital and analogue video and animation. Examples of multimedia applications include scientific and popular encyclopaedias on CD-ROM disks, training programs, computer games, visitor information centres, etc. Some of the recent Polish examples are the Fryderyk Chopin Multimedia Encyclopaedia (Woronow, 1996) or the Electronic Atlas of the Birds of Poland (£apiñski, 1996). The former contains rich data on the life of Fryderyk Chopin including over 800 pages of text, photographs, scanned paintings and forty minutes of audio presentations from the Chopin Contest. The latter, however addressed to primary school pupils, is a high quality presentation of almost three hundred birds species, with ten per cent of them accompanied by digitally recorded voices. Use of multimedia makes it possible to communicate with a computer through almost all senses. As a result, computers become a very serious aid in the process of education. When used properly, they free teachers from being conveyors of facts and let them concentrate on problem solving and helping the students tounderstand the issues being taught. Interested readers will find more on multimedia technology in Cotton and Oliver (Cotton, Oliver, 1993).

Many GIS and multimedia systems have been successfully implemented. However, more and more is being heard about the need for strengthening the technologies. As the number of people using GISes grows, users are demanding easier and more powerful software. It is a serious requirement, since GISes serve as a tool for integration and analyses for various specialists whose knowledge of computers is, sometimes, very limited. In addition, two-dimensional systems cannot adequately represent multidimensional spatial phenomena. Creating hybrid Multimedia-GIS systems is a way to overcome the limitations displayed by the technologies when they are used separately. Multimedia can extend GIS capabilities of presenting geographic and other information. They can also make GIS more friendly and easier to use. On the other hand, multimedia can benefit from GIS by gaining an environment which facilitates the use and analysis of spatial data. The result is a system which has the advantages of both worlds without retaining most of their disadvantages.

The need for more efficient education

The Białowieża Primeval Forest is one of the most beautiful places in Poland and Europe. In recognition of its values it was granted a status of a Biosphere Reserve. Many people and organisations express their interest in this object and carry out researches on its territory. The Białowie¿a Primeval Forest is a symbol of the great forests of the past and is known for its beauty and charm. At the same time little is known to the public about the diversity of plant and animal species living there, natural processes or the efforts of foresters in keeping the Białowie¿a Forest in the best possible shape. Many controversies have arisen about forestry in general and the Białowie¿a Primeval Forest in particular. They are the sign that foresters have failed to properly inform the society about their work,successes and failures.

Therefore, as Grzywacz points out (Grzywacz, 1994), the process of educating the society should be intensified. The knowledge about nature, and forests in particular, should be made available to the whole society. The goals of forest education should encompass (Grzywacz, 1994):

  • educating in the field of sustainable forest development and protection,
  • stimulating creativity in wise use of forests,
  • encouraging to observe the rules present in forests,
  • creating a model of an aware citizen,
  • teaching an interdisciplinary approach to forests,
  • forming international solidarity in the field of nature conservation.

Recognising the importance of the issues raised, the new Polish forest policy stresses the need for broader and more efficient forest education (Grzywacz, 1994). First relevant decisions are found amongst the tasks of the so-called forest promotional complexes (FPC). The following goals of FPCes are specifically education-oriented (Zarządzenie nr 30, 1994, Zarządzenie nr 11, 1995, Zarządzenie nr 28, 1995):

  • conducting forest researches in order to work out model solutions of ecology-oriented forest economy, and
  • training the personnel of State Forests and delivering ecological education to the society.

The tasks scheduled to be done on the territory of forest promotional complexes in the period of 1995 to 1997 include amongst other the following:

  • setting up in every FPC a training centre for foresters and the public, and
  • establishing a National Centre of Ecological Education in the Rogów Experimental Station.

To complete the described tasks related to ecological education very efficient and flexible means are needed. It seems that one of most powerful aids in the process could be Multimedia-GIS systems. There are examples of successful projects in similar fields. The "InterGIS Learning Station" is a good example of an attempt to deliver education on-line (Heywood, Reeve, 1995). Its aim is to supplement traditional methods of distance learning with a on-line information that can be viewed any time by the students. Slightly different in scope but similar in principles is a 3-D urban model developed for the historic City of Bath (Hall, King, 1994). It contains multimedia data on the history and conservation of Bath in the form of text, plans and photographs of key buildings and views. These data are linked to the 3-D model of the city. More education-oriented is the project of Multimedia GIS carried out at the Delft University of Technology (Tisma, 1995). The goal of this system is to teach principles of GIS in a multimedia environment. It is worth noting that this system is intended to be used at the faculty where there is no formal GIS training course.

Given the reasons stated above, we recommend to build a pilot GIS Multimedia system for the Białowie¿a Forest Promotional Complex.

Goals and objectives

In order to fulfil the role of an aid in the process of intensifying and broadening the ecological and forest education a Multimedia GIS system must achieve many goals. It should be noted, however, that its potential extends far beyond being a teaching aid. Additionally, being the first such a system to be developed, it cannot avoid some pitfalls and traps. Hopefully, by recognising and preparing for it, we will be able to minimise the effects of errors and gain experience in how to deal with these issues in the future systems. Let us look closer at the objectives of the proposed Multimedia GIS system:
  • The proposed system will be a tool for ecological education. It will contain and integrate spatial and multimedia data that will be accessible in an easy way. Rich information about the Białowie¿a Forest will be presented along with the explanations of natural processes and activities of foresters. Presenting that information in various forms such as text, pictures, short video clips, recorded voice narration will allow the user to experience different stimuli and, therefore, to learn faster. Since the framework for the presentation will be a GIS, users will in a "natural" way learn the principles of using and managing spatial data.
  • It will be a means of conveying the information to the society, namely: schools, universities, research centres, institutions, public media and interested citizens. The result will be better educated and informed society willing to support and help foresters in their tasks.
  • International organisations and society members will get accurate and up-to-date information, as opposed to sometimes confusing messages delivered by the television or radio. This will improve the image of Polish forestry.
  • The GIS part of the system will be used as a management tool in the Białowie¿a Forest Promotional Complex.
  • Analytical capabilities of the system will allow researchers to perform many analyses that they were unable to do before, due to the constraints of traditional methods (Olenderek et. al., 1995).
  • The system will help to classify and integrate existing information on the Białowie¿a Primeval Forests. Redundancy of the data will be detected and the quality of the information will be assessed.
  • It will form a common data base for the Białowie¿a FPC. Distributed data about Białowie¿a will be located, analysed and incorporated into the system. In this way, every interested researcher, organisation, student or citizen will be able to use not only her or his data but also information gathered by the others. Substantial savings will be achieved by eliminating duplication of efforts in gathering and analysing the data.
  • The system will form an opportunity to join the efforts of various institutions and people. They will be able to present and exchange their ideas, which in turn should lead to better and faster results in their particular disciplines.
  • It will be a test system. Technical issues will be resolved, including cost, software and hardware configurations, data acquisition and integration, etc.
  • The usefulness and applicability of integrated Multimedia GIS systems will be verified in the fields of education and management of spatial data.

The sources of data

To answer the question what data should be included in the proposed system, thorough and detailed data evaluation and assessment need to be performed. Nevertheless, since the Białowie¿a is the FPC for whom GIS related work is most advanced, it is possible to indicate potential main sources of data (Olenderek et. al., 1995). A framework for the system will be comprised by spatial data obtained from the following sources:

It is worth noting that there are some data available in the digital form already. They are the effect of the researches of the Forest Research Institute conducted in co-operation with Warsaw Agricultural University. They include, amongst other, information on hydrology, natural landscapes, sites-stands characteristics, geomorphology, biogeography and elevation. The next source can be the data from the system developed for the part of the Primeval Forest located in Belarus. Their use will reduce the time and budget needed to complete the whole project.

Several options exist regarding the multimedia part of the system. The technology makes it possible to convert various types of analogue data into digital form. After such a conversion, digitised, scanned and recorded information will be linked to spatial data. Access to linked data will be achieved in hypertext manner. Of course, the real value of integrated resources will depend exclusively on the knowledge and creativity of people who select the data to be presented. It seems that main part of multimedia presentation should consist of:

  • text information on various topics:
    • history of Białowieża region and the Primeval Forest in particular,
    • culture of the region,
    • description of species, natural processes,
    • presentation and explanation of activities performed by foresters,
    • legal documents related to nature conservation
  • tables, diagrams and schemes presenting important facts about the region
  • old maps (including the forest ones), plans and sketches,
  • photographs of plants, animals, etc.
  • photographs of interesting places, disasters, etc.
  • photographs presenting various forest sites, activities,
  • short voice presentations on various topics,
  • voices of interesting animals,
  • animations illustrating chosen topics,
  • short video clips of spectacular phenomena,
  • etc.

Above presented is a preliminary list that should only serve as a starting point for further researches.

Software and hardware considerations

When the definition phase of the project is completed the scope of the task to be achieved will be known. Sources of data will be identified along with the methods for conversion (devices, data formats, resolutions, etc.). Most importantly, the technical project of the software system will be worked out, including data base schemes, spatial data structures, internal structure of the system, methods of presentations, etc. Only then will it be possible to research and precisely define the hardware and software components.

Nevertheless, some recommendations can be made. These are only preliminary and are subject to change if the results of definition phase require so. First consideration deals with a platform for implementation. Taking into account its widespread use, abundance of programs ported to it and a very dynamic development, Microsoft Windows environment seems to offer the best solutions. Since the framework of the system will consist of spatial data a GIS software is needed to support data handling and analyses. ArcView for Windows, ESRI, California, USA, offers a good environment with data management tools and very convenient methods of application development through its project customisation tools and the Avenue language. If the need to expand the GIS part of the system arises it will be possible to link the system to Arc/Info, which is a full-featured and the most popular GIS system available. Such transition will require only the minimum effort because these two systems are designed to work together. ArcView allow to define so-called hot links that facilitate linking multimedia object in a hypertext manner. This capability may be further expanded by the use of Avenue and the possibility of starting any application from within Arcview. There are various software packages allowing to process images, scanned photographs, digitised voice, diagrams and animations. The most popular include Adobe Premiere,Video for Windows, programs from Adobe Corporation, Corel Corporation and other vendors. Chosen software must be able to communicate through the standard Windows mechanisms like DDE and OLE.

Hardware configuration is driven by the requirements of software and expected data volume. Minimum configuration of a computer system seems to be the following: PCI mother board, Pentium processor, 16 MB RAM, 2 GB hard drive, fast (accelerated) graphics board, 17" monitor (19-21" preferable), sound board with speakers and headphones, CD-ROM drive. Moreover, additional components will be needed in the development and maintenance phases such as colour scanner, video board for video processing, video recorder, CD-ROM recorders, digitizers, etc. To make the results broadly accessible it should be considered to set up a network and a connection with the INTERNET. Depending on the time of implementation, one may expect new software and hardware solutions to emerge. Therefore, the aforementioned suggestions may have to be revised to lesser or greater degree.

Methods of presentation and some important considerations

Developed system should be made available to as broad an audience as possible. Computer systems should be placed in the training centre in the Białowie¿a FPC, relevant forest inspectorates and in the National Centre of Ecological Education. They should be used by foresters and researchers in their work, and by visitors. But this is a first step only. The system should be put on CD-ROM disks and be freely distributed to schools, universities, research centres, institutions, and the public. Since most computers bought today have the capabilities to view CD-ROM based multimedia this seems to be a very efficient way. Similar project of CD-ROM based distribution of spatial and tabular data, together with the results of so-called GAP Analysis, has been successfully completed at Utah State University, Utah, USA. It has generated enormous interest and feedback from all kind of agencies and institutions, stimulating knowledge transfer and co-operation.
With the fast growth of the INTERNET in Poland it is reasonable to assume that the World Wide Web (WWW) is a viable means for publishing the results of the project. Developed Multimedia GIS system for the Białowie¿a FPC should be tailored and put on-line. As a first step, even before the actual system is developed, some carefully chosen information about the Białowie¿a region should be presented on the INTERNET. It can be done in a reasonable easy way through the use of Hyper Text Markup Language (HMTL). Anyone with an access to the Web would be able to view the information using such popular Web viewers like Mosaic or Netscape. More interestingly, as the technology will allow for the use of virtual reality (VR) on the INTERNET, the flexibility and versatility of developed systems will increase dramatically (Jacobson, 1994, Huber, 1994). Recently introduced, the Java language will allow to produce dynamic presentations and ensure platform-independence of developed presentations (Singleton, 1996).

Finally, there is the question of the quality of the developed system in terms of educational and technological values as well as the objectivity in which information is presented (Taylor, 1994). These issues must be carefully and thoroughly considered in order to provide efficient and successful training and education. The proposed project must involve local and interested groups of people who are able to select the most valuable data and present them in a meaningful way (Hall, King, Woodroffe, 1994).


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