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GIS Day 2023: Spatial Adventures in Higher Education

Virtual events are here to stay. But just because we can tune in to presentations, lectures and workshops from the comfort of home doesn’t mean that we don’t want to go out and connect in person. Particularly if there’s cake! This year, colleges and universities offered a mix of virtual, hybrid and in-person events marking GIS Day.

According to the Days of the Year site, November 15 has several food-related observations: National Raisin Bran Cereal Day, National Spicy Hermit Cookie Day, National Bundt Cake Day, and National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day. This year, there was one more such observation: GIS Day! (If you don’t immediately see the connection, you’ve clearly never seen, or tasted, the amazing GIS Day cakes created by GIS-enthusiast bakers.)

A GIS Day cake in the shape of a digital tablet with ArcGIS Dashboards on the screen.

GIS Day has been celebrated on the Wednesday of Geography Awareness Week for over two decades. For the past few years, it has been mainly celebrated through virtual events, but organizations have been increasingly returning to hosting in-person events. The events that the higher education team participated in this year on or around GIS Day are representative of the types of activities colleges and universities across Canada are hosting to promote GIS.

Western Canada

Most of our interactions are with long-time GIS/ArcGIS users, but every once in a while we have the opportunity to introduce a new group of users to the benefits of GIS. Such was the case with Kendra’s two-day lunch-and-learn workshop at Acsenda School of Management in Vancouver. Acsenda will be offering its first GIS course as an elective next year and wanted to introduce both students and faculty to how adding geospatial analysis could enhance their business intelligence workflows. The first day of the workshop provided an overview of the history of GIS, current day applications, and how GIS can benefit multiple fields and industries, while the second day focused on business applications with hands-on activities and demonstrations. Attendees were engaged – and hopefully inspired to sign up for the new course. The sandwiches were really good, too.

Alex’s experience down the road in Burnaby at Simon Fraser University (SFU) was more typical of how higher education staff give presentations these days: connecting virtually to a classroom full of students, where ideally there is both a camera and a microphone so you can see and hear your audience! The topic was GIS web apps, which are increasingly important tools for effectively communicating geospatial information. The lecture for an undergraduate geography course included both a general overview of how GIS web apps operate and how to design them, and a demonstration of using ArcGIS Experience Builder to build an app.

Another topic that is increasingly important is deep learning, which can be used for classification and feature extraction. Mohamed gave a workshop for undergraduate and graduate students in the Department of Geomatics Engineering at the University of Calgary on using deep learning in ArcGIS Pro to extract building footprints. Students chose a pre-trained model from ArcGIS Living Atlas and learned the importance of matching their input data to the model’s expectations. Then, they fine-tuned the model’s performance for their imagery and applied the model to data from a neighbourhood in Lethbridge, Alberta.

A sample of the results in ArcGIS Pro of applying a deep learning model to extract building footprints in Lethbridge, Alberta.

The deep learning model used in the workshop was able to successfully extract building footprints, shown in red, from the Lethbridge imagery.

Central Canada

Before the pandemic, each higher education institution would organize its own in-person GIS Day events. But with campuses closed in 2020, GIS Day events had to be virtual. A group from several Ontario university libraries collaborated on the first Virtual GIS Days, a four-day event open to students and researchers across Canada. The event has grown each year and this year’s GIS Days included a virtual workshop on getting started with Experience Builder. Jonathan covered many of the same points in the workshop that Alex did in his lecture at SFU, but also gave tips on moving from ArcGIS Web AppBuilder to Experience Builder and an overview of other ArcGIS app development options such as Instant Apps. Jonathan also talked about best practices for the user-interface design of mapping apps and how these relate to the options available in Experience Builder.

While GIS Days continues to be a virtual event, the participating universities have started to hold in-person events again on GIS Day. Alex attended the University of Waterloo’s GIS Day, where he gave a workshop titled "Python Crash Course: GIS Day Edition" that started with Python basics and worked up to introducing the ArcGIS API for Python and ArcPy using ArcGIS Notebooks in ArcGIS Pro. The day also featured lighting talks by students, professors, and staff from the Geospatial Centre and Plant Operations – and a GIS Day cake. Ben Woodward, who spent the summer at Esri Canada as a Waterloo co-op student, played a key role in organizing this year’s GIS Day at the school.

I attended Brock University’s GIS Day where I gave two workshops, one for faculty and staff that focused on the tools available and how ArcGIS could be used beyond the classroom, and one for the general community that introduced ArcGIS, specifically ArcGIS Online, and gave participants the opportunity to build a web map and app around the responses from an ArcGIS Survey123 survey they had completed at the beginning of the workshop. The GIS Day cake featured a map from Erin Isaac, Brock’s 2023 Esri Canada GIS Scholarship winner. 

A dashboard showing the results of a survey on ArcGIS usage that workshop participants at Brock University were asked to complete.

Brock University’s GIS Day workshops were open to all members of the university community. Many participants had never used ArcGIS before. 

For Michael, GIS Day was an opportunity to revisit the themes of the workshop he gave at the GIS in Education and Research Conference in March: ArcGIS and game engines. In a virtual presentation for McGill University, he discussed how ArcGIS CityEngine 3D model exports had been used with Unity before the ArcGIS Maps SDK for Unity was available, then showed the new workflow for exporting 3D data to scene layers, which can be brought into Unity and Unreal Engine with the new Maps SDK. He also discussed the Complete Streets VR project that he, Jonathan, and others have been working on using features available in the Maps SDK for game engines.

David gave a workshop to undergraduate students in architecture de paysage (Landscape Architecture) at the Université de Montréal. This virtual session covered the basics of 3D GIS, and highlighted ways that spatial data could be visualized and analyzed to understand site conditions in urban areas under redevelopment. The students were also given a glimpse into the world of parametric modelling through ArcGIS CityEngine, where a demonstration was given to showcase highly interactive street scenes, 3D buildings, and landscape features.

Jon had the best gig of all, travelling to Ottawa to celebrate our K-12 group being awarded the Alex Trebek Medal for geographic literacy at the Royal Canadian Geographic Society’s 2023 Geographica Dinner. All of us in higher education are very proud of the K-12 group. We may be biased, but we can’t think of anyone more deserving of this award!

Atlantic Canada

And finally, Shahram gave a presentation on another growing area of interest: GIS and Smart Campus. The presentation was for students in Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering and introduced the concept of a smart campus (digital twin) and how GIS plays an important part in its development. He discussed key aspects, including data fusion (BIM/GIS integration), georeferencing, ontology data modeling, 3D GIS data visualization, and GIS web app development techniques, as well as projects he is involved with and their challenges.

GIS Day 2023 may be over, but it’s never too early to start planning for next year! If you’d like a member of the higher education staff to participate in your GIS Day 2024 event or would be interested in having us give a guest lecture or workshop at your college or university, contact us at

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Specialist with Esri Canada. Her career in GIS started when she came across the Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering program at the University of New Brunswick and thought it sounded interesting. She earned a PhD in Geomatics Engineering, focusing on lidar data classification, and now she supports teaching and learning with ArcGIS at colleges and universities across Canada. Krista particularly enjoys interacting with the students who receive an Esri Canada GIS Scholarship or apply for the Esri Young Scholars Award each year. She also enjoys playing with apps and doing a bit of coding when she has time.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins