It started out with little more than an idea, some old aerial
photos and a handmade map. Several months and a lot of hard work by three
dedicated people later the result may provide a whole new way to evaluate
and influence the look and growth of towns in Middlesex County for years to
Not bad considering it all started out as a question from an
The undergraduate, earth and environmental sciences major
Jessica T. Pfund `05, was a student Earth and Environmental Science 322:
“Introduction to GIS (Geographical Information Systems),” in the spring of
2004. The class’s instructor, Phillip Resor, assistant professor of earth
and environmental sciences, had brought in a guest speaker, Sandy Prisloe, a
geospatial extension specialist from the University of Connecticut’s Center
for Land-use Education and Research (CLEAR).
Prisloe’s presentation included a discussion of how satellite data were
being used to quantitatively measure changes in Connecticut’s landscape and
to infer the impacts of these changes on the quality of life and the
“Sandy mentioned that he had a map from the 1970s that showed
the areas that were farmland at that time,” says Resor.
“He also mentioned that, if
someone was motivated to use data that was recently created by a the group
at the University of Connecticut showing the land cover in 2002 and compare
what was found to the data from 1970, it would be interesting to see how
things had changed.”
Pfund was intrigued, and she was looking for a possible
“Many of my classmates were doing studies that were more
theoretical and scientific,” she says. “This seemed to have scientific and
social implications for the local area that could have a relatively
After discussing the idea further with Resor, Pfund decided:
this would be her project.
Aided by a $2,500 grant from the Middlesex County Community
Foundation and additional support from the Mellon Foundation and The
University of Connecticut, Jessica, who was responsible for the bulk of the
data collection, got to work.
“I don’t think when I started I had an idea of exactly what I
was getting into,” Pfund says, now almost a year into the project. “It’s
been very interesting and exciting, but it’s also been a lot of work.”
Much of this was linked to the differences in how the
information being examined was generated. The images from the 1970 study
were based on a hand-made mylar map that was in turn based on aerial
photographs of the county. The information this would be contracted with was
generated by images derived from satellite images of the same area in 2002.
“The images and data didn’t match up,” says Resor.
“The satellite images
are way precisely located, but can’t image anything smaller than 30 meters.
By contrast, the 1970s map was generated by aerial photographs and on the
ground surveys that could capture small details, but weren’t necessarily as
well located. So we had to
find ways to account for the differences.”
There were some other challenges too. For instance, the old
maps identified the land as: “active agricultural,” “inactive agricultural”
or “nonagricultural.” GIS images provided more than a dozen different
characterizations, including assessments of soil viability for agricultural
use and disposition of wetlands.
Translating the GIS data also had some interpretive
challenges that were produced because of how things have been done in the
state over the years.
“Because of the way small plots of land are often used in
Connecticut, what LandSat (the satellite) may identify as a large lawn area
may actually be an active or inactive cultivated field,” Pfund says. “This
meant we had to visit some locations in person to verify exactly what the
Currently there is still a substantial amount of data to
crunch and quantify, but Resor and Pfund anticipate having the study done
sometime in the spring. They will publish a report with Prisloe detailing
their findings. There will be public presentations and discussions of the
data at town meetings in Middlesex County. The towns can then use the data
to better plan new housing and business construction.
“A lot of towns in Middlesex County are proud of their rural
atmosphere,” Resor says. “This information can help them maintain that
atmosphere as they move forward with new developments.”
However, the study has already generated a result that will
be producing more benefits for the county. Resor received a service-learning
grant from Wesleyan to expand his efforts in these types of studies. This
spring, his students are working on similar projects for The Nature
Conservancy, The Connecticut River Costal Conservation Commission, The
Middlesex Land Trust and the Town of Portland.
“It’s been pretty interesting to do a scientific study that
actually has social implications and affects local issues,” says Pfund.
“People don’t often think of scientists working that way. It’s been a very