Using GIS to Create a Fear Index of the UNO Campus


By Jim Nash


Geography 8056 GIS

Dr. Michael Peterson



Images are capable of powerfully motivating humans. Throughout history images have motivated people to bear arms, build structures, create new and better governments. Humans are driven towards goals, and often those goals are intangibles, figures of their mind, sometimes reached, often not. Images or perceptions alter our behavior within society, relationships, they cause us often to work towards losing weight, becoming more muscular, attaining a perfect physical appearance. Behavioral studies into how powerful images are on humans are intriguing to be sure. But how do perceptions alter human activity in a spatial sense? This is an area of geography known as Behavioral Geography. Its products in a cartographic sense are mental or cognitive maps. While they are somewhat dated in an ever changing geographic community, they do still provide some valuable insights into human spatial patterns. What if a mental map were married to a powerful GIS of today? Certainly the end result would be more telling than previously. This is what my project for GIS was designed to do. I wanted to look at how students on the UNO campus viewed the safety of their school. The product of this study would be creating a fear index map of campus. Its utility would be in allowing the map user to examine areas of campus that are seen as more dangerous than others. Subsequently campus security could target those areas for increased patrols, thus making them safer. The benefit of this study is in allowing increased usage for these spaces, as arguably, those who view an area to be unsafe, will avoid it and thus not fully utilize all that UNO has to offer them.

The purpose of actually undertaking this project was to prepare the author for a similar proposed project that would be a part of this thesis; a study of terrorism and how it has altered the cultural landscape in Belfast, Ireland. What will follow will be a brief historical overview of cognitive mapping, especially fear mapping, and a description of the techniques needed to produce the end result.


Cognitive mapping as previously stated is a child of the Behavioral School of Geography. Its goal was to cartographically portray how people saw their surroundings in their mind. Often people would be asked to draw a map from memory of a city, a room, their country, or the world (Sack, p.97). The cartographic distortions that resulted were usually very intriguing, but failed sometimes in providing true insight into how humans actually organized space, and how they viewed it. For to understand mental maps, it was necessary to be able to take the distorted mental maps and measure the distortions and assign distances to them. Other studies moved away from how humans looked at cities, and looked at how they viewed the desirability of a particular city or region (Downs & Stea, p.187). This was especially interesting when one considers that many of the responses chose areas they were unfamiliar with but selected them based on their perceived image of them. One fear map the author found was done by David Ley in 1860. Ley examined the stress (fear) perception of the Monroe neighborhood in Philadelphia showed that fear increased and decreased even with minute movements from one side of a street to another (Ley, p.221). A study similar to Ley's is what the author desired to do, but utilizing the tools available through GIS.


One of the jobs of a GIS user is to first assess the necessary tools to complete the project at hand. This involves understanding what the end products desired form is. For this study, the end result desired was a shaded map, displaying the relative fear index of campus, based on 25 sites across campus, and have space between those points interrelated to show a change in value. To do this with a GIS meant that a raster based GIS software package would be best, as the subtle change of the fear index, could be displayed pixel by pixel. The software package chosen to do this was Map Factory 1.1. Map Factory is a raster based GIS that is a GUI (Graphic User Interface) based system. The software package chosen to do the interpolation process was Surface III. Surface III was originally designed to create contour, shaded contour, and transected maps. While other software systems have since left Surface III behind, one aspect of Surface III is still very hand. That operation is the X, Y, Z data gridding operation that Surface III does very well.It has the capability to read in text files containing X, Y, Z data, and grid it (interpolate) into cell values that can be imported into Map Factory. Taking the averaged response values to a survey distributed to the study volunteers, Surface III made grids to cover a study area of 250x439 cells.


The survey is the most important tool in the collection of data for a study like this. The prime objective is to collect data pertinent to the study, without skewing data or violating participants personal integrity by revealing their identity. To create the survey it was necessary to have a base map of the UNO campus, as current as possible, and have a prescribed number of data collection points placed on the map. The data collection or response boxes were scaled value boxes from one to five. A value of one was considered very safe., and a five was considered very unsafe. Survey participants were asked to circle one of the potential responses based on their perception of that points safety. If they had no perception they were asked to circle "No Response".

Some demographic information was requested from the participants, but when collated, it was not found to be of significant value so it was discarded. The map itself was taken from an existing Adobe Illustrator document. The map was color coded, and was old enough to be in need of some changes. After the changes to buildings and roads were made, the color patterns were changed to gray tones in order to print on a non-color printer. This done, 25 survey boxes were placed and the survey was distributed to a Geography 1000, 1030, and 4050/8056 classes. 47 females ages 17 to 48 responded and 52 males ages 18 to 54 responded. This was a smaller response group than hoped for but was the best that was available.


The data was tabulated using Microsoft Excel version 5.0, which totaled and averaged the responses. Excel had the ability to put the results into a test tab delimited format, but Map Factory was unable to import it. This meant that totals were entered in X, Y, Z format using simple text, imported into Surface III, interpolated and made into a Z value matrix readable by Map Factory.


Once the Z value matrix was completed it was imported into Map Factory and displayed as a shaded contour map. One of the software idiosyncrasies about Map Factory is that it displays low values as dark and high values as light. Using a simple tool within Map Factory, the color picker, reassigning the light shades to low and dark values to high was simple. The next step was to overlay the shaded contours, male and female, over the base map. This was done by using the scripting interface in Map Factory, telling it to overlay the shaded contour onto the base map that had been recoded and made ready to have algebraic operations performed upon it. Having completed both male and female maps, it was then possible to subtract the pixel values one from another to see the amount of change between the two. Again this was done by scripting with very little effort.

The Maps



This is the Base Map used for the project




This is the Male Fear index Map




This is the Female Fear Index Map




This is the Subtracted Male/Female Fear index Map







The results were quite interesting for all three resulting maps. The male map shows a fairly low index of fear overall ranging from 1.20 to 3.23. The female map had higher overall value for each point on campus with the index starting at 1.82 and going to a 4.25. The subtraction map is really very interesting and is very telling in evaluating how perception can be gendered. What is seen in the subtraction map is that there are some disparities between the two maps. This will be analyzed further in the analysis part of the study.


Analyzing the map data revealed some very strong patterns between males and females. The highest fear indexed areas were the same for both, Elmwood Park areas, as were the low areas. The lows were generally located on the western half of campus, and in areas closer to the buildings. As distance from buildings increased, so too did the fear index. On the eastern half of campus the index was generally higher and was higher for females around the Arts and Sciences Hall. This may be attributable to an attach made upon a female faculty member only weeks before the survey was distributed. Regarding the subtraction map, it is interesting to look at the darker areas, which indicated the areas of highest disparity between males and females. The south western parking areas had a fairly prominent degree of difference indicating that males are less fearful about that area of campus. The most evident and concrete conclusion that can be drawn from the maps, is that the Elmwood Park areas, which received the highest index numbers, are not a concern or rather a liability for UNO security. These areas are a part of Metro Omaha, and so are under the jurisdiction of the Omaha Police. Changing the fear index of these areas would be a result of increased OPD Patrol.

It is unclear at this time if the index maps of UNO are conclusive, and as accurate representation of the general campus wide index. For that reason it is evident that only generalized observations can be made of the maps produced. Areas of further research might make this a more complete study, this will be addressed next.

Further Research

To fully understand how UNO students organize the space on campus based on their concern for personal safety, a study like this really should do a few things differently. First, a larger sample group should be sought out. That sample group should also have a more representative age distribution of UNO. In addition, there should be maps for both day and night, as UNO holds many nighttime classes. Another possibly illuminating addition would be to map light poles across campus, thus creating a light index, and seeing if poor lighting has anything to do with perceived danger across campus.


This study was designed as a primer for thesis work mapping. It accomplished that quite well. It aquainted the author with the methodology and tools necessary to conduct a study like this on a larger scale. Its value should really be measured in that light, and in so has been successful. Further studies of this type, if desired, can now be undertaken by the author to augment his thesis.


Ley, David. The Black Inner City As A Frontier Post. A Monograph For the Association of American Geographers. 1974.

Downs, Roger M. and Stea, David. Image and Environment: Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior. Aiding Publishing, Chicago, 1973.

Sack, Robert David. Conceptions and Space In Social Thought. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1980.