Easier-to-Use Mapping Applications and Standards Help Bring Environmental Maps to Canadians

By Dan Ahern

To bring GIS data out beyond the usual government officials and engineers - in other words, into the hands of the general public - access must be easy for the lay person. If complex downloads and viewers are required to view maps, Internet users may find the process daunting.Indeed, even GIS specialists may run into trouble if differing formats require them to juggle different software downloads.

The people behind GeoConnections, a Web-based Canadian government and private initiative, recognized that the key to broadening usage of GIS information was to make the process simple.GeoConnections has a special stake in making sure that maps are seen by the widest possible audience: its partners are developing the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure (CGDI), which is making the country's geospatial data and services accessible online.The progress that's been made by GeoConnections has helped several government organizations, including Environment Canada, streamline the flow of GIS data among groups and to the public at large.

Halifax Harbor.Photo by Shawn Sullivan

New WMS Extension Makes Map Sharing Easier

One of GeoConnection's prime goals is to promote OGC standards for the exchange of geospatial information across Canada.The OGC standards are making it easier for organizations to share and apply GIS data.In partnership with GeoConnections, Autodesk, developed the WMS (Web Map Service) functionality for MapGuide, its Web GIS software, making such data easier.Without these standards, different creators of GIS data lack a common data model for their output.

Environment Canada was one of the earliest users of the WMS specification.The government agency is charged with enforcing environmental protection laws, protecting endangered species and natural habitats, and issuing weather and environmental prediction reports.

"Our mandate is to look after the environment," explains Jake Whalen, a GIS project manager for Environment Canada."We're interested in air and water quality, and the protection of waterfowl species.We've also got the Species at Risk Act, which will give us a lot of enforcement powers when it comes to the protection of endangered species, normally the mandate of the provinces."

Because Environment Canada shares information with thousands of partners on the provincial and local level, the ability to share data is crucial.But without consistent standards, it can be next to impossible for one organization to use data produced by another.For example, a mining company may need to build a map that brings together layers relating to road, rock composition, or pipeline data.

In order to access that information, an organization might have to order the data on a CD - the only way to guarantee that the maps could be read.The maps would then have to be converted into a useable format, which might cause fine points of information to be lost.In addition, the maps might be outdated as soon as they're put on a CD, since dynamic updating isn't possible.

And, outdated maps could impair decision making about crucial environmental issues."For instance, I'm working with the Innu Nation in Labrador, and we're developing an online mapping application that incorporates their ecological knowledge with Environment Canada's waterfowl data," Whalen says."The Innu Nation is involved in land claims negotiations, and they're also active in a forest resource management plan.They need their data to be up to date in order to make effective decisions.If the data is not up date, it can cause problems with the proper management of their lands."

When maps aren't widely shared and distributed, it can be easy for groups within an organization to miss out on opportunities to use that knowledge, Whalen says.

"Before we even got into online mapping, we had different scientists using databases that people elsewhere in the organization might not even know about," says Whalen. "Converting needed GIS data between incompatible formats is certainly problematic, but a bigger - though less obvious - problem is not knowing when important GIS data already exists.Before we started using Autodesk MapGuide, divisions sometimes duplicated each other's GIS work.That's still happening outside our organization, and the costs of duplicate research could run into the millions nationwide.When we go to the expense of creating or gathering geospatial information, we want it to be easily accessible to users inside and outside our organization."

For Environment Canada, the investment in technology makes sense when data can be used and reused by different organizations.Divisions within Environment Canada find that they can often benefit from another's GIS data.For example, a researcher gathering information on endangered waterfowl may want to combine a layer of bird sightings with a layer of vegetation data.For the organization to meet its objectives, there needed to be better connections between data sets."In the end, our client is the public, so it's our duty to make that information accessible to them," Whalen says."Online mapping is the best way to do that."

One plan to take advantage of GIS data will involve the presentation of water quality maps."We have water quality and water quantity stations set up, and we're partnering with provincial governments to make our water quality information accessible to Canadians," explains Whalen."We're also developing handheld technologies so that birders in Labrador, for example, can make observations on beached birds and enter that information into a handheld device.The information would go into a database, and would then be served up on the Internet."

Settling on a Standard

The ability to share data via the WMS standard - and to access maps in real-time - benefits the public as well as government workers, says Whalen.The standard is flexible enough to be used by organizations that might interpret the OGC standards in different ways.Because the WMS extension requires no additional browser plug-in, any user authorized by an OCG-compliant organization can access data.For instance, researchers without GIS expertise can access Environment Canada's password protected servers and create maps showing recent bird sightings.

"In terms of serving the public, thinner mapping applications can be quite powerful because they don't require a downloaded plug-in," Whalen says."They may have limited querying capabilities, but the fact that you can serve up maps without sending the user to another Web site to download software is great."

What's more, GIS specialists and researchers can query GIS servers outside their organization, and build maps on the fly that blend GIS layers using the most current data."Soon, it will be as easy to find geospatial information on the Internet as it is to find news reports," says Whalen."That means the GIS work we do at Environment Canada will have value that extends far beyond the scope of individual and internal projects.Anyone with an interest in our geospatial data - from weather patterns to waterfowl data to hydrometric information - will be able to access it over the Internet."

The people behind GeoConnections are hoping organizations that adopt these common GIS standards and tools will reap both immediate and long-term benefits.For one thing, it's cost effective.Groups that can share mapping data will spend less money than they would if they have to consistently buy and convert data.However, the real benefit for GeoConnections is that by building a nationwide GIS infrastructure in the form of the CGDI, they'll answer the mapping needs of government, industry, and the public in new and efficient ways.

"Users of GIS information will have instant access to data created by any organization in Canada's OGC community," says Whalen."The Internet is a perfect vehicle for letting researchers and the public know what geospatial information is available. It could save organizations with overlapping mandates millions of dollars by reducing duplicate work."

Published Tuesday, July 20th, 2004

Written by Dan Ahern

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