Los Angeles County’s RS Imagery Co-Op

By Catherine Burton, Nick Franchino

2014 aerial imagery of Los Angeles’ Expo Line at La Brea Ave. in the Mid-City District.

High quality, remotely sensed imagery can be expensive, especially if it is acquired for a unique purpose over a large area by a single customer.   The geographic extent of Los Angeles County is massive — as counties go — encompassing everything from two major ports to mountain resorts to desert highlands.  With a diverse population of around 10 million, things change and move all the time: structures are built or destroyed, public infrastructure resources are reallocated, babies are born and need new schools, and public funding rises and falls.  As a native Angelino, I know that changes — and traffic — are the only constants in Los Angeles.  The sheer size of the county, at 4,083 square miles, is larger than the state of Delaware (2,489 square miles) and slightly smaller than Connecticut (5,544 square miles).  Compared to the county of San Francisco, which only supports one city — San Francisco — and encompasses a total of 49 square miles, the county of Los Angeles contains 88 cities and has a significant amount of unincorporated territory.  

Given LA County’s need to manage its resources over a large geographic area, remotely sensed imagery and GIS have proved to be valuable asset management tools.  In 2006, the Los Angeles County Chief Information Office and Department of Regional Planning spearheaded an effort to collect high-resolution aerial imagery.  The program, called the Los Angeles Region Imagery Acquisition Consortium, is an effort to collect high-resolution aerial imagery and complementary value-added products.   This project is remarkable on a number of levels, but two things really stand out: 1. its lifespan — currently in its fourth collection, and 2. the number of partner agencies who finance and subsequently benefit from the collection — currently 27 cities, six public agencies and more than 20 county departments.  (Interesting trivia: the region’s early adoption of geospatial products and services was in part inspired by a personal relationship between Regional Planning GIS Manager Milan Svitek, who conceived of LARIAC, and ESRI founder Jack Dangermond.  The two gentlemen knew each other while attending Harvard.)

The county manages LARIAC like a small business service offering.  They identify the vendors, determine the list of relevant data products, retain quality control of the project, and build and maintain relationships with partner organizations.  Prior to each new collection, the project managers identify which partners will continue on and those that choose to opt-out.  They then balance the budget and allocate the costs accordingly.  They work directly with the data vendor, Pictometry, offering suggestions as to how the product could be made better.  And in best customer service practices, communicate with their project partners to ensure that the data is used to its best advantage — all in a day’s work for a small business team.

LARIAC is financed using public funds, but not all of the data is available as a public-facing dataset, as it is licensed, not purchased, from Pictometry.  Some tax-paying citizens might argue that the data should be freely available; however, if it were, there would be no motivation to join the consortium and, therefore, no money to do the acquisition in the first place.  Some imagery is held behind firewalls, while more recently, it's been stored in the cloud and served to the agencies that financially contribute to the acquisition.  Reduced resolution versions of the datasets are publicly accessible via GIS web mapping applications and web services.   In addition, the Building Outlines layer is publicly available.


Elegant, interactive, building outlines and parcels data.


Catherine Burton recently interviewed Nick Franchino, former project manager and current outreach manager for LARIAC and GIS manager for the Department of Regional Planning, to learn about how this project started, why it works and what the future holds.

Q: What was the impetus for the project; was there a specific conversation that happened, and if so, where and with whom?

A: Before LARIAC, the county did smaller aerial imagery projects.  We did an aerial imagery project in 1998 (1 meter resolution) for our General Plan staff and again in 2001-2003, we acquired some imagery (1 foot resolution) for the Department of Regional Planning, Public Works and the Assessor.  In 2003, we formed a group to acquire oblique imagery.  Our Oblique Aerial Digital Imagery Project was a 2004 Los Angeles County “Productivity and Quality Award” winner for work done across agencies both in and outside of Los Angeles County.  All these projects were led and championed by my predecessor, Milan Svitek.  Mr. Svitek conceived of LARIAC and based it on similar efforts in Colorado and Texas.  He retired in March of 2006 and I became the project manager. 

Q: LARIAC just acquired its fourth collection of imagery.  How has the process gotten easier and/or more complicated since the project began more than a decade ago?

A: It’s easier overall because we have the template for the project, know the process, have the statement of work and project documents in place, and we know our customers.  But it is still a very complex project overall to balance the acquisition of very high resolution aerial imagery and digital terrain datasets, deal with complex terrain and airspace requirements in Los Angeles County, cover a large capture area, just over 4,000 square miles, and meet the expectations of discerning, technical customers. 


Value-add data produced from LARIAC imagery.


Q: How does the county process the data for patterns and information that may not be immediately apparent, or is it LARIAC’s job to purchase, organize and distribute the data, and for others to "add value?"

A: Initially, LARIAC was really just about data. LA County contracted with vendors, we all shared in the costs, and we delivered to our participants.  Since 2011 or so, it is still about providing the data, but more and more it is about services.  We provide a cloud-based solution to access the imagery and provide access to the county’s Enterprise GIS Repository for other GIS data layers and map services.  There are still 40 or so small- to medium-sized cities that have not joined LARIAC for a myriad of reasons — most likely because they have a light GIS presence.  But as we provide more online services that integrate parcel data, aerial imagery and search tools, we might see more of them joining in the near future.  There is a lot of [value-add services] built into LARIAC, but it is still up to each city/department/agency to get the most they can out of it.

Q:  Where can we find out more about LARIAC?

A:  We have a website http://egis3.lacounty.gov/dataportal/lariac/.  We put everything one would want to know about the program there.  We have archived presentations from the first LARIAC project, many technical guides, status updates and product listings.  

Reprinted with permission from http://www.southlandspatial.com/blog/2015/6/17/lacountyrs-imagery-co-op.

Published Thursday, August 6th, 2015

Written by Catherine Burton, Nick Franchino

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