PAGIS: GIS in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

By Adena Schutzberg

_I think the questions that followed my keynote titled "Redefining the Geospatial Marketplace: The View from 2006," at this week's Pennsylvania GIS Conference were far more interesting than my presentation. They included:
  • A few years ago there was concern about a monopoly appearing in GIS; has the appearance of Google et. al. in this space negated that?
  • How should county/local GIS managers react to the new interest/expectations in local GIS caused by interest in the new mapping portals?
  • Tell me more about GeoRSS!
  • Are the acquisitions of GeoTango/Vexcel an indication that data collection is headed to the private sector from the public?
What did I say that prompted these comments? Well, basically that everything we knew in 2000 is essentially "wrong" in 2006. I highlighted some of the factors that got us here: business model changes from "money from maps" to "money from ads," high resolution satellite imagery with "nothing to do," hardware/software growth, slow uptake of location-based services (LBS), integration of real and virtual worlds... I then noted why the new players, the traditional players and third party developers are all nervous about the current state of affairs in our market space. One group that’s not nervous, but rather jazzed, is end users of the technology. That group has got lots of free data, free mash-ups, 3D, promise of better integration and more heading its way. I then took a look at several scenarios of how the activities of the "new players" might impact data availability, data acquisition, standards, search tools and more.
A session on "user applications" (presented by vendors) included a feature/function "demo-fest" from Orion. The presenter noted at the outset that Jack Dangermond owns part of the company. Orion's technology sits on top of ESRI technology; the company now has some six or seven products available. The second presenter, from Pictometry, highlighted new advances in that company’s tools for obtaining and licensing oblique imagery. Pictometry now retains flight lines for each geography flown, so very similar images can be captured regularly and used for change detection. The company now uses a five sensor rig instead of the two sensor rig used in the past. (At one point, the company used just one camera, flying four times – once from each direction to get all four views, I suppose.) In addition to cutting flight time, the "penta" arrangement ensures that all views are taken at the same time, something not possible when multiple passes were needed to capture an area in its entirety.

Pictometry's partnership with ESRI has added geocoding, coordinate pass (launches Pictometry technology and pulls up the best oblique image from GIS points clicked), IMS integration, and an ArcMap 9.x extension coming this summer that will be shown at the ESRI User Conference. The Pictometry image viewer ActiveX control allows the company's analytical tools (measure, etc.) to be integrated into other applications. The "hooking code" (HTML, etc.) is open source and can be changed but the control is proprietary. The Pictometry software/data package is licensed for two years in an "all you can eat” manner. When an organization renews, it gets the "old" data under perpetual license. Interestingly, customers get a cut from resale of data to, for example, Microsoft. The fact that the data are licensed and not owned by public organizations means that Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) and other open records laws do not apply. Therefore, the data may not be made available for the cost of reproduction, as is often the case under such legislation. That said, should the licensee chose to share the data, the license allows that. Still, the metadata stored in the images is not viewable, and thus the analytics are not available, without a software license.

One Pictometry user story stuck with me. A Department of Transportation (DOT, US? State? It was not clear.) mapped crash incidents in a GIS and found many gathered around a single intersection. Looking at Pictometry oblique imagery of the area, staff noted there were but two overhead lights illuminating the intersection. Further investigation showed nearly all accidents occurred late at night. Perhaps lighting was a factor? Looking at the imagery saved someone having to go out in the field to determine possible causes. What's on the horizon? Three dimensional model creation, LiDAR capture and more. The company has 200 customers, mostly DOTs, public safety organizations and assessment departments.

Over lunch I dined with a fellow who'd spent the previous day training some county employees in NIMS. NIMS? That's short for National Incident Management System – "a consistent nationwide template to enable all government, private-sector, and nongovernmental organizations to work together during domestic incidents." It's a program aimed at getting all levels of local, state and federal employees savvy to be ready to work together as responders. That way, whether they are tagged to respond to a disaster in place or in another geography , they can "jump in." Coming from the GIS side, he offers a special bonus session on how GIS relates to this template. Online course offerings are available, too. I found it interesting since I'd never heard of the system. He noted that ideally any government employee, local to federal, who might be called upon to help out in an emergency (from the "dog catcher" on up as I put it) should be trained. Apparently, some government players are making funding availability dependent on getting staff trained. That's always a good incentive, though I confess to preferring carrots to sticks.

To my surprise, a session on how to access Pennsylvania data was "standing room only." The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and PA Spatial Data Access (PASDA) spoke of the data they create (first two) and make available (PASDA).

The DEP rep noted changes in data availability since 9/11: Some sensitive information is no longer freely served to the public, including layers from public works, sewage, dams, oil and gas, radiation facilities and large underground storage tanks. The data are available, however, to those who demonstrate the need for them. The goal is to "not make it easy" for terrorists to get such data. That said, DEP is aware that such data is available elsewhere, but if that organization does not make it available, it can say, should an event occur, "They didn't get it from us." A review of policy not long ago upheld the decision to change availability made after 9/11. I wonder when the data will be publicly available again?

DEP offers some data publicly, via eMapPA (an ArcIMS server, 9.0). The site allows visitors to grab a 20 mile area and download layers as shape files. That server is updated nightly, while the same data are updated to PASDA quarterly. (You can download statewide datasets from PASDA and not be limited to 20 miles.)

DEP is pleased to now be the official keepers of the PA National Hydrography Dataset, which includes watersheds, water bodies, streams, and junction data (where the three former water features might intersect). Pennsylvania is one of the first states to sign on with USGS to be the custodian of its hydrography data. It's available, therefore, for download from USGS, not DEP.

DCNR creates data on creeks, forest boundaries, bedrock geology, glacial borders, physiographic provinces and other layers. It's available for download on PASDA. DCNR manages PAMAP, an electronic map aimed to replace the 1:24,000-scale paper topographic maps. At this point, it includes a true color, regularly updated, statewide high resolution dataset. DCNR also makes NAIP imagery, special imagery (Ivan flood imagery for example), insect suppression, the Appalachian Trail centerline and other goodies available for download on PASDA. DCNR also hosts a few datasets on its website, including a “rails to trails” app (an IMS) and PA Greenways (greenway corridors) app.

PASDA, the main state distributor, hosts terabytes of data, with many access points - FTP, specialized tools built on ArcIMSm for Census 2000, DOQQs, PA Atlas, Web services, and more. With so many tools it became clear it was time to redesign the website with a single Data Access Wizard. The goal is for this new app to replace the array of tools, eventually.

A bit of the state image in PASDA DOQQ Viewer.

While the audience was impressed with the wizard and its array of query options to quickly get at the data of interest, it was perhaps more impressed with the Web service offerings. They ranged from simple (preview the dataset in a browser) to quick (view the data in Google Earth via pre-rendered KML) to powerful (add data directly to ArcMap). I prompted the presenter to note that the services were available as OGC services as well.

One hot topic here in Pennsylvania is a new effort to collect not just imagery, but also statewide LiDAR. Flooding across the state and a need to better understand the hydrologic situation prompted interest in LiDAR. In the review of LiDAR, I learned that since it offers so many data points, the "human intervention" needed to create meaningful contour lines is far less than that in traditional stereo-based topographic data collection; only a handful of breaklines need to be identified on a LiDAR model to create useful contours. With traditional photogrammetry far more are needed to guide the contours.

The final session I attended on Monday made me smile. Wansoo Im, an instructor at the School of Public Health (SPH) at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and president/visionary at VERTICES, highlighted how possible (and quick and inexpensive) it was to "reproduce" traditional GIS type applications on Google Maps. Im has created a number for watershed applications and others for education. These apps highlight how easy it is to build apps that allow end-user input of data (from wayward litter on rivers, to favorite places in town, to locations of public restrooms in New York City, [New Yorker article]). Web 2.0 is alive and well!

Published Thursday, May 18th, 2006

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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