Rocket City: Monday Sessions

I had the luxury of sitting in on an entire day of sessions. Below are the details of:

- Statewide Issues I and II
- Southeast Regional Applications
- Data Integration and Sharing

(full agenda)

After the keynote there were two sessions on Alabama Statewide Issues. The first including more remarks from a range of state players. Walker highlighted the soon to be created state GIS council which will include 7 executive members (including him) and 2 at large members. He also has agreed to solicit ad hoc input from any other interested parties. He noted the need to leverage the private sector (I think they questioned their role after his first presentation) but noted that vendors perhaps not try to tell the state what its problems are. Instead, Walker said, he listens to those at “the end of the spear” - police, firemen, first responders, etc. He shared his experience showing Virtual Alabama to the federal DHS folks. Their response? How can we access and use it? Walker noted they missed the point - trying to replicate it in other states. He hopes to try to get that message across at an upcoming homeland security technology meeting, where Virtual Alabama will among the keynotes. He did note that neighboring states are buying in: Louisiana and Mississippi are on board.

Next up was Chris Johnson, of the US Space and Rocket Center and one of the people behind Virtual Alabama. She chose to highlight the successes Alabama has had even without a formal coordinating body. In particular:

- densification of geodetic control (CORS GPS correction for free) with NOAA money
- how that system saves farmers $25,000 and they can thus take advantage of precision agriculture
- how height modernization drove imagery acquisition for Virtual Alabama (at 6”, 1’ and 2’)
- development of a statewide flightplan via AmericaView

We heard from the state CIO, Jim Burns, who explain he heads the “IT shop for the state.” He’s working to get technology to agencies that don’t have it (Alabama Historical Association - which must review new developments). His Information Services Division works out hardward and software contracts to save money. He noted a new contract with ESRI will save the state $200,000. He’s looking to get more GIS on the award-winning state e-gov portal, but for now there is little.

Gerry McRay, from the state Emergency Management Agency highlighted GIS’ role in response. Nick Tew, the state geologist and supervisor of oil and gas spoke to the work his teams do. Geologic mapping is done in partnership with USGS and is being stored in GIS. Soon it will be available for use in GISs across the state. He also noted the value of non-fuel minerals and oil and gas in the state. It brings in a lot of the “general fund” money of which Walker spoke. He also noted efforts around mapping abandoned mines to insure mine safety. He showed a screen shot of the state’s metadata portal. He final comment: “It’s hard to do anything alone.”

The second set of presentations on state issues included a presentation by the Alabama Association of Regional Councils, which is trying to collect and consolidate town and municipal boundaries. It has endorsements from some state agencies and is looking for endorsement from the state DHS. In the future it might try to gather street centerlines for the state. I confess I wondered if that was the role of such an organization. Others did too; comments from one data vendor suggested public private partnerships for such efforts.

The next presentation was from the Alabama Resource Management System (ARMS). What do they do? Offer information about social services. The presentation focused on efforts to build a system for lay people (kindergarten teachers) to find local resources and for “pros” to make advanced thematic maps. The first attempt, built on ArcIMS, “bombed” as it was too complex. The second, built on ArcGIS Server was aimed to be more user friendly. Why that move? The complexity of the system is gathering and standardizing data from many, many agencies. Apparently ArcGIS Server has better tools for that at least on the intranet side. The ARMS app is for the Internet and continues to evolve.

A session focusing on apps for the southeast included some prototype work that compares data from paper crash reports (typically take 3 months to get into a digital system) with citations issued (typically done on laptops). The question: can mapping these help allocate resources to reduce accidents. For now much of the decision as to where to put resources is done “by feel.” The idea is to make it based on real data. The analysis is done using ArcGIS. The presentation of data, we saw real time locations of state troopers, is done in Virtual Earth.

Two other presentations of local apps were very technical. One looked at land use change via Landsat data in the watershed around Huntsville. Different algorithms for assigning land use will be compared to “ground truth” from some classified orthos. A second presentation used LiDAR to explore forest gaps. What’s a forest gap? I confess I didn’t quite learn that from the presentation.

The final presentation of the group reviewed the reasons for and challenges of setting up CORS stations in the state. It turns out the state DOT took on the challenge of finding sites and getting the systems up and running. The state probably needs some 40-50 to cover the state and will have some 30 by next year. We even learned that one station once hosted by Intergraph was given to the City of Huntsville. (If you don’t know about CORS, it’s very cool.) I particular enjoyed seeing actual pictures of the sites - on poles, on roofs, on structures that look like TV antennae.

The last session I attended, Data Integration and Sharing, challenged me because I was tired. The first presentation celebrated maps and standards. The second detailed integrating a wide variety of data and systems for NASA. All the systems and data were left in their native databases and apps and integrated for access via a series of browser apps. Cost? $1.5 million. Time for completion? Three years. Architect/implementation? Intergraph. The final presentation showed off AutoCAD Map’s ability to carefully pull out specific CAD data. Then, the presenter showed how AutoCAD Map could edit and create data in shape files. We then saw the changes in ArcView. Who asked the most questions? Representatives from Intergraph and ESRI.

Bottom line for me? I’ve learned more about Alabama and its GIS today than I have over my lifetime. More importantly, my faith in the importance of regional GIS conferences is confirmed (and not just because Directions Media ran this one). As I put it to one colleague: “This event not only brought many disparate GIS types together, it gave them many things to talk about.”

Published Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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