Rocket City Geospatial & Alabama GIS Conference Recap

December 1, 2011

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Day one opened with well-attended pre-conference workshops and technical tracks. These covered a variety of subjects with LIDAR being a prominent topic.

The conference itself opened with a vivid account of the April 27th Alabama tornadoes by Brad Travis, chief meteorologist for WAFF-TV in Huntsville.  This event shaped the program as speakers articulated the central role of GIS in the response to the events. In terms of technology, this event highlighted the role of mobile phones and in particular smartphones accessing social media.  This provided the only vehicle for information to reach consumers in the absence of power (while batteries lasted).

Art Faulkner, director of Alabama Emergency Management Agency, highlighted, as did many other speakers during the day, communication and collaboration as key for success.  The events of April 27th resulted in many lessons learned and exposure of issues that need to be addressed, such as:

  • Proper infrastructure to handle the increased demand for network bandwidth. This was particularly acute due to the need to moving large amounts of imagery.
  • A data infrastructure that can be accesses by many platforms is critical.
  • It is important to utilize the data captured during the event to improve building codes, zoning regulations, etc.

Speakers during the day provided many examples where GIS proved invaluable in collecting data necessary to plan the post-event response and coordinate with the multiple agencies involved. In particular GIS helped greatly in providing the data required to coordinate and distribute federal disaster aid.

Some observations:

  • It is easy to be dazzled by new technology but it is important not to lose perspective of the simple things:  paper maps and map books, for example.
  • Primary mode of data distribution was FTP.  Web services, cloud and other technologies are still not widely utilized.
  • Web GIS sites were utilized in some instances. 
  • OGC was not mentioned during the day. This is disappointing, as many of the OGC standards have been created precisely to address the disaster management use case.
  • Pre/post disaster ortho imagery is fundamental.

Day two opened with a keynote address by Joel Campbell, vice president of Intergraph Corporation. Campbell walked the audience through a historical timeline from the early days of Intergraph, Leica and ERDAS, culminating in the 2010 Hexagon Intergraph acquisition. Today Hexagon is positioned to support “dynamic GIS” enabling real-time solutions “from sensor to the Internet.”

Day two continued with interesting presentation segments addressing various topics. The Alabama tornado outbreak of April 27th provided the background for interesting case studies of GIS in action.

  • GIS systems provided the focal point for field data collection to assess damage. The use of GIS reduced the time-to-cash for federal assistance to victims by about three weeks.
  • Simple tools such as portable GPS units complemented with digital cameras proved invaluable.
  • Similar techniques can be used for engineering damage assessment and improving building safety.

The Atlantic Group presented the company’s experiences in capturing post-tornado orthophotos (from flight planning to data post processing) under extremely difficult conditions. Once again, the lack of power presented a tremendous obstacle.

Cyber security was the subject of a panel discussion. This is a central topic in the IT world, but a new topic as it relates to geospatial technology. Location technology certainly has an important role in this area.

Addressing is a very important topic for emergency response, damage assessment and many other applications. An addressing panel discussed addressing standards (FGDC) and efforts at various government levels to create and maintain reliable address databases.

Various technologies were presented that will collectively address safety, security, damage assessment, etc.

  • Real-time oblique imagery (Pictometry)
  • Real -time Location System (RTLS) for indoor radiation monitoring
  • Enterprise GIS supporting emergency response (Esri)

The conference wrapped-up with a showcase of Alabama geospatial technology research.


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