GIS Maps and Musings

July 21, 2008

DC in 3D

Filed under: GIS,Google — rmfahey @ 10:38 am
Tags: ,

I just ran across this post in the Google Lat Long Blog which reports that the GIS manager for the District of Columbia has made their 3D building data (some 84,000 models) available to anyone using Google Earth. The blog post describes the four main reasons that DC decided to go to the “trouble” of making their data widely available to the public. To summarize:

  1. It’s the right thing to do.
  2. Because every neighborhood can benefit from 3D.
  3. We get better 3D performance from the cloud and we don’t pay for it.
  4. We want to communicate with our residents.

Kudos to DC for making data created with public funds truly publicly accessible. No doubt, this will also benefit numerous public agencies and planning firms throughout the District as well. I encourage you to have a look for yourself by launching Google Earth, zooming to the DC area, and clicking on the “3D Buildings” layer on the left hand side. For now, here’s a screen shot:

July 19, 2008

“Real” GIS For Everyone

Filed under: GIS,Google — rmfahey @ 10:19 am
Tags: ,

Typically at family gatherings when I run into someone I haven’t seen for a while, they’ll ask me what I do and I explain that I manage a GIS support unit. Inevitably, the response I get is, “Oh, you mean like Mapquest or Google Maps?” And rather than go into the gory details, I usually just say, “Yeah, something like that”. Just the fact that the term “GIS” has become mainstream to the point where people associate it with web mapping services like Google and Yahoo is impressive, and a testament to the popularity of such web mapping tools.

But is this really GIS? In some of my previous posts, I talked about GIS web migration and Google Earth on the web, which implied that GIS tools are now available to everyone; for free. But this isn’t entirely true. While Google Maps and Google Earth are very powerful and user friendly mapping applications, they are really just data viewers. They cannot perform the spatial analysis or do any geoprocessing like a desktop GIS application can – and this ability is where the real power of a GIS system lies.

So is the next logical step for the web based mapping tools to add geoprocessing functionality? I’ve always thought so, and there’s a great discussion of this topic in this James Fee GIS Blog post. James shows an example of a web-based geoprocessing application, and surmises, as I do, that this is where GIS is headed. What’s even more interesting are the responses his post generated (31 at last count), which seem to be split 50/50 on the notion of a true web GIS in our future. Even though the original post is almost nine months old now, people are still weighing in with their thoughts on the subject (one more just arrived this week).

I noticed that the majority of the comments address this issue from an enterprise perspective, and I agree that, for the foreseeable future, it would be difficult to build a web application that could run all the complex geoprocessing routines that a program like ArcGIS handles for a typical enterprise. But what about the casual home user who might just want to run a simple spatial query, like for example, a map of the locations of all the drunk driving arrests within a specific zip code boundary in a given year? I think this is where the power and potential of real GIS for everyone exists. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Google incorporates a geoprocessing tool into Google Maps anytime soon.

July 17, 2008

BAR-GC Rolls On

Filed under: GIS,Google — rmfahey @ 1:22 pm

I attended the Bay Area Regional GIS Council (BAR-GC) meeting yesterday, and there was some very interesting and lively discussion. The BAR-GC, as stated on their web site, “was formed in April, 2002 to foster regional GIS coordination, identify and encourage data sharing opportunities and provide input to the California GIS Council (CGC).” Council membership consists primarily of local city and county GIS representatives from the surrounding nine-county Bay Area.

During yesterday’s meeting, there was a fair amount of discussion surrounding a “Google Data Sharing” agenda item (there was also quite a bit of email exchanged on this topic prior to the meeting). To provide some background, the BAR-GC chairperson had approached Google a while ago with the idea of making local GIS data available on Google Maps and Google Earth for public use. And while BAR-GC already has a server set up housing a rich set of GIS data contributed by a variety of local, county, regional, state and federal agencies from the region (as part of another project), BAR-GC did not have the authority to turn over that entire data set to Google. This is because most of the local agencies require that companies and individuals who obtain their data sign an MOU agreeing that they will not resell the data, and that they also understand the limitations of the data. Since every individual city and county data sharing MOU is different (there is no “one-size-fits-all” MOU), it complicates the BAR-GC’s intention to turn over a complete regional data set to Google.

As such, some of the council members felt that BAR-GC should just play an advisory role and let each individual city and county decide whether or not to send their data to Google. They also felt that since their data is already available (in most cases) to anyone who asks for it, Google just has to request it and sign an MOU. Others felt that it would be a significant public benefit if each city/county were to provide their data to Google to make it available to the public through a common interface, and let the public use the data to  create their own mash-ups as they see fit. For example, people could generate a map similar to this one using county health inspection data rather than limited information from a newspaper article (as in this example):

There’s also the benefit of letting Google host the data so that the local agencies don’t have to, nor would they need to develop and maintain their own individual web mapping services.

In the end, the council decided against taking a leadership role and sending all the data sets to Google, and instead voted to let Google request the data sets from each individual agency, if they want it. Those who voted for providing the regional data to Google were disappointed in the result, but certainly understood the reasoning behind the decision to let Google work with each entity individually to acquire the data. Now we’ll just have to wait and see how badly Google wants the data.

July 14, 2008

ESRI User Conference Coming Up

Filed under: ESRI,GIS — rmfahey @ 11:07 am

In about 3 weeks, a few of us will be making our way to San Diego for the 28th Annual ESRI International User Conference. This conference touts itself as the biggest GIS conference in the world, with more than 12,000 people attending from over 120 different countries.

I’ve had the privilege to attend about a half-dozen or so ESRI conferences over the past 10 years, and I can tell you it never disappoints. Everything from the keynote speakers, the technical workshops, the paper presentations, the map displays, the live demonstrations and the social activities are all top notch, and they certainly keep you moving from venue to venue.

I expect much of the focus of this year’s event will be on the release of ArcGIS version 9.3. But I’m also interested in learning more about geodatabases, cartographic enhancements, web GIS, and of course, seeing how my colleagues in the transportation planning industry are implementing GIS. Looking forward to another informative, yet fast and furious, trip down south.

July 11, 2008

GIS Web Migration

Filed under: GIS,Google — rmfahey @ 1:14 pm

I believe it was around 1990 or so when Caltrans took the plunge into the world of electronic mapping, commonly known as GIS. At that time, it was primarily only the Planning functional units statewide that showed the most interest, and began sending staff to training (I still have my ARC/INFO 6.0 class manual). Our engineering and design teams relied primarily on CADD (and still do) for their work, but our planners were quickly realizing the benefits of GIS. Even though back then our budget only allowed us to obtain a very limited number of copies of the GIS software, I recall our HQ Planning Deputy Director at that time having this marvelous vision that we should have, “GIS on every desktop computer.” His point being that everyone would then have direct access to an enterprise spatial data library through the GIS software, thus providing an effective, efficient and powerful decision-making desktop tool to all functional units and executive staff.

It’s now almost 20 years later, and that admirable goal of our Planning Director’s hasn’t quite panned out. I believe there are two primary reasons for this: (1) Unlike standard desktop software, learning to use GIS applications requires a significant investment of staff time and resources, and (2) Development and maintenance of an enterprise level database is even more resource-intensive, requiring full-time, dedicated DBA professionals – and that hasn’t happened.

But all hope is not lost, as other forces are at work that may allow us to realize that early vision after all through a different avenue: the web. As briefly touched on in a previous post, Google Maps, as well as a growing number of open-source GIS tools, are quickly changing the GIS world. Public agencies, ourselves included, are finding that Google Maps provides an excellent means of making GIS data available and accessible to internal and external customers. By publishing our data in a Google Maps environment, not only does it free us from having to create and manage all the basemap data layers (we just use Google’s base data, housed on their servers!), but we can serve up our data in the very user-friendly Google Maps environment that end users are very familiar with and comfortable using (unlike specialized GIS software programs).

Publishing GIS data on the web isn’t a novel idea, as ESRI and other software companies have had tools, such as ArcIMS, available for years to handle this task. We, however, ran into a number of problems using these tools, including insufficient IT infrastructure and support and limited programming experience, which hampered our early development efforts.

More recently, we took a stab at creating our first map using the Google Maps API, and had reasonable success. We took a data layer we created in GIS showing the location of the nine corridors to be covered in separate Corridor System Management Plans (a requirement of the 2006 California transportation improvement bond measure), and published it in Google Maps. It only took a few lines of code to create, most of which is readily available for copying/pasting from the API web site; and, since Google houses all the base data layers on their servers and maintains the functionality of the interactive map, there were no internal IT issues for us to overcome.

This is very exciting to me, as we now have the ability to publish GIS data from our spatial data library in a Google Maps environment, making it easily available and accessible to our internal non-GIS staff and decision makers, our external partner agencies, and the public. In other words, putting “GIS on every desktop”!

July 8, 2008

It’s The Data, Stupid

Filed under: GIS — rmfahey @ 2:13 pm
Tags: ,

I can’t tell you how tempting it is to hang a sign in my office, somewhere amongst all the maps and post-it notes, that reads, “It’s The Data, Stupid”; similar of course to what Bill Clinton did during his successful 1992 presidential campaign. Not because I’m running for president or anything, but because of how frustrating it is to generate a map for someone, using location data that they gave me, only to have them come back and tell me that the map is wrong. Arrrgggghhhh.

Okay, time to put this into some sort of context. Our unit receives a significant number of requests from our Project Management division to generate project location maps. These maps are then used in various project reporting documents and fact sheets, or in meetings with partner agencies, public officials, etc. The location of every Caltrans project (and asset for that matter) is identified by either a postmile or postmile segment. The Caltrans postmile system is a unique spatial referencing system used to identify a particular location along a highway route in any given county. This subject deserves its own separate blog post to describe in more detail, but for now, check out this link for a nice summary of the Caltrans postmile system.

Suffice it to say that anyone requesting a project location map from us must provide the county, route and postmile limits (begin and end) for each project that they want displayed on a map. We have a pretty accurate routine we run to convert this county/route/postmile information into a mappable (shapefile) data layer. So you can see how irksome it can be when a project manager, who should know the postmile reference location of his/her own projects, gives us incorrect project postmiles and then has the audacity to tell us we mapped his/her project incorrectly. When instead, the map accurately reflects the location of the postmiles that they provided. Thus, my urge to tell them, “It’s the data, stupid”.

Anyhow, you get the idea. I should note that over the past several years now, project managers have gotten significantly better at providing us with accurate postmile data, and therefore we no longer have anything close to the “mapping problem” we used to have. In addition, GIS provides a great QA/QC tool to ensure project managers are referencing the correct postmile limits for their projects, as it’s much easier to visualize project locations on a map than in a table of postmile values. Below is a screen shot of a typical project location map, with postmile references included:

July 3, 2008

Google Earth Now Available On The Web

Filed under: Google — rmfahey @ 9:18 pm
Tags: ,

Ever since Google made their application programming interface (API) available to the masses, the term mash-up became a household word. Suddenly, anyone could pull data from different sources and overlay it on Google Maps for anyone to access through their web browser. One of the very first mash-ups created was the Craigslist Housing Map, which combines available housing data from the Craigslist web site with Google Maps. Here’s a screen shot showing available units in the east bay area at the time of this posting:

The Google Maps Mania blog has been doing a nice job documenting new mash-ups as quickly as they can find them.

In a very short time, Google has revolutionized the online mapping world. The only thing missing is a web-based interface for Google Earth, the 3D navigable globe program. That is, until now. Recently, Google announced the release of the new Google Earth Browser Plug-in, which brings the full power of Google Earth to the web. The Google Earth Plug-in and its JavaScript API let you embed Google Earth, a true 3D digital globe, into your web pages. Using the API you can draw markers and lines, drape images over the terrain, add 3D models, or load KML files, allowing you to build sophisticated 3D map applications.

I expect it won’t be long before we start seeing a whole host of new mash-ups utilizing the Google Earth interface. The possibilities are endless, and there are certainly tremendous opportunities to take advantage of this new API in the Planning arena. For example, local planning agencies could post three dimensional walk-through simulations of planned developments right on their web sites.

Check out some of these early samples, and let your imagination run wild!

Have a safe and sane 4th of July.

June 30, 2008

ArcGIS 9.3 Released

Filed under: ESRI,GIS — rmfahey @ 9:35 am
Tags: ,

Environmental Systems Research Institute, better known as ESRI, announced last week the release of ArcGIS version 9.3. This release of the desktop application appears to include quite a few significant enhancements over the current version, including for example:

  • A new Convert Graphics to Features function that allows you to create features by drawing graphics without using the editor.
  • The ability to export layers to KML (Google Earth) files is now built into ArcGIS Desktop 9.3.
  • A new HTML pop-up tool which allows different HTML content to be viewed on individual features.
  • The labeling process can be temporarily paused to increase performance while you assemble your map or do analysis.
  • A new Address Inspector tool lets you click on the map and get the address for that location (reverse geocoding).

While these and many of the other advertised enhanced capabilities sound terrific, history has taught us to take it slow when upgrading, as brand spanking new versions tend to come with their fair share of bugs. We’ve gotten in the habit of waiting until ESRI provides at least the first service pack for any new version of software before installing it – and even then, we tend to install it on a test (non-production) machine until we are sure that it works well enough not to corrupt or damage any of our project files.

I hope we can move through this testing phase quickly, as I’m very anxious to start employing these exciting new features. Check out this “What’s New in ArcGIS 9.3 Desktop” flash video.

June 27, 2008


Filed under: GIS — rmfahey @ 9:49 am

Ahhhh, Friday. The one day each week I get to spend catching up on everything that had to be put off during the previous four days. Because many people are on flexible work schedules (5/40’s, 9/80’s and the like), Fridays tend to be relatively quiet around here. There are typically fewer meetings, a smaller volume of phone calls, and less fires to put out (although not always) compared to Monday through Thursday. This creates the perfect climate for tending to past-due paper work, report reviewing/commenting, approving/submitting timesheets, blog posting, and preparing for next week’s chaos to pick up again bright and early Monday morning.

This would be a good opportunity to describe, in a little more detail, what my unit’s responsibilities include, just to provide some context for future blog posts which will be more GIS-specific. As I mentioned, I manage the GIS Support branch for the Caltrans District Office in Oakland. Our region covers the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. I am lucky enough to have an amazing staff of technical whiz kids comprised of a variety of classifications including Planners, Engineers, and GIS Analysts, who do all the heavy lifting for me. Organizationally, we are located in the Transportation Planning Division, as historically, GIS use evolved primarily as a Planning tool.

As the sophistication of the GIS software has improved dramatically over the years, so has it’s use throughout our District Office. So while our unit is housed within the Planning Division, we actually support and coordinate the use of GIS across all functional units throughout the District Office. On the whole, I estimate that 85% of our time is spent generating maps and maintaining spatial data. The other 15% we spend helping those brave souls already using, or starting to use, GIS on their own (through training, software troubleshooting, user group meetings, etc.). The majority of future blog posts will focus on issues related to map generation and spatial data maintenance.

So for now, have a great weekend!

June 25, 2008

Purpose and Need Statement

Filed under: GIS — rmfahey @ 9:11 pm

This is my initial blog post as part of the Planetizen Tech 125 Class, Topic 5 Assignment. Over the next few weeks, should you choose to return to this blog site, you’ll find various postings describing some of the day-to-day issues and challenges confronting the GIS Support unit that I manage in our Planning Division. And, if all goes well, I may even be lucky enough to report on some of our successes as well.

My hope is that by sharing this information, those of you in similar positions, or who simply work with GIS, may find some useful take-aways from this blog that may save you time and energy down the road when deciding what to apply, and what to avoid, in your own work.

I look forward providing these posts as much as I do receiving your feedback and hearing about your own experiences.

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