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”!