Improved GIS tool gives data a fresh look

Maps and graphics mean more to the public than raw numbers

It's impossible to make good decisions without good data, which makes the ability to visualize data crucial, said Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Holdren spoke Feb. 17 as the first speaker in a three-day symposium on the art and technology of data visualization.

Holdren stressed the importance data plays in making sound policy decisions. “That’s why the Obama administration has placed such a priority on putting high-quality data in the center of the executive branch,” he said.

However, he added, visual data is the most meaningful to decision-makers and the public. That means converting the information into maps, charts and other graphic representations to make its significance clear.

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Is a national GIS on the map?

The backdrop for Holdren’s remarks was a national gathering of federal geospatial information systems specialists in Washington, organized by geospatial software giant, ESRI.  The event also marked the introduction of a new iteration of ESRI’s GIS mapping and data management tool, ArcGIS 10.

The newest release of ArcGIS, due out initially next month, is expected to offer a variety of more robust capabilities than previous systems, including the ability to provide geospatial data bases, ready-made mashup applications and other mapping tools over the Internet, and be capable of working on mobile devices as well as in remote cloud computing centers.

Introducing the new ArcGIS platform — with the choreographed staging and muted star power reminiscent of a more famous California-based technology company — was ESRI founder, patriarch and President Jack Dangermond.

“This is a very big release,” Dangermond said, speaking beneath a massive multimedia screen at the Washington Convention Center. “The vision” was to create “a simple and pervasive system for using maps and geographic information and make them accessible everywhere through Web clients, mobile clients, traditional desktop clients,” with a system that “simplifies working with GIS by putting maps up front as the user interface.”

“We’ll see fast displays, intuitive editing, with integrated scientific programming, statistics, python [software tools], GIS, math [modules] and modeling capabilities,” he said. It will also integrate imagery dynamically, meaning images will load faster as the user zooms in or out of an image, or moves across multiple images and have the ability to load in photos and data captured from users in the field.

The new ArcGIS 10 will also expand the platform’s ability to manage and distribute data over the Internet in cloud computing centers and now be capable of working on’s cloud computing system, Dangermond said.

Dangermond, and a succession of ESRI colleagues, demonstrated a sampling of new capabilities promised by Version 10 of the software.

In one vignette, John Calkins illustrated how policy-makers, weighing infrastructure improvements in Yosemite National Park, could quickly search for, access and plot datasets onto a map via tabs along the sides of the map and analyze seasonal search-and-rescue incidents, traffic patterns and other data along with land-use restrictions to help create a snapshot of the pros and cons of building cell phone towers and roads in the park as an alternative to funding search-and-rescue missions.

Another demonstration showed how policy-makers in Galveston, Texas, could assess, report and visually display the availability of federal loans and grants for housing and relief from multiple agencies in the event of hurricane losses, based on a variety of flooding scenarios.

And, in an example of how the public can help shape policy-making, using crowdsourcing techniques, a map was shown identifying the location of hazardous waste sites in Washington, D.C., which was mashed up with an overlay of small images representing individuals who had been found, searching Twitter feeds, who had commented recently about the areas.

ESRI’s Damian Spangrud said the new online version, which will debut in March, with added features in May, will offer a worldwide database of imagery, geographic and street maps for users to build on — including Bing maps and imagery -- with 2,000 cities having images available at 1 meter resolution or better.

Dangermond saluted the users in the audience for providing many of the templates and applications that are being shared across the geospatial community

“Your work is making a difference,” he said. “Agencies are increasingly serving their geospatial knowledge, creating the foundation for a national GIS and providing a more open and transparent government.”

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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