Industrial Support Services Special Section
The Gist of GIS
Geospatial data provides vital insight for industry
By Isaac Stone Simonelli

rom checking on an Amazon package to firing up the Garmin to head out to a favorite bend of a remote stream, geospatial data provides layers of information vital to people’s everyday lives and the industries that employ them.

Given its role in the world, it should come as little surprise that geographic information systems (GIS) is one of the five fastest growing technologies in the public sector.

“The reason that it’s growing so fast right now is because it’s embedded in our daily business operations,” says Alaska’s State Geospatial Information Officer Leslie Jones. “We use the tools to automate workflows, to increase efficiency, and improve our communication. But, most importantly, we use it to make data informed decisions.”

Essential to Industry
GIS is used in Alaska for economic development, education, health, public safety, human services, infrastructure management, zoning, election redistricting, disaster preparedness, and more, Jones explains. Unlike static, printed maps, GIS maps often have built-in, real-time features, providing the most up-to-date information possible to interested parties. This makes them particularly powerful for emergency situations.

Part of Jones’ role with the state is to coordinate across government, public, private, tribal, and academic sectors to address Alaska’s geospatial deficiencies. These deficiencies are defined as areas where data is needed by various stakeholders to make data driven decisions but are lacking.

Jones is also the executive director for the Alaska Geospatial Council (AGC), which is a coordinating council for state, local, federal, private, academic, and tribal stakeholders in Alaska, focused on spatial data priorities and initiatives. The council consists of eleven different technical working groups focused on tackling a variety of issues from wetlands to transportation to help shore up the geospatial deficiencies of the Last Frontier.

By creating the state’s first geoportal, Jones and her team have created a one-stop shop for geospatial data and maps that are managed by local, state, and federal organizations. While the site does not host the data or the maps themselves, it does offer users a direct link to the resources managed by different agencies.

“You’re getting it straight from what we call the authoritative source,” Jones says. “It really improves data quality, where you know you’re getting the most accurate, up-to-date information to make a decision.”

While there are various maps already constructed and available on the portal, such as a map of Alaska’ Environmentally Threatened Communities and the “Alaska Interagency Coordination Center Dashboards,” data layers can also be accessed and downloaded by companies and the public.

“Users can access public data that is available in the portal and then layer their proprietary information on top of that to make data driven decisions,” Jones says. “That’s the beauty of the portal—we’re now eliminating the need for someone to make a phone call to an agency, request the data, and wait for them to respond to that data request—that’s cost savings.”

Access to this data is important to many of the clients of Resource Data, an Alaska-based IT company that specializes in providing GIS solutions.

“Both the State of Alaska and the Bureau of Land Management, as well as other agencies like the USGS, have data that’s really important for industry,” says Dan Rathert, a senior project manager and senior analyst at Resource Data. “We access them all the time, whether it’s downloading data or using data directly from the open portal services.”

Challenging Geography
One map of particular importance for the public is the Alaska High Resolution Imagery (50cm resolution), which can be used as an incredibly detailed base map for additional layers to be added. A base map is the foundation for custom maps to be created in a GIS.

The imagery web mapping services are publicly licensed to be used as a base map. However, only federal and state organizations are licensed to use the “raw” data, which is not licensed for commercial use.

“People across all sectors get really excited about the high-resolution imagery when they see that they have the ability to pull this layer into their map, overlaying their proprietary information on it,” Jones says. “This quality of data is very expensive. The state coordinates with the US Geological Survey [USGS] to make this base map publicly accessible.”

Rathert agrees.

“I’ve worked for clients who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to collect data like that,” says Rathert.

Collecting data remains one of the biggest hurdles to GIS efforts in Alaska.

“Alaska is really challenged by its size and its remoteness and rugged and complex terrain and ecosystems. It makes data collection and mapping difficult and really costly, quite frankly,” Jones says. “Alaska is different than the Lower 48. We’re our own unique snowflake.”

While maps are incredibly important to nearly every industry—and nearly everything else—those maps rely on geospatial data. And, in a lot of cases, that data simply doesn’t exist in Alaska, Jones says. Identifying those data gaps and finding funding to fill them is part of the work being tackled by the Alaska Geospatial Council.

“We’re always challenged to come up with creative ways to get to an end goal. And one of the ways we do that is coordinating across agencies to be more efficient and effective,” Jones says.

The end goal for Jones is to bring in all the publicly available, yet siloed, data from various agencies, government entities, and other stakeholders into one useful map.

“Building a map is like building a lasagna: you have all these different data layers,” Jones says.

In this way, interested parties—including businesses—are able to select a base map and then add any relevant data layers, such as wetlands or utilities.

“Data is generated across government agencies and jurisdictional entities, and bringing all that information together into a one map is really important, but that’s not an easy lift,” Jones says.

Tapping into New Tech
Another creative way the state is tackling issues with data deficiencies is through a program that is testing a new geospatial technology that gives users access to daily imagery across Alaska collected by satellites.

“With this technology we can task a satellite anywhere over Alaska to collect high resolution imagery,” Leslie says. “This technology is changing business operations. Instead of flying to a remote location to get boots on the ground, we can simply task a satellite to capture a high-resolution image from above.”

The state is testing the technology on a number of data points, including wildfires, timber sales, volcanic activity, and mining permits.

“The cost savings to modernizing business operations could be tremendous,” Jones says.

There are several other ongoing geospatial data collection initiatives in the state, including a coordinated effort with USGS to map all the streams, rivers, and lakes in Alaska over the next ten years.

Another project, spearheaded by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, is focused on wetlands, Jones explains.

“We’re getting close to completing statewide wetland mapping, which is really important for infrastructure development cost savings,” Jones says.

Making wetland inventory data available to the public and private sector can result in huge savings for a development project.

“One of the questions about drinking water is where does it come from? What could impact it? And that’s a spatial question, right? So GIS allows us to display that in a map for people to see and understand that it’s not just turning on the faucet in your home, but there’s source water associated with it… And activities on the land may impact that water.”
Charley Palmer
Hydrologist, Alaska Department
of Environmental Conservation
“Every bit of wetlands delineation work that gets done builds a broader basis that we can share to simplify and streamline projects going forward,” says Rob Clark, the GIS coordinator for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
Recent Efforts
A state-led program utilizing GIS is focused on mapping the source of public drinking water, explains Charley Palmer, a hydrologist with the DEC Conservation Drinking Water Source Protection.

“We rely on GIS to help get our message out and provide awareness of public drinking water systems in the state,” Palmer explains.

The data layers and maps of drinking water systems in the state created for the project help the team, outside consultants, contractors, and other agencies with planning and permitting for development projects.

Palmer says the Drinking Water Source Protection program reviewed and issued permits for about 600 projects last year and is on track to do the same this year.

“One of the questions about drinking water is where does it come from? What could impact it? And that’s a spatial question, right?” Palmer says. “So GIS allows us to display that in a map for people to see and understand that it’s not just turning on the faucet in your home, but there’s source water associated with it… And activities on the land may impact that water.”

Jones has also recently received funding to develop what she calls a “critical database and map dashboard” that can be used in emergency situations.

“We have all of these different data sets generated by different agencies and organizations, but bringing it all into a map that can be used to support decisions during emergency and crisis situations is really important,” Jones says. “It’ll be an extremely valuable tool to ensure that when multiple agencies go to respond to an emergency situation, we’re all using the same data to make a decision.”

The success of these projects—and future GIS projects in Alaska—require coordination and collaboration across various agencies and stakeholders.

“AGC facilitates that collaborative stakeholder engagement,” Jones says. “AGC brings all pertinent stakeholders together to work toward common goals.”

The other part of that process is creating a shared data framework, Jones says, which Rathert says is important.

“Having that data available from the agencies gives everybody a common picture of what we’re working with,” Rathert says.

A Myriad of Applications
Rathert explains that his clients always have lots of internal proprietary data, but that being able to see those layers in relation to other relevant data can make a huge difference when it comes to planning and developing new iterations of a design for a project.

Part of this planning comes down to regulatory compliance, which Clark says is a huge part of any project.

“If you’re working anywhere in the state, the first step is you got to see what kind of data is available for the area you’re working in,” Clark says.

This spatial data provides a snapshot of the sort of regulatory impact the project will have.

“When you think about natural resources or energy development, they use GIS for cost benefit analysis: locating new extraction sites, managing the infrastructure to get to that site, forecasting risks, thinking about environmental impacts from an ecological, social, cultural standpoint,” Jones says. “From a business perspective, choosing strategic market locations, improving productivity, optimizing supply-chains, or cutting costs just from automating workflows in a more efficient way.”

Cloud-based services and detailed public data in Alaska is creating an environment that is opening up GIS tools for smaller companies wanting to make these sorts of data driven decisions.

“Some of the newer tools are really useful for smaller businesses or smaller enterprises that don’t have a huge budget,” Rathert says.

In addition to the challenges all agencies using GIS in Alaska face when creating the data needed in the state, Jones says she also has the challenge of educating the public about what geospatial data really means for stakeholders.

Jones emphasizes how utilizing GIS to collect data allows businesses to optimize their operations in the field and automate workflows.

“I think that’s the one thing that people don’t understand. They think that GIS is just data on a map,” Jones says. “It’s actually a tool for creating a lot of efficiencies when it comes to business operations.”