Total Solar Eclipse 2017: How Data, Mapping Technologies Are Helping State, Local Oregon Agencies Prepare

State and local agencies in Oregon, where the solar eclipse will first reach the United States, have partnered for the past year to identify best uses for geospatial and mapping technology.

by / August 17, 2017
The public-facing side of the state of Oregon's Raptor application offers visitors access to a variety of 2017 solar eclipse information including the path of totality, live traffic updates and wildfire locations.

Celestial events may have inspired fear and wonder in ancient man, but in Oregon — the first U.S. region to see the total solar eclipse on Monday, Aug. 21 — readiness is the watchword for state and local officials who have spent a year planning how they will work together to make better use of existing technology.

The state expects roughly 1 million visitors for the solar eclipse, according to a recent news release announcing mobilization of agencies including its Office of Emergency Management, the Oregon Health Authority and the National Guard.

On Monday, Aug. 14, Gov. Kate Brown issued Executive Order 17-14, letting agencies suspend rules if needed to mitigate effects of the eclipse, and declaring a state of emergency enabling personnel to seek help from “other jurisdictions” to “facilitate the life and safety missions” they may carry out during the eclipse.

Residents and visitors should know, the governor said in a statement, “that state agencies, along with our local, tribal and federal partners, have extensively planned and are well-coordinated” for the event.

Municipal and state IT officials told Government Technology that their offices have long discussed potential scenarios and forged new partnerships with scores of agencies.

ArcGIS technology from Redlands-based Esri, which lets officials make and share maps, underpins and informs their efforts. So well ahead of Monday’s event — which is already swelling highways, hotels and campsites — officials have focused on enhancing maps and online services they provide through it.

Esri’s Director of National Government Industries Chris McIntosh said the company began to have substantially more eclipse conversations with public agencies nationwide about four months ago — but of them all, Oregon is in a truly unique position.

“There’s no opportunity for them to look at what happens elsewhere and make adjustments. Being first, they don’t have that luxury, so they’ve had to be even more proactive and leaning forward,” McIntosh said, praising the state for being a national “leader” for its work in its Real-time Assessment and Planning Tool (Raptor) app. 

The state deployed Raptor atop ArcGIS technology in 2010 to let Web users add and edit incident information, including datasets, images and shapefiles. Visitors can also access live data and traditional map layers, and search geographic areas of interest.

The public-facing side of Raptor utilizes Esri’s public information map template, whereas its internal app relies on the company’s Web builder template customized for the state’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and its partners. The EOC will increase staffing in the days before and after the event, and IT staff will be on an enhanced watch status in case they’re needed.

Daniel Stoelb, GIS program coordinator for the state's Office of Emergency Management (OEM), spearheaded eclipse-related modifications based on feedback from other agencies.

Among them, Stoelb said he created an additional GIS data layer, Solar Eclipse Events and Camping, that allows people to add information about eclipse-related events, as well as view, edit and chart current eclipse events using a geoform.

Users simply complete an online form and pick a location, and their event is automatically updated in the data layer, appearing on Raptor’s public side — but also internally in the state's operations center. In recent weeks, the number of events listed has incrased from around 150 to more than 500.

“The big key items that we were after were eclipse events, you know, where are people going to be staying, where are people going to be having events,” Stoelb said.

Cory Grogan, state OEM public information officer, said that “just about all of our campsites and hotels have been reserved for a long time,” and private land has been rented out for events.

“There are events all over Oregon," he said. "When we start talking about this, we need to think about things like traffic for one; health considerations, making sure that local businesses and local cities and counties are stocked up to handle all the tourism."

The state is also charting the eclipse’s path of totality — the shadow cast as the moon obscures the sun — via Raptor, and has added internal tracking via Raptor for public works assets deployed during the event.

Elsewhere, a Live Traffic data layer shows highway congestion levels, while two wildfire and two air quality data layers document a busy wildfire season with six fires burning in or near the path of totality as of Thursday, Aug. 17.

Public-facing eclipse updates went live in May and June, while the website, promoted earlier this month with a Facebook Live event, had more than 1,000 views during the week of Aug. 7. Stoelb emphasized the significance of agency collaborations and what Raptor updates could mean for the future.

“This was a major collaboration effort between us, our local emergency managers, state agencies, federal partners and even the private sector for destination marketing. The capability that we added into this system was actually kind of a first, and really started to tie our operations center and Raptor together to really interact and display critical information for our partners,” Stoelb said.

“Over time, we’ve really been trying to bridge the gap between the two systems and now, the data-gathering effort that we have created for the eclipse events is something that we can reproduce for any other special event in the future. Or anything that needs to rise to a state significance,” he added.

The eclipse’s cost to the state isn’t clear, but Grogan said its economic benefits are expected to outweigh its costs.

One municipal agency with which the state is working closely is its capital city of Salem, roughly one hour south of Portland.

Officials there don’t have their own Raptor app — but they, too, have utilized Esri’s ArcGIS for years and have access to state information streams. Salem officials have also been preparing for the eclipse since last year, assembling an Eclipse Data Team of officials from across city departments to coordinate a response.

Kenny Larson, the city’s communications manager, told Government Technology that response to the eclipse has been “unprecedented,” with anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 visitors expected.

With stargazing crowds in mind, the city debuted an eclipse information website on Monday, June 12. It features everything from parking information to park rules, food safety tips to live traffic updates and event listings, plus a look at what public agencies are doing to prepare for the event.

“We have several public maps available on our city of Salem website. And we also utilize the ArcGIS online platform and we call it Salem Maps Online,” said Daniel M. Brown, the city’s enterprise GIS technical lead.

Privately, Salem will keep a close eye on happenings as well, Brown said, “mapping a variety of data internally for our own internal uses to manage the event.”

Officials are aware of many planned events in the region, and are tracking those as well as lodging statistics internally via GIS, according to Susan Ross Blohm, enterprise services manager in the city’s IT department.

“We will have people out in the field making field observations where the Eclipse Data Team will update those population estimates as we go. We’re trying to track our real-time population, trying to estimate how many people we do have in the city so we can gauge our response and services,” Blohm said.

Officials are particularly interested in ensuring visitors are properly prepared, and in monitoring traffic, Larson said.

“I think we’re all excited to see it, because we’re putting so much effort and energy into getting everything crafted that we’re excited to see this come to fruition and put it into real practice,” he said.

Salem’s Blohm said the preparation agencies have done could change the way users think about GIS.

“And I'm excited to see GIS used to bridge that gap of communications," she said. "To see that technology in action, I think, will help people make that realization that GIS is more than a map."

And Esri's McIntosh said that interoperability between state and local systems should be key to achieving that.

“What these technologies do is allow people to bring information in from many different sources," he said. "All of this stuff is dynamic and alive. In the eclipse, those kinds of things are going to be critical.”

Theo Douglas Staff Writer

Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.