Utah Mapping Partnership Aims to Build Live Data-Sharing Framework

The Mapping and Information Partnership also is working to focus the state's GIS solutions in important areas such as air quality, transportation, and water supply and resources, to name a few.

by / February 19, 2015
Evaporative ponds outside of Canyonlands National Park, Utah, pulled from that state's new high-resolution aerial photography, which is more than 40 times more detailed than previous imagery programs, will help the state make better, faster decisions.

A new partnership in Utah is looking to take geospatial understanding to the next level.

With new high-resolution imagery, the 14-entity Utah Mapping and Information Partnership -- which consists of state, regional and local government organizations -- plans to share its digital maps throughout government and with the public. Last year, the partnership was formed to use geospatial data to improve the flow of data and decision-making in the state, and to save government time and money. 

"The Utah Mapping and Information Partnership represents proactive government," said Wade Kloos, GIS director for the Department of Natural Resources. Kloos added that the partnership is also working to focus the state's GIS solutions in important areas for Utah, such as air quality, transportation, threatened species, and water supply and resources, as well as public safety and economic development, and topics where these areas compete or intersect.

To address state issues, the partnership wants to build a framework to enable live data-sharing between program databases, mostly in GIS formats, so data from across entities can be viewed as layers in a single map-based system. To accelerate this pursuit and other initiatives, the partnership is asking the state for a $600,000 one-time appropriation in Gov. Gary Herbert’s budget recommendation. 

"We want the information from the wildlife folks, archeological folks, regulation and permitting folks, and from across different agencies; we want it to feel like it's in one place," said Bert Branberg, the director of Utah's Automated Geographic Reference Center -- the state's technology mapping office. 

The data-sharing architecture, he said, will make it easier to understand and assess location-based risks since many program risks are similar and can be informed with the same data flows. All this location-based knowledge will enhance the state's work on risk maps, as well as increase the speed -- and lower the cost -- of doing business in Utah. 

Meanwhile, to prepare for data sharing, the partnership built an imagery foundation. The reference center led an effort for the partnership's purchase of a license for Google statewide high-resolution aerial photography. This consists of six-inch pixel images that -- upon their impending release -- can be embedded in mobile and Web-based applications, with a likely public viewing map portal to follow. 

Although the state launched a public map portal in 2011, it is limited to the download of data in file formats, Branberg said. But a new portal will pull from applications via Web services to stream the most important map data layers, also updating the state's open data portal.

Via the partnership, organizations statewide raised the $990,000 needed to fund the imagery acquisition, which is accessed through a cloud-based Web service, with information for applications stored locally.

The beauty of this border-to-border view of Utah is that public entities can build their own Web-mapping applications right on top, Kloos said. This differentiates it from the public, limited-use version of Google Earth, while still matching the quality of the private-sector version. 

"The thought is it's going to be a great way to see what's on the ground out in the field, on the public lands and in natural resource areas," Branberg said. 

Staff also will be able to download the data and access the maps offline in the field, and the imagery's detail will enable staff to make more decisions from their desks, saving trips to the field.

"Not all field data collection trips can be avoided," Kloos said, "but operationally, the use of this imagery bolsters state and local government's ability to make high-quality decisions faster and cheaper."

As the state pursues other initiatives, having the same platform will simplify the sharing of these maps, which are enhanced with better positional accuracy, he said, and updated every one to three years. 

Although the state previously snapped some six-inch pixel imagery of Utah's major metropolitan areas, that imagery makes up less than 2.5 percent of the state. The partnership estimates the new imagery is more than 40 times greater than the one-meter pixel resolution images from the USDA's free National Agriculture Imagery Program that staff members use to view Utah's remaining lands until the Google images are released. 

"Getting the highest resolution was our foremost driver," Branberg said, "so that is why we honed in on what Google was offering."

The state is hoping to make better decisions with the additional imagery clarity. Some examples include investigating concerns regarding state-owned resources like the water distribution system, and having more spatial knowledge for decisions such as where to drill vertical and horizontal oil and gas wells. In drilling one such well, seven state agencies and about 20 public issues within them must be addressed and managed, which is why the partnership has the goal of sharing programmatic GIS data among organizations. 

In addition to sharing the data, the partnership will also use the legislative appropriation, if approved, to improve the Public Land Survey System GIS data layer and create mobile-based field data collection solutions. 

If the partnership receives the funding, Kloos said it will thoughtfully direct the funds based on priorities and resources, and that it will be incumbent upon the partners to prove the value it can produce with the money. 

The partnership is made up of an executive steering committee and a GIS technical team -- Kloos and Branberg contribute to both entities. The makeup of the partnership is, in part, what's unique about it: Executive leaders are focused jointly on GIS in addressing the state's top issues, he said. 

"Use of spatial information guided at an executive level is rare and makes this really exciting," said Kloos. 

The partnership began about a year and a half ago when land-interested agencies like the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Transportation, among others, came together to collaborate on getting more value out of existing and future mapping technology. These entities had the most to gain in adopting GIS as a central component of their information systems, Kloos said, and knew that improving it could ultimately influence how work gets done.

"It didn't actually begin with a solution in mind," he added. "It began with knowing what they could do, and aspirations for doing things better." 

For its part, the Department of Natural Resources became a ground floor partner because of an awareness of the expanded possibilities from sharing and receiving GIS information with its investment in enterprise GIS with Esri. For example, regulation experts within the department facilitate exploration efforts in the Uintah Basin, but can't do so without input from others, such as the Department of Environmental Quality.

Then in 2014, things began taking shape -- the partnership created a charter and mutual commitment among members to work toward positive outcomes, and more entities joined, including regional governments, counties and additional agencies. Last fall, the partnership began seriously looking into high-resolution aerial photography options. 

The partnership has succeeded because of a commitment across government at the executive level, shown in dedication and interest in financial support, Branberg said, and it will continue to pursue GIS initiatives.  

"The executive leadership of the individual agencies involved," he added, "realize that there is a more efficient and larger impact to the success of their respective missions, gained from connecting expertise and information."

Jessica Hughes Contributing Writer

Jessica Hughes is a regular contributor to Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.