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There's a Map For That 

What happens when old-school cartography meets new-school technology?

click to enlarge 618-Maps-btvhoods_overview.jpg

Bill Morris had a hunch any mention of “legislative reapportionment” would put the average Vermonter to sleep. But when the city of Burlington set out to redraw its ward boundaries earlier this year, Morris was uniquely positioned to make it more engaging — with maps.

The cartographer behind GeoSprocket built an online tool that allowed city residents to pencil in the boundaries of Burlington’s neighborhoods as they saw them. Where did the Old North End give way to the Intervale? Where did the Hill Section start and the downtown district end?

His premise was that Burlington didn’t really know where its distinctive neighborhoods began and ended — and he figured those boundaries, both formal and informal, had consequences for city services, politics and identity.

Thanks to Morris’ mapping tool, 120 Burlingtonians were able to add feedback about their neighborhood boundaries to this important but arcane civic rite. The map made the process not only more engaging, but also more democratic, and the results of the project are being included in the package of statistics, voter turnout patterns and various scenarios city councilors are considering. 

(Click here to view the final results.)

It’s a good example of the radical shift underway in the field of digital mapmaking. Even 10 years ago, mapping software was still incredibly expensive and difficult to use. Maps cost tens of thousands of dollars to make, and to share them, you had to print and distribute hard-copy versions.

That’s all changing very quickly. The maps of today are mobile, intuitive and fueled by a rapidly expanding catalogue of data to which laypeople — sometimes unknowingly — contribute.

What does that mean for Vermont’s map enthusiasts? From natural resource applications to civic engagement, new mapping technology is changing the way we do business. Crowd-sourced maps can pinpoint areas of significant damage after natural disasters. Better mapping technology is helping farmers mitigate pollution and giving scientists better tools for managing the environment.

“The evolution is pretty phenomenal,” says David Healy, vice president of Stone Environmental in Montpelier.

Vermont’s well poised to take advantage of new technology in the field. Back in the 1980s, the state recognized the utility of geographic information systems — commonly called GIS. The technology combined cartography, statistical analysis, and data collection and storage.

That put Vermont ahead of the curve, says Leslie Pelch, the outreach coordinator for the Vermont Center for Geographic Information. In 1988 the state tasked VCGI with collecting geographic data in an attempt make sure individual projects and companies weren’t duplicating efforts. It worked. Today VCGI — an agency started by the state that now runs as a public nonprofit — holds an enormous catalogue of local data sets, ranging from health and human services to climate information.

For a long time that data was primarily in the hands of trained experts working on complex, sometimes buggy software. The software got stronger and the tools more portable, but even as recently as five or six years ago most GIS required expensive proprietary software.

“GIS, it was clear at that point, was the realm of specialists,” says Morris, the GIS consultant behind the Burlington neighborhoods map and a champion of what he calls the “democratization” of mapping.

That started changing with MapQuest and the 2005 launch of Google Maps. Later that year, Google released the even more powerful and comprehensive Google Earth — an event Pelch calls the “Google Earth revolution.” For the first time, she says, your average web user could build his or her own map online without any sort of expert training. That opened the floodgates. Now there are a number of open-source mapping tools online ranging from fairly user-friendly options, like Google, to sophisticated tools such as the Quantum GIS project.

John Van Hoesen, an associate professor of geology and environmental studies at Green Mountain College, calls this shift from proprietary software to tools for the everyman “neo-geography.” Van Hoesen directs GMC’s new Community Mapping Lab, where community members bring real-world problems to GIS students. Together, they have made maps tracking local issues such as potential milfoil growth in Lake St. Catherine, food deserts in Rutland County and the migration routes of black bears and bobcats from the Adirondacks to the Green Mountains.

“Historically the community member would come in to me and say, ‘We need help,’ and then me, as the person with the GIS background, would say, ‘Okay,’” explains Van Hoesen. But he acknowledges an explosion of technology in the last six or eight months has altered that dynamic. “With these tools, and Google Earth and Google Maps are included in this, people can go out and make their own maps … that they don’t need an expert for anymore.”

The possibilities are seemingly endless. A teacher in Montpelier equipped his students with handheld GPS units and helped them map, identify and then eradicate invasive weeds. A tech-center instructor is using similar technology to monitor a sugar bush: His class will plot the locations of individual trees, monitor sap amounts and sugar count and then track any special treatments applied to areas of the sugar bush.

The ubiquity of new apps, online tools and DIY maps may make cartographers out of hobbyists — but cartographic expertise is by no means obsolete. Crowd-sourced data, for instance, feels “very out of control to GIS people,” says Pelch. After decades of being the authoritative sources on data collection and management, she calls the technology shift of the last few years “a culture change. It’s letting go, which is very difficult.”

That, argues Bill Hegman, a GIS specialist and teaching fellow at Middlebury College, is actually a good argument for continuing to train specialists. “Tools are only as good as the data behind them,” says Hegman. He points out that with a lot of new maps or apps, it’s hard to trust or verify that data. He argues the world still needs trained geographers versed in the sometimes complicated, messy and technical analysis that goes on behind the scenes of even the user-friendliest online maps.

Another concern is privacy; geographically-specific data is tied up in online and cellphone interactions such as text messages, Facebook updates and Twitter posts, and increasingly companies are “mining” that data for advertising.

“I think folks are correct to be very cautious,” says Morris. “We as a society, we as a technology-based world, we’re leaving behind data tracks that can be used and be mapped, and we don’t even know it sometimes.” Morris admits those trails could potentially be used for good or evil, though he tends to be generally optimistic.

“This is not a new question,” says Hegman. He saw concerns crop up 20 years ago, when the state of Vermont started digitizing parcel maps for individual towns. Some landowners worried that Big Brother was suddenly tracking individuals and ownership.

When it comes to privacy, Hegman says, “We need to continue to scrutinize it.”

In general, mapping enthusiasts seem more interested in imagining the frontiers for their fast-changing industry than in parsing the privacy debate. Which begs the question: What is coming next in a field that’s already seen such rapid growth?

Hegman thinks the next big wave of change will likely involve LIDAR — short for Light Detection and Ranging — that uses laser pulses to measure everything from wind potential to tree health and digital elevation. The remote sensing technology can collect incredibly detailed information that once required far more legwork. Now, Hegman says, a developer has to send a surveying team out to carefully map the contours and elevation of a potential subdivision — a costly proposition. Soon a small airborne drone outfitted with LIDAR technology will take care of that same job more quickly and affordably.

In fact, the Vermont Electric Power Company already uses LIDAR in the field — for instance, to identify vegetation that might be growing too close to their transmission lines. Similarly, Stowe-based Utility Risk Management Corporation uses LIDAR-equipped helicopters to predict changes in infrastructure along power lines due to load, temperature and other factors.

Healy predicts we’ll soon see GIS put to use for more real-time information. Imagine, he says, a map that tracks migrating whales and adjusts shipping channels accordingly to protect endangered species. Closer to home, he suspects a time will come when VTrans can alert drivers about higher-than-usual rates of deer or moose hits along a section of road. He thinks more cities will put their crime data on public maps with real-time updates. Such innovations could lead to specific, targeted solutions to problems for which taxpayers and businesses now pay dearly.

Moving forward, is there a place where amateur mapmakers and GIS specialists can meet? Most experts can picture it; just don’t ask them for the coordinates.

Bill Morris, David Healy, John Van Hoesen and VELCO’s Jarrod Harper will be part of a panel discussion on mapping technology on Friday, October 26, at 3 p.m. at the Vermont Tech Jam in Winooski’s Champlain Mill. Kathryn Flagg will moderate the discussion. Find more information about the panelists, and the topics they’ll explore, at techjamvt.com.

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About The Author

Kathryn Flagg

Kathryn Flagg

Bio:
Kathryn Flagg is a Seven Days staff writer. She completed a fellowship in environmental journalism at Middlebury College, and her work has also appeared in the Addison County Independent, Wyoming Public Radio and Orion Magazine. She lives in Shoreham with her husband and son.

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