My Look Back on Geography Week 2013

By Casey J. McLaughlin

The traditional three Rs (Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic) should be the foundation of education and I like to think they all have a home in the wonderful thing we call Geography.  The National Geographic Society sponsors Geography Awareness Week, which was last week!  GIS day anchors the week (every 3rd Wednesday of November since 1999) and is a time for spatial celebration!  Last year I presented EPA’s GIS work along with a bit of my own opinion about general GIS.  This year, I attended the morning session at the 12th annual GIS Day at the University of Kansas.  During the long walk back to my car (is any campus parking friendly?), I thought about how the presentations frame where GIS is today.  I am, as usual, brought back to the idea that Geography is the center of the universe and GIS has a place in modern technology.

GIS is a hub for multi-disciplinarian work.  Geography not only provides physical context (through location) but also methods for organizing, accessing, and understanding the world.  Much of the work we do at USEPA is focused on place; a place where pollution has happened, a place where pollution would be very dangerous, a place where people should be protected, a place where water should be protected.  Place is critical to protecting human health and the environment.  Geography involves understanding place and the relationships between places and people.

“Earth is the Metaphor for organizing information” Michael Goodchild (Author and Professor)

A map is a record of a place.  Like a place is more than where stuff happens, a map is more than just a record, it can facilitate our understanding of the world.  Microsoft Bing Maps Architect Blaise Aquera Y Arcas has given two really good TED talks that I highly recommend.  He helped crystallize for me the idea that a map is more than just a catalog of places but also the canvas, the library, and the laboratory for understanding our environment.

“The map as Information Ecology” Blaise Aquera Y Arcas (Microsoft Bing Maps Architect)

GIS is central to modern technology. I first started learning about GIS during college in the mid-90’s and the first definition I read (Peter Burrough and Rachel McDonnell) specified a GIS as “a powerful set of tools for collecting, storing, retrieving at will, transforming, and displaying spatial data.”  Wow, I thought, GIS is a fantastic tool.  I later found out, however, that GIS could often be found in the basement – organizations had GIS groups but they occupied whatever left over spaces facilities had. While some saw the value of GIS, others only saw that it as a co$tly sub-group of planning.  For decades, GIS has been its own thing that was associated more with co$t than with inve$tment.

Despite being relegated to the basement or other windowless backroom, GIS is now main-stream.  Maps have long held an important place in planning, personal computers brought geospatial analysis into the business world.  Mobile devices, cloud resources, and cheap processing power have helped put geospatial into everyone’s hands.  Each time we use the location features on our personal devices we’re using GIS.  Everyone is holding location in their hands and spatial thinking is part of our normal day.  Paul Ramsey illustrates this best by declaring his team doesn’t do GIS anymore, they do spatial INFORMATION technology.  Location is and should be integrally woven into the fabric of decision making.

“We don’t do GIS, we do spatial IT on the spatial web” Paul Ramsey (Founder of PostGIS)

EPA is evolving too. I’ve worked with the government for a full decade now (yeah, being on campus changes my perspective on my age experience) and change takes time; but even the government changes.  A simple example is the Facility Registry System which consolidates information from a number of internal databases into our “one-stop source for Environmental Information.”  (Read about FRS in my blog entry, Where is that Facility.)  The simple idea is that before we started looking (spatial thinking) at maps of facility location the raw location data was all over the map!  Cleaning up this data, spatially, was a first step, but has to improved quality control, data update routines, and data access procedures.  I’m very encouraged by Federal efforts to use and share spatial data (National Map, Drought Monitor, NEPAssist).  Place is a powerful idea because we all have it and we keep moving from one place to another.  GO GIS!

FRS Locations

Looking at a map of uncorrected facility locations highlights why looking at a map can illustrate why knowing place is critical to making decisions about pollution and human health.

Casey McLaughlin is a first generation Geospatial Enthusiast who has worked with EPA since 2003 as a contractor and now as the Regional GIS Lead. He currently holds the rank of #1 GISer in EPA Region 7′s Environmental Services Division.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

EPA Region 7’s GIS VIP

By Shawn Henderson

After several attempts at college, including the part-time approach, I decided in the mid 2000’s to start taking full-time classes and finish up my degree.  I knew that I wanted computers to be my major, because I love technology, but I also had a strong affinity for geo-sciences.  Not knowing much about geographic information systems (GIS) at the time, it seemed to be the perfect mix of geography, geology, and computers and therefore tailored specifically to my interests.  I thought GIS was just going to be about map making, but I had a lot to learn.  I was in the first pure GIS class that my alma mater, Park University offered.  At the time there was no dedicated computer lab, and the text book was less than helpful, but it was interesting.  I remember that in the computer lab on the main floor of the science buildingpark there were only five computers with ArcGIS licenses; we had to fight other students who were working on reports in MS Word to get access to the software we needed.  Park’s Professor David Fox did the best with what resources were at his disposal, and he made the class really interesting and enjoyable.  I developed a good relationship with Dave.  One afternoon I was frustrated and fed up with the turn-over of professors in the Computer Science program back then, so I asked him if he would be my unofficial advisor. He agreed.  From then on, we were good.

 

One afternoon I had enough of my computer programming class and decided to go for a stroll to clear my mind.  I had been working on a user interface class but, the buttons and layout were not lining up. I wanted to throw the computer across the room.  I walked over by the library and found an advertisement for an EPA summer intern program.  At this point I had applied for a dozen internships and I chuckled to myself that I had absolutely no chance, but I also figured that I had nothing to lose.  It just so happened that I had a certification in MS Access, and a group at EPA was looking for an intern to develop a tracking database in Access.  I applied, the stars aligned, and I was accepted for the internship.

 

I quickly finished the tracking database, and I was able to detail into the Region’s GIS group and onto our Aqua Team with fellow colleagues like Roberta Vogel-Leutung and Laura Webb.  I transitioned into the Student Career Employment Program and was offered a full time position with the Agency after I graduated.  Sometime after that, my supervisor and I were brainstorming about GIS and we wondered if we could leverage my knowledge of Park’s program (which requires an internship) to offer their students a more robust GIS experience at EPA.   I approached Dave Fox with the idea, and he thought it was a fantastic approach.   Thus was born our GIS VIP (VOLUNTARY INTERNSHIP with PARK).  From there our program has blossomed with more than 15 students working on EPA GIS projects.

 

Map completed by Park Intern

Map completed by Park Intern

The experience of working with these students has been amazing!  There has been a variety of unique personalities come through the door.  I have had students that were worried and timid at the beginning, but by the end they were confidant and ready to save the world with GIS.  I’ve also had students come through to find out how much database/computer work is involved and realize that the real world experience of GIS isn’t something they want to head towards as a career goal.  In the end, not all the projects end up like we planned, but the experience the students and EPA staff get from these projects is invaluable.  Students have had the opportunity to work with EPA staff which provides them with professional experience and contacts.  In return the Agency gets a fresh look on things with young enthusiastic students and volunteer assistance on projects of substance.

Besides our work with Park, the Agency has several other voluntary opportunities.  Currently EPA Region 7’s Office of Public Affairs, is seeking a volunteer intern to work on social media coordination who is motivated, hard-working, and interested in helping the EPA protect human health and the environment.   You can find out all the details here.  Additionally our Superfund program is seeking two volunteer interns to work on separate projects found here and here.  These are great opportunities to build skills and your resume.  Heck my old boss  Jeffery Robichaud, also a fellow blogger, did his own volunteer internship with EPA in Philadelphia 20 years ago.

Shawn Henderson is an Environmental Protection Specialist with the Environmental Assessment and Monitoring Branch of the Environmental Services Division. He is a part of the Aqua Team, and conducts water quality sampling around the Region’s four states.  He has a Computer Science degree from Park University and helped to develop the Region’s KCWaterBug app and kcwaters.org.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Moving the Arch

By Casey J. McLaughlin

Remotely sensed data is a popular background for many maps today, but it isn’t all just a pretty picture.  Images produced by satellite or airplane get processed and circulated at a very fast pace – everyone wants the latest and greatest.  Speed often means ortho-rectification isn’t a high priority.  Wikipedia gives a simple write up of the process:

An orthophoto, orthophotograph or orthoimage is an aerial photograph geometrically corrected (“orthorectified”) such that the scale is uniform: the photo has the same lack of distortion as a map. Unlike an uncorrected aerial photograph, an orthophotograph can be used to measure true distances, because it is an accurate representation of the Earth’s surface, having been adjusted for topographic relief,[1] lens distortion, and camera tilt.

Geospatial data can be a little more complicated than just having a latitude and longitude.  We model the earth in two-dimensional space (the globe is an imperfect sphere) and we’re still relying on planar map views (flat) even on our screens of choice.  Geospatial data should, therefore, contain good information about how that locational data (e.g. latitude and longitude) is collected and stored.  I’ve commented previously on the challenges of managing spatial data (datums, cell vs gps, projections, field data) and now I present, “The Case of the Moving Arch.”

A few summers ago we visited the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri.  After dipping my foot into the Mississippi, we ran around on the grounds of the park.  It’s a great monument although I confess I didn’t take the long and cramped ride to the top.  After my stroll through memory lane, I got back to thinking about imagery and plotted a reference point.  The graphic below shows a few years as seen using Google Earth’s historical imagery catalogue – as far as I can tell GE is still the best place for doing this exercise.

Nostalgia and the joy of Google Earth aside, notice how the arch “moves” in the images!  In both the 2011 images the Arch run south into the 2011 portion of my label.  August might have fewer letters than September or November, but the Arch is clearly running off the picture well to the left/east of the image!

Are you amazed yet?  I would hope not but thought I would check.  I saw the impact of this image distortion when I was reviewing some images with an inspector plotting some of his photographs onto a map using aerial imagery (the photos were geotagged with a lat/lon).   For this particular facility there were several images taken from a catwalk.  He placed the image location point onto a map (not Google in this case, FYI) and the location was definitely not on the cross-walk (more like walking on air).  Eventually, we found a satisfactory picture for the report but I’m left wondering if I had taken a photograph and not geotagged it in the field, which image could I use for adding an accurate latitude/longitude?

Normal-color kite aerial photograph of the upland study forest, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, May 2000. Oblique view toward the south shows a fully developed forest canopy. Kansas Geological Survey Current Research in Earth Sciences, Bulletin 248, Part 1

Perhaps I’m getting into geography minutia, but there is more and more finer resolution imagery available than ever before.  Satellites and planes and kites (yes, kites) are acquiring imagery faster and finer (gigapixels!) and this trend will only continue.  In the movie “Enemy of the State” Will Smith’s character (Robert Dean) is tracked in real-time by satellite (drone maybe, but satellite?!?).  If we envision using remotely sensed imagery with such detail (seeing a dime on the street is another example) then knowing the distortion and resulting precision/accuracy seems rather important.

Casey McLaughlin is a first generation Geospatial Enthusiast who has worked with EPA since 2003 as a contractor and now as the Regional GIS Lead. He currently holds the rank of #1 GISer in EPA Region 7′s Environmental Services Division.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Shifting Without Datum Documentation

By Casey J. McLaughlin

Most of us take for granted that latitude and longitude always mean the same place on a map but is that true?  I started thinking about GPS points and how a simple hand held (or my phone) may have an error of +/- several feet.  Now I am wondering if the fuss I make about specifying Datum is worthwhile….

Claudius Ptolemy: The World, 1482 (Wikipedia)

A Datum, defined by Webster’s is generally “something used as a basis for calculating or measuring.”  Ah ha! I had never thought outside of the geographic usage of the word but I find understanding word roots can be quite helpful.  What I really mean is what impact a Geodetic Datum has on latitude/longitude pairs.  A Geodetic Datum is “the reference point for the various coordinate systems used in mapping the earth” (Geography.about.com).  The Earth isn’t perfectly round and geodetic datums form the mathematical basis for modeling our home.

Meades Range Marker, Kansas (geocaching.com)

There are several datums which I see most frequently; NAD27, NAD83, and WGS1984.  The NAD27 (North American Datum 1927) is interesting from a Region 7 perspective because its origin point is a survey point in Kansas – Meades Ranch (approx. 39.224087, -98.542152).   Just for reference, the geometric center of the contiguous U.S. is also in Kansas! Once we began using high precision remote sensing technology, we needed a new datum – NAD83 (North American Datum 1983) was born.  NAD83 has its origin defined by the Earth’s center of mass.  The two systems are different enough that a given latitude/longitude could be several meters off – depending on the distance from the datum!  Today, the World Geodetic System (WGS) 1984 Web Mercator is commonly used – I believe most major web platforms use it.

The main point I’m getting at here is that documenting the coordinate system information of geospatial data IS important.  I have seen more than one dataset come in without proper documentation.  To map it, I have to assume what datum is used – it wasn’t recorded.  Please, if you’re collecting spatial data, don’t complicate it with incomplete information!  Documenting our data collections is vital for using data with confidence and ensuring future data reuse.

For more information on Geodesy and such, check out:

Casey McLaughlin is a first generation Geospatial Enthusiast who has worked with EPA since 2003 as a contractor and now as the Regional GIS Lead. He currently holds the rank of #1 GISer in EPA Region 7′s Environmental Services Division.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Should I replace my GPS with my Cell Phone?

By Casey J. McLaughlin

Casey’s Take Homes:

  • Cell phones combine GPS (Global Position System) with other location technologies.
  • There are Multiple ways of determining location.
  • Date use determines requirements (accuracy and precision).

Inside a Washington D.C. metro station by C.McLaughlin (2012)

Walking around Washington D.C. recently, I thought to myself, this is just like walking in the woods!   No really, I made the connection because I was trying to use GPS navigation and not having great luck (it could be my service but I am also illustrating a point here).   Cities and forests both contain tall objects that obscure those magical satellites.  Now my phone IS smart and does not rely solely on GPS satellites but also calculates my location using cell towers and Wi-Fi base stations.  The precision is more than enough to navigate around the city.

I have been quite happy with my cell phone’s ability to map and find locations – new to me this summer.  I successfully got where I wanted to go using the default mapping application (Google Maps).  I easily found nearby museums and restaurants.  It helped me enjoy an unfamiliar city.  I have begun using the location tools on my phone for more than just getting directions – I now keep track of time, distance, and route of my runs and have started geo-tagging family photographs.  Who knew mobile technology would be so fun!

This post is not about extolling my new found enjoyment of having a smart phone (yes, I’m late to the party) but rather I’m thinking about the usefulness of cell phone locations for various work-related purposes.  At EPA, we follow, as best we can, specific data collection and documentation methods.  For example, every latitude/longitude point should be maintained to six significant digits.  Each point also has a horizontal collection method such as “Address Matching – House Number” or “GPS” or “Photo Interpretation.”  Now, this is partially because the official guidance needs updating (or is in process already).  The point here is not the details of what is IN the specification but rather what is NOT.  Cell phones, because they use a combination of techniques return a value for which we cannot easily determine precision or accuracy.

What is precision and accuracy?

Back to my cell phone, I guess I have two problems.  I do not know how well my phone is locating a position and since I do not know the methods, I am unsure how I should properly document the location.  Neither of these really diminishes the intrinsic value of using a phone for location, but EPA has more rigid documentation burdens that make using a phone for location more difficult.

I can use my cell phone for determining location, but I cannot replace my GPS because I am unsure I can document it sufficiently….yet. Is this an apps problem, a device problem, or a method problem?

Casey McLaughlin is a first generation Geospatial Enthusiast who has worked with EPA since 2003 as a contractor and now as the Regional GIS Lead. He currently holds the rank of #1 GISer in EPA Region 7′s Environmental Services Division.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

New Place, New Signs

By Jeffery Robichaud

Yesterday was the first day in the new office.  My things all arrived.  I have unpacked.  I found the restroom.  For those of you who were left with a cliffhanger based on my last post, this is my view out my new window (which actually looks out on a window which looks out on the windows across our courtyard).

In a meeting yesterday our Regional Administrator told Senior Staff about his trip to Joplin Missouri last week for an event with the City marking the additional funds EPA is providing for sampling and remediation of contaminated soils disturbed by the May 2011 Tornado.  It didn’t show in the directions he generated online, but the RA certainly noticed the lack of street signs as he doubled back a few times before making the correct turns to arrive at the event.  The city is doing a wonderful job rebuilding, but with 2000 signs to replace, the City has had its hands full.

Driving in to our new office yesterday in the dark, to a part of the metropolitan area that I rarely visit, I really had to pay attention to the signs without the benefits of the few landmarks I knew to help guide me.   It got me thinking, is reading street signs starting to become a lost art, just like reading a map?  The proliferation of GPS in cars and phones now give you turn by turn directions.  GoogleMaps or BingMaps will give you a route with turn by turn instructions and even provide you with streetside views of those turns and your destination.  Some GPS units let you even choose the voice (one of the guys here has Darth Vader…he says for his kids but I’m not too sure).

With the explosion of these devices, for those of you with kids, do you think you could hand your own kids a map and have them navigate while you drove?  I know my Dad would hand us the maps while on vacation to help navigate (partly I’m sure as a way to keep my brother and me from fighting).   Are navigation instructions from hand held devices keeping us from making sense of maps and even leading us in the wrong direction? 

My wife and I started watching a new show called Revolution a couple weeks back.  In a nutshell, it is a post-apocalyptic world, if the apocalypse was caused by all electricity ceasing to be.   The characters do quite a bit of walking and one character says to the other, something to the effect, “I’ll meet you at this small town in Indiana in a couple weeks.”  In last week’s episode, while more walking was taking place, the second character pulls out a crinkled paper map to check their progress.  It wasn’t lost on me that this character’s back story was as an executive at Google.  Just another reason to teach your kids how to read a map.

About the Author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second generation EPA scientist who has worked for the Agency since 1998. He currently serves as Deputy Director of EPA Region 7′s Environmental Services Division.  He will miss his view of Kaw Point.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Office Geography and our Move

By Jeffery Robichaud

Most people hate moving, but I don’t mind. I’ve done it so many times throughout my life that my natural urge towards anxiety and trepidation that usually accompanies such an event dulled long ago. In a little over a month EPA Region 7 is moving its Regional Office from 901 North 5th St in Kansas City, KS to 11201 Renner Boulevard in Lenexa, KS. Our laboratory will still be located at 300 Minnesota Avenue in Kansas City, KS, but most staff will have a new place to hang their hat. There are all sorts of geospatial analysis that I could look at regarding our move such as comparisons of amenities, travel times, weather patterns, but I think the more interesting geospatial aspect of the move is going to be what I’ll refer to as office-geography…the geography inside our new building.

Our Current and New Locations for our Regional Office and our Regional Laboratory

Most of you are probably saying to yourself, Jeff come on…there is this whole occupation called architecture. Yeah I know but stay with me. If geographers study the spatial and the temporal distribution of “stuff” and the interaction of humans and their environment, doesn’t that mean this same spatial study can be accomplished on a really small scale, say in an office setting.

Jeff this is Mike Brady. Don't you remember my profession?

Architects lay out the plans (physical geography) of the building, but only upon moving in will we know how humans (my coworkers) interact with their environment (the new digs). Which hallways are going to be the highways that receive the most traffic, which will be the lonely gravel roads? How close will I be to the store (aka supply room)? Which common areas will become the gathering places? Likewise which will be the oasis for quiet contemplation? Will the busy periods in the lunch room subtly change as staff work hours shift based on their new proximity to the office? Will I get along with my new neighbors? (I’m thinking I better say yes since my shop is located next to the Regional Administrator)

 Sure a lot of this is tongue in cheek, but it makes our point that most things can always be viewed through a geospatial lens.  Viewing challenges, whether they be environmental or in this case organizational, through such alens can help us make better informed decisions. 

Our move to our Lenexa office spotlights a new challenge for me (I will be positive and assume our drought lets up).   Taking into account the geography of the parking lot, my location in the building, the employee entrances, and the traffic and employee patterns, when will I have to arrive at work to ensure that I won’t need an umbrella to walk (not run) from my car to the front door?  Whether one consiously or subconsiously jumps through these mental hoops, this is geospatial analysis.  I’m sure I will have some profound observations to share come October, but until then I better get busy finding some tubes to store maps for our move.

About the Author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second generation EPA scientist who has worked for the Agency since 1998. He currently serves as Deputy Director of EPA Region 7’s Environmental Services Division.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Getting a Good Spatial Location

By Casey McLaughlin

How can we get an accurate spatial location for mapping property sampling?  Is an address enough? Is collecting a latitude/longitude location enough?  EPA samples properties for a variety of reasons but for the sake of this post, let’s assume we are sampling several properties adjacent to a recent chemical fire.  Samplers get property access by knocking on doors and having owners sign an access agreement.  After completing their work, a sampler will have a field sheet, an address, and often times a latitude and longitude (from GPS).  Field work done!

The job is not quite finished, however, until we turn that information into actionable intelligence – information we can use!  For me, the best way to use the field information is to first see it displayed in a map.  Others may see this data in other formats, but a map is a great tool for understanding the situation.  Does a map show us that the location data collected in the field is good enough?  Let’s look at this example to find out:

Figure 1

Figure 1 highlights three pieces of information that we like having: Parcel Lines, GPS locations, and the final points.  The parcel lines can be a great source of information and look great for making maps, but are not always available for all projects.  I prefer starting a project with parcels and narrowing the relevant area down, but that is not usually possible.  What I often get from field staff are either addresses or latitude/longitude coordinates.  In my opinion, both have their issues as shown by the blue dots on the map. Look at blue points B and blue C.  The GPS location could have been taken from the end of the driveway where there are fewer trees, but on the map I might find it difficult knowing which polygon is B and which is C.  The white B and C points clearly illustrate their relationship to each residential dwelling.

Figure 2

Take note of how zooming the map out (figure 2) will quickly cause overlapping points.  Also note that only three samples were taken (perhaps not everyone was home), therefore it would be easy to overlook the other properties in the cul-de-sac that may need sampling.  Matching points with an authoritative properties dataset can easily show us which properties may still need sampling.

There are a number of mechanisms for determining spatial locations, including GPS, mobile phones, surveying, and addresses. Each can be used, but choosing the right method should be determined by considering both the immediate field needs and long-term project needs such as creating general site maps, point maps, area maps, or public information maps.

Casey McLaughlin is a first generation Geospatial Enthusiast who has worked with EPA since 2003 as a contractor and now is the Regional GIS Lead. He currently holds the rank of #1 GISer in the EPA Region 7′s Environmental Services Division.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Maps Give Me What I Need

By Casey McLaughlin

I put too much information on maps.  When I create a map, I want as much as I can get.  I have seen several maps of London associated with the 2012 Olympics and there is no shortage of stunning visuals of the Olympic locations.  Mapping, for me, is always interesting and this year’s Olympics provide several great examples of different maps.  Microsoft Bing recently highlighted expanded UK transit directions and their new images of the London Olympic Stadium, The London Olympics Map by MylondonMap.com repackages Google Maps but flipping over a tab on their website, I found they have a dedicated transportation map, the London Tube Map, which depicts tube lines around Olympic Venues.   Maps with imagery are great because they combine real visuals of the area.  Flipping the imagery on or viewing the street map versions of the popular platforms makes traveling so much easier!  Seeing great imagery helps users become comfortable with a place before visiting.  For me, it provides an arm-chair traveler a visual glimpse of what these fantastic places really look like.  The bloggers at Google Earth Blog detail capture the ways one may use Google Earth to explorer London through maps, aerial images, StreetView and 3d models.

None of these views, however, helps me figure out where I want to go as easily as the fun London’s Olympic Venues by Londontown.com.

Amusement park based maps are a fantastic way of highlighting important features.  The mapmaker directs viewers by emphasizing attractions by size, color, activity.  Relative relationships between features define the map navigation; much like when my father gave me directions: “Turn left at the yellow billboard after you pass the old gas station.”  The Londontown map doesn’t burden me with extraneous locations.   I only get what I need for moving around at the Olympics.

No map can contain all the information I want – well, it can contain it, but seeing it all at once becomes chaotic.   The lesson I am learning is: keep it simple.

Treasure map from stock.xchng

Treasure map from stock.xchng

Casey McLaughlin is a first generation Geospatial Enthusiast who has worked with EPA since 2003 as a contractor and now is the Regional GIS Lead. He currently holds the rank of #1 GISer in the EPA Region 7′s Environmental Services Division.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Keep in Touch with Your Past

By Casey McLaughlin

What happens to collected data?  Every day, the world is stockpiling vast amounts of data and often this data has a spatial component tying it to a specific location on the earth.   For environmental data, the spatial location is a fundamental component.  Geospatial defines the context of a single piece of data and the relationship it has with other nearby data. The general growth in data may seem obvious in our increasingly technical world (smart phones are data making machines).  We are very concentrated on collecting data about where we are right now (real time sensors, crowd sourcing, traffic counts).  Historical data can and should place newer data in context.

EPA, formed in the early 1970s has collected and maintained a mountain of environmental data.  I am familiar with our region’s cleanup program records; along with tabular data (sampling dates, results, QA/QC information) we also collect spatial data in the form of latitude/longitudes, addresses, aerial surveys, sampling plans, excavation maps.  Unfortunately, keeping data is not simple.  Technology has continuously improved.

Wikipedia Cassette Tape Image

Tell me about this music? Who recorded it? Where is my favorite song?

Data collection techniques and sensors have advanced.  Systems have changed.  Data and technology have evolved so that retrieving data from an old database technology may not be possible.  How can I get data from a 5 ¼” floppy disk?  Think about having a stack of old cassette tapes.  How would you get songs into your digital library (easily)?  Imagine the label has worn off 100 cassettes – how would you know where a specific song was located on just one of those tapes?

Old data technology is just one of many complications to using historical and modern data.  Over the last 15 years, EPA has put forth a tremendous effort in digitizing reports.  Certainly electronic record-keeping is superior to paper records????  Don’t get me wrong, electronic records are crucial — hello, I’m an information specialist! Not all electronic formats, however, are appropriate for data analysis.  Can you run a correlation between the data in an archived (paper or scanned) report with new data?  What about using a FoxPro database stored on a 3 ½” diskette (this happened to me a few years ago and it took me awhile to FIND a machine with a disk drive).  How can managers compare post-excavation sampling locations (often represented on multiple versions of a map) with a proposed residential development?  What do you do when you encounter an over-sized map which is now in the electronic record as an “Unscanned Item”?

Using data from the past with data from the future is not trivial and geospatial data has some special considerations beyond technology.  Resolution of aerial imagery may be coarse, but without a time machine, we don’t have the option of re-acquiring imagery from 1950 (talk to me later about a T.A.R.D.I.S.)!  Geo-referencing old photos or CAD drawings can be problematic because of projection complications (oh, what a GIS topic!) and lack of reproducible local control points.  Avoiding the gruesome details, properly dealing with old geospatial data requires some thought and expertise.

Keeping data is not the same as being able to use data in the future.

Most every EPA project report has an element of spatial data.   Having a map electronically may not be good enough for using it with new data in the future.  Properly acquiring spatial data helps make informed decisions now.  Properly maintaining and storing spatial data will help make future decisions better.

Casey McLaughlin is a first generation Geospatial Enthusiast who has worked with EPA since 2003 as a contractor and now as the Regional GIS Lead. He currently holds the rank of #1 GISer in EPA Region 7′s Environmental Services Division.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.