How GIS Imagery Can Unlock New Possibilities for Government

I’m sure most of us remember using a satellite imaging application for the first time, zooming in on our house or office building and marveling at the level of detail. While that was certainly impressive at the time, the possibilities offered by geographic information system (GIS) technology today put to shame such basic functionality. At the recent GovLoop event Imagery in Action: How GIS Can Help Gov Identify, Discover, and Decide, several experts discussed the exciting ways in which this technology is helping us find new and innovative solutions for various problems.

Esri’s Kyle Talbot kicked things off with a fascinating look at the mapping and analytical possibilities offered by GIS. Focusing on a military base in Iran, he tracked multiple images of the same spot over time to see how the area grew and evolved. In addition to this 2D imaging, 3D imaging constructed using metadata from the images themselves allowed him to create an entire topographical model of the base, down to such details as the blind spots of the anti-aircraft guns. Although this specific example involved military intelligence, such mapping has an incredibly wide range of applications, from civil engineering to disaster preparedness, and it has already begun redefining the way we solve problems.

Another important aspect of GIS was discussed by Radiant Solution’s Evan Caldwell, who introduced the National Urban Change Indicator (NUCI), a tool for tracking the development and evolution of an area over time. One of the unique features of NUCI is that it can account for seasonal change, so that things like trees losing their leaves in the winter doesn’t return a false positive for changes. With an archive going back to 1998, NUCI works by establishing a baseline from identical images, and then tracking evolution based on this—cutting out the noise and helping one focus on significant changes.

Of course, with any sort of map, an important question to ask is “How accurate is it?” With GIS, the answer is usually very accurate, and that’s thanks in large part to people like Esri’s Dr. Steve Lambert, who are experts in photogrammetry—the science of establishing measurements from photos. As Dr. Lambert noted, not all imagery is authoritative, but with the millions of images being taken every day—from phones, satellites, or drones—there is the potential to create trustworthy, accurate maps and measurements. Being able to use control images or having overlapping images is helpful, says Dr. Lambert, but ultimately it may come down to taking initial estimates and refining them as new sources become available. In this way, reliable maps can be constructed and deployed for any purpose necessary.

Maps no longer have to be understood in the traditional sense either—a piece of paper or an 2D image are yesterday’s news in the world of GIS. Jim Van Rens of RIEGL demonstrated some of the applications of LIDAR, or light detection and image ranging. LIDAR uses points of light from a laser to create three-dimensional models of everything from geographical features to the inside of train tunnels. In both the public and private sector, this can serve many useful purposes, from modeling a stretch of railway to mapping coastlines to create storm surge models that could save thousands of lives.

GIS is a rapidly-evolving field that has already produced incredibly exciting and innovative new technologies. As the number of issues it is utilized to address grows, it may come to fundamentally alter the way in which we interact with and conceptualize our world.

2019 Esri Federal GIS Conference

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