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Protecting and Preserving Our Natural Resources With GIS

More than ever before, natural resource managers are challenged to think of new ways to preserve and restore our habitats. You are faced with a diversity of tasks to protect our environments, everything from monitoring deforestation and its impacts, to conservation efforts and tracking climate change. John Steffenson, Federal Civilian and Global Affairs, Esri, and I recently had the opportunity to discuss the role of GIS and natural resources management, a topic which also be covered during the Esri Federal GIS Conference in February.

The Esri Federal GIS Conference will be a two day event, with the third day being the first ever Esri DC Developer Summit. The conference will also feature five immersion summits, educating the government community on the power of GIS. The immersion summits will focus on national security, natural resource management, health and human services, transportation and economic development, and global aid, development and conservation. Be sure to register for the conference here, it is FREE to all federal employees, NPOs, NGOs, and international organizations.

Across many different government verticals, GIS is being used to empower and enhance the decision making process for public sector officials. In this instance, GIS is helping natural resource managers make improved decisions and manage natural resources more effectively.

As Americans, many of us cherish our National and State Parks, our cultural centers and the natural beauty or nation holds, and these resources should be preserved. But as Steffenson reminds us, “Natural Resource Agencies have a really tough job, entrusted with strategic long-term missions that will be important for many generations to come.”

This means that in order to make the right decisions, natural resource managers are challenged to balance competing interests. “As an example, making decisions about the appropriate balance of resource development, protecting drinking water or other resources, and our obligations to protect our unique heritage, are often a delicate balance between competing interests and concerns.”

Although managing natural resources is a constant balancing act, the commonality is that so much of what natural resource managers do revolves around spatial analysis and data. Within this context, GIS professionals are tasked to manage and analyze data spatially. This involves understanding complex relationships and patterns, and by leveraging a GIS solution, natural resource managers not only get the context, but understand the unique patterns and changes happening within their landscapes.

As Steffenson noted, “Indeed, it’s what GIS has always been about, and natural resource management organizations were among the first users of GIS and related technology. GIS is an ideal platform for understanding these complex relationships and analyzing the impacts and benefits of various management alternatives, and the impacts of global phenomena like population expansion and climate change.”

Protecting natural resources is certainly an imperative for our country, but it does come with a unique set of challenges. Steffenson noted some of the challenges faced by natural resource managers:

  • “With increased population comes greater energy and resources demand, at the same time agencies have tremendous resource constraints and the changing environment to content with.”
  • “The appropriate use of new spatial science and technologies like GIS wisely applied can help agencies do their vital work efficiently, swiftly, with an ability to analyze data that we have never had previously – and provide decision making capability that will make a real difference. At the end of the day the appropriate application of any technology in our view – is to make a positive difference in the world.”

That’s the key, and certainly a focus of Esri and their GIS solutions, to make a positive difference in the world. The ability to map, visualize and understand complex data has the power to ignite improved decision-making and public policy outcomes.

But to overcome these challenges, it’s clear that there is a demand for increased collaboration and sharing of best practices. Thankfully, much of this is occurring within the field, and Steffenson shared some of his observations on best practices. “I will leave best practices for Natural Resource management to those entrusted with it – but from a GIS technology perspective I think there are some things that can help: information availability, easy access, standards for exchange, fit-for-purpose workflow oriented (configurable) processes, speed of operation, the ability to share effectively in a secure manner and mobility,” said Steffenson.

Collaboration is taking place, with one prime example coming from the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), an interagency committee that promotes the coordinated development, use, sharing, and dissemination of geospatial data on a national basis, with their signature program being the Geospatial Platform. Although FGDC is a bright spot in government, there is always more work to be done. As many government missions are inter-disciplinary, collaboration plays a key role to not just hit mission objectives, but also for regulatory compliance. “Collaboration is hugely important – we are blessed by working with such a wide array agencies, and it’s incredible to see such a diversity of missions, knowledge and capabilities,” said Steffenson.

He continued, “We must strive for greater knowledge sharing – so as to improve our collective technical understanding and exchange, and swiftly improve decision making ability, in order to keep pace with our own growing expectations.”

Although there are many ways data can be used, there is now a unique opportunity for natural resource managers to measure in real-time. Steffenson was clear to note the advancements of the “Internet of Things,” or the idea that we can connect anything in the physical world, with the digital. The Internet of Things hangs on the promise that our lives and jobs will be made easier, due to hyperconnectivity. In a world where we can connect anything, measure anything, and monitor complex systems in near real-time - a platform is needed to make sense of all this information. GIS holds this opportunity, especially for natural resource management. As Steffenson said, “We are approaching a time in the world when it will be possible, and likely expected, that we measure and monitor complex natural systems in near real-time, this is the "Internet of Things" often mentioned in the press these days.”

Every government process holds a geographic and spatial component - and now, by connecting data in meaningful ways, decision makers will be able to improve decisions at quicker speeds.

“It's clear that whatever is worth measuring we will be able to do so – because it adds an immediacy to our decision making response process that is invaluable in situations that benefit from it – where is the flood going to happen, who is going to be affected by the storm, where do we start looking for the missing, which areas must be protected? Many agencies are doing this as well as starting to leverage mobile technology (smart phones), which are, or can be, real time sensors in their own right,” said Steffenson.

GIS is transforming the way that our natural resources are protected. It provides new and unique opportunities for government agencies, and can certainly provide deeper awareness and context to complex patterns, driving new insights and an informed decision making process for agencies.

To learn more about GIS and Natural Resources, be sure to check out Esri’s Federal GIS event. Learn more here.

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Esri was founded in 1969, it realized even then that geographic information system (GIS) technology could make a difference in society. GIS helps people to solve problems at local, regional, national, and global scales. Access maps and apps at ArcGIS.com. Be sure to check out all the
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