Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
The GeoSpatial Team. From Left to right: George Walintukan, Richard Le, Ted Zehfuss, Anthony Phan, Jay Satalich.

Embrace Geography -- the GIS Age is Here: Super-Maps Coming to District 7
by  Kelly Markham
Issue Date: 07/2013

A powerful tool in your world at home and at Caltrans

You may not know what GIS is, but chances are you use it every day. If you have a GPS in your car, or you visit a real-time traffic website (like the Caltrans QuickMap) or you go online to find ATMs or sandwich shops near your office, you’re using GIS. And so is Caltrans — in new and exciting ways. More on that shortly, but first, some quick background.

GIS is an acronym for geographic information system. In short, it’s a system designed to capture, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present all types of geographic data. It helps us answer questions and solve problems by looking at data geographically in a way that’s easy to understand and share.

“On its most basic level, it’s about making a map. Anyone who’s used Google maps or an online application where you’ve got data in layers has used a rudimentary type of GIS,” said Jay Satalich, head of the Caltrans District 7 Geospatial Branch in the Office of Surveys. “It’s a way to organize data so that it can become spatial information.”

Computers and advances in digital technology have made GIS an increasingly powerful tool with applications in many industries, but the idea behind GIS has been around for centuries. Dr. John Snow is known as the Father of Epidemiology, but he was also a (very) early adopter of the GIS orientation, which he used to halt a cholera epidemic in London in 1854. By mapping the location of public wells and cholera deaths, he identified the source of the cholera bacterium and ended the outbreak by simply removing the handle of the contaminated well. This was a tremendous breakthrough at the time. The prevailing wisdom was that cholera was spread through the air in “polluted vapors.” Essentially, Snow’s genius was that he layered death data and well data on a map, and a meaningful pattern emerged – the people who died were using the same toxic well.

So what does a 19th century cholera epidemic have to do with Caltrans? Plenty, in terms of using GIS for information creation and problem solving. Because what we do as transportation professionals is so geographically loaded, GIS is a robust tool waiting to be fully leveraged. GIS can help determine things like capacity enhancements and operational improvements. It can help Caltrans better pinpoint interchanges with a high concentration of incidents, manage street sign inventory and assets, capture right-of-way information, understand geotechnical conditions, and identify wildlife crossing areas. There’s an endless variety of ways it can be used … and a few of those ways will soon be implemented.

Later this summer, Jay and the Geospatial team will be launching several map services, most likely focusing on project delivery. Everyone within District 7 will be able to access these super-maps without needing specialized software, and these first few maps are just the tip of the iceberg.

“We want to concentrate on a few services at first,” said Satalich. “There are some very smart people in this district, and when they start using these maps, they’re going to create new ways to use data sets that we haven’t thought of.”

This GIS initiative is made possible by the recent purchase of enterprise software known as ArcGIS, made by Redlands-based Esri. ArcGIS is described by Esri as “a platform for designing and managing solutions through the application of geographic knowledge.” Marketing-speak aside, geographic literacy is fast becoming a critical skill for just about everyone.

“In the 21st century, we can’t ignore geography. It’s an essential part of our lives now, so we have to embrace it,” said Satalich.

Satalich recognizes that getting people to the point where they’re ready to embrace GIS won’t happen overnight. As with any new tech tool, there’s a learning curve involved. People have to become comfortable, literate and recognize the benefits before they can move beyond reading geographic data to composing and creating with it.

“The pinnacle of all this is that we’ll have the ability to do analysis with the data. We’ll have actionable information that allows us to make better, more informed decisions,” he said.

To reach that pinnacle, there are some challenges that will have to be overcome. We’ll need more cross-functional cooperation – staff in different units who don’t normally work with one another will need to come together to share data. Also, although Caltrans has a lot of geographic data, much of it is not in a format the can be readily used by GIS. Some is available only on hard copy. Some hasn’t been collected yet. For example, Jay’s team has been working with the Maintenance division to gather info about Adopt-a-Highway signs, which will be used to create an up-to-date sign inventory with data that can be displayed and manipulated on a map.

Once the initial map services are created, much of the data can be reused – we won’t have to reinvent the wheel each time. County, route and postmile information will likely be on every map, as will structures. Other layers can be added for specific purposes. For example, designers working on the proposed High Desert Corridor may need a map of the area that includes sensitive cultural sites, in which case the Environmental Division staff may provide data that shows not only the location of such sites but other essential information that can be accessed simply by clicking on the location.

Data will come from external sources as well. The Geospatial Branch is working with the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering, the Metropolitan Water District, and numerous cities to share data. Some Caltrans GIS maps will link to data on servers thousands of miles away. Geospatial is currently working on a project with the National Geodetic Survey that involves accessing data on servers located in Silver Spring, Maryland. The more data sources we can access, the more information-rich our map services become.

For now, the Geospatial team is focusing on getting the initial map services up and running and creating a map gallery, which will include georeferenced PDFs (GeoPDFs). These GeoPDFs, which can be read by the Adobe Acrobat Reader most employees already have, contain embedded data sets and layers of information that can be turned on and off – no fancy software required. The goal is to make GIS a tool that we use without thinking about it, like typing a document in Microsoft Word or opening a PDF.

“Up to this point, GIS has been a boutique. I don’t want to be a boutique. I want to get relevant geospatial information into as many people’s hands as possible,” said Satalich. “There’s a time and a place for a boutique and there’s a time and a place for mass production. That’s where we’re heading.”

An early foray into GIS: Dr. John Snow's 1854 map depicting cholera deaths in London and the location of public wells. Map screenshot of District 7 postmiles and structures atop an orthophoto (geometrically corrected) basemap. Information about each structure is revealed simply by clicking on it. Map screenshot of afternoon traffic congestion information. Layers can be turned on and off simply by clicking in the boxes in the left column. Map screenshot of the Stormwater Best Management Practices Program status with watersheds.