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GCN : December 2013
GCN DECEMBER 2013 • GCN.COM 21 product ranging from research on agricul- tural sustainability studies, environmen- tal issues, land conversion assessments, crop rotations, decision support, disas- ters, farmer surveys, carbon, bioenergy, ecology and biodiversity." CropScape was so popular, NASS fol- lowed it up with VegScape, another Web GIS application that was launched in Feb- ruary 2013. VegScape provides weekly maps that display the crop conditions based on infrared data from NASA's MO- DIS satellite. The health of crops can be assessed by measuring the amount of in- frared light they reflect. "It's amazing," Bailey said of the re- sponse to the new GIS tools. "Usage of the data is been quite extensive. People are looking at rotational analysis. People are looking at stability studies, environmental issues, conservation assessments, decision support for disasters, farmer support." CROSS-BREEDING DATA Given that USDA's mission is very geo- graphically oriented --- from monitoring the health of croplands to managing the national forests --- it's no surprise that dozens of GIS applications have been developed over the years by many of the department's 17 agencies. And as GIS software has grown to manage large data streams and offer more powerful analytic tools --- combined with more accurate sensor data from a variety of platforms --- the capabilities have blossomed. But the new, more powerful role for GIS is as a platform for tying together data- bases from many sources, for leveraging efforts across the department's agencies. "It's a container for all of these really creative ways of re-conceiving and rede- fining problems in ways that are more relevant and valid for those in a particular area," Lowe said. Noting that individual agencies in the department have long had a high level of operational expertise, and that there was increasing standardization of formats and software, Lowe said the department re- cently realized that there was an opportu- nity to better connect the data through the GIS platform. "They were not thinking enterprise," he said of the individual agencies. "They were not thinking about when a GIS prac- titioner creates a map on his desktop: Is he creating it to solve the immediate prob- lem or is he thinking this might actually be applied to something else, and extend the lifecycle of that product in a way that really makes it more useful, that makes it more accessible to other people?" Lowe points to the site, Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food as the depart- ment's first Web GIS application at the en- terprise level. Fully deployed in the cloud, it offers information from over two dozen different USDA programs across the na- tion as well as nine other federal agencies. "All the language from [The Office of Management and Budget] driving us to- ward shared services, cloud computing, open data, we were doing it in February 2012," said Lowe. "We took the data that was out in the agencies working perfectly well for operations and retold the story at a level that more stakeholders could get their hands into and thematically start to talk about where USDA was providing re- sources and where people could connect with resources." • As GIS tools becoming so essential at USDA and other agencies, officials are looking to integrate data sets and perform temporal analysis. What are the next big steps in GIS analysis? James Hipple, GIS adviser to USDA's Risk Management Agency, points to two. First, he said, is the ongoing effort to integrate data sets. Noting the mas- sive data sets generated by various government agencies, Hipple pointed to the analytic potential they could deliver if they are combined. The snag? "Because they are such large data sets we end up with bandwidth prob- lems," he said. The other major step, he said, will be the inclusion of temporal analysis --mapping changes in selected characteristics over time. It could be a flood, the spread of a wildfire, or changes in crop plantings. "A lot of times we haven't been doing the temporal stuff because the analysis tools haven't been there," Hipple said. "Now that those analysis tools are there I think a lot more of us are thinking, 'OK, how do we look at this in more of a temporal fashion?'" The tools for temporal analysis indeed are there, said Sinam Al-Khafaji, Esri's account manager for USDA, at least since Esri introduced its temporal analysis tools earlier this year. "You can with near real-time information set up a 'geofence,'" Al-Khafaji said. "If you're monitoring something that's moving you can set up a bound- ary and when that boundary is crossed you can set up actions and alerts to say, 'Hey, something has entered or exited this boundary.' You can also have workloads that say, 'When something enters this boundary run this process.'" And it doesn't have to be just moving objects, he said. The same thing can be done with tabular values in data attached to a map. For example, a map might be configured to display changes in soil moisture over time, and a change in the data that rises above a specified value can trigger an alert. "There is interest, and a lot of this technology is already available to USDA," Al-Khafaji said, "but it just takes time for this type of technology to gain wide and prevalent adoption." --- Patrick Marshall WHAT'S NEXT FOR GIS: The 4th dimension