USGS mashing up data to create new views of country

The U.S. Geological Survey isn’t walking the mountains and snowy terrain of Alaska to update its 50-year-old maps.

Nope, USGS is taking advantage of new technology to paint a picture of the nation’s biggest state like never before.

Kevin Gallagher, the associate director for core science systems at USGS, said over the last 18 months the Department of Interior bureau has been working with a dozen or so other agencies, states and non-profits to create a strategy to fly the state using Interferometrics synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) to get high resolution elevation pictures as well as updating hydrography data and to acquire transportation data.

“We just now are starting to release digital topographic series for Alaska, so it’s really exciting. We’ve got about 40 percent of state covered with the critical data we need,” he said. “We’ve got it phased out to be a three-to-four year project depending on resources. Some of the maps that are coming out now are a resolution of data like Alaska has never seen, and it will make dramatic improvements to the way we look at the state, the way we manage the state and the decisions we make over the next few years.”

The collecting of data and making it accessible through the Alaska mapping project and many other programs is the agency’s central focus.

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USGS is trying to serve the scientific and business communities, both of whom could use the treasure trove of information for a host of innovative purposes.

New strategy in the works

Gallagher said to that end USGS is developing a new data management strategy.

“We have drafted a data management policy today that addresses the full life cycle so the key elements include planning for data acquisition, data preservation, publishing and sharing the data, describing it through metadata and cataloging it, managing the quality and, of course, infrastructure issues like back up and securing the data,” he said. “We are trying to take a very holistic approach.”

A secondary driver for USGS is the requirement from the Office of Science and Technology Policy from February for agencies that spent more than $100 million in research and development to develop a strategy to make the results of that federally-funded research freely available to the public. USGS, like other agencies, has until next February to develop the plan that also will require researchers to better account for and manage the digital data resulting from federally-funded scientific research.

“What we are working on now is a plan that we hope will meet our internal needs, but that will address some of those external requirements that are coming down,” Gallagher said. “There has been a lot going on with data management in the last few years with the whole direction of cloud, mobile computing and a fundamental shift in scientific research toward data-centric research. In the past, data has been thought of as something you collect to support a single project, and while that’s still true, we’re seeing this emergence of if there’s a way to access multiple sources of data across multiple disciplines then there’s a way to do data-drive science, where you can mash-up and integrate data across disciplines and make new discoveries that way.”

USGS is working with several other agencies and organizations to make data more available, both through Data.gov, and through creating a geospatial platform to make it easier to publish and access geospatial data in a Web environment.

“We are trying to move away from paper or even single system interfaces and toward a Web services interface and a catalog behind all of our data so it’s more easily discoverable and accessible,” Gallagher said. “Our national map database combines all of these GIS layers and feed our other products. We serve it out by a Web service and just this year, the mobile map developers have found that Web map feature service. On the Android, IOS and Garmin device, you can now download an app and with a click of a button you can point toward that USGS national map resource and you pull out the authoritative super high resolution data that is beyond what you get on the typical Google layer or other source that is out there, and it’s fully integrated into the mobile layer. Internally, we didn’t do anything to develop that capability other than advertise this capability through a Web service.”

3D coming to maps

Another program that will give USGS better data is the 3D Elevation initiative to use new technology called Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) to capture topography like never before.

“This is an instrument that is flown, generally, but can be ground based. It shoots 300,000 pulses of light per second down at the earth and it returns a reflected signal back that creates a three dimensional representation of the real world,” Gallagher said. “It’s amazing. When you look at the data, you see buildings, roads, structures, trees, mountain and rivers, and you can visualize this data and can navigate as if you are navigating through the real world.”

He said the data is giving agencies and the private sector better data to address flood plains or aviation safety.

“Super high-resolution, we are talking about being able to be accurate within 3-to-5 centimeters of the earth so that level of accuracy enhances all those existing applications,” Gallagher said. “But what’s really exciting is all the new applications coming out. For example, intelligence vehicle navigation, car companies are actually experimenting with elevation aware transmissions that will shift our cars differently in the future based on elevation to create higher fuel efficiency.”

Gallagher said USGS partnered with others to do an inventory of all publicly available LiDAR, and 28 percent of the country has some sort of LiDAR. He said an executive committee is trying to figure out how to get the other 70 percent of the country covered by this technology.

He said the 3D program received a $9 million increase in the fiscal 2014 budget request to Congress to expand the use of LiDAR.

“We are proposing a single acquisition strategy that uses the private sector to fly all this aircraft. It would create a dataset that would no doubt be historic if we can pull this off.” Gallagher said. “It not only will be a once over snapshot of the land, but I think it will generate a whole legacy of innovative ideas of how to use this data.”

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