Agriculture pulls all GIS maps into a single portal

Move will reduce duplication and make high-quality maps more accessible to the public.

A new Web portal being put together by the Agriculture Department aims to reduce duplication in the agency's mapping work and make high-quality maps more accessible to the public.

More than half the department's 29 divisions are involved in geospatial work, Geospatial Information Officer Stephen Lowe said, either mashing satellite and aerial imagery with survey data or on-the-ground research about crop yields, ground chemicals or farm subsidies, or using other divisions' maps in their own research and programs.

USDA-produced maps and images generally are available to the public for free or for a nominal fee, and frequently crop up in paid data services and even in Google Maps, he said.

At the moment, though, there's no central repository for all the department's GIS maps and the largest repository for publicly available maps requires users to fill out a complex order form for specific data before they get a look at the map itself.

The result is USDA researchers and outsiders often don't even know that a map of, say, all the farmers' markets in Kentucky or all the farm subsidies recipients in Arkansas already exists, and they either end up duplicating work that's already been done or relying on an inferior product.

The portal will provide researchers and other Agriculture staff with a better ability to create their own GIS products, Lowe said, by mapping new information onto base maps created elsewhere in the department or by using basic USDA-produced templates.

"This extends mapping capabilities out to economists, policy people, financial people and [human resources] people," he said. "It's sort of a transformation from the lone GIS professional sitting at his desk to really pushing 60 percent to 80 percent of map making out to other disciplines. Then the GIS professional transitions to the role of a strategic adviser and focuses skills on the other 20 percent of policy and program management issues that cause the major headaches."

The new portal, which is hosted in Amazon's public EC2 computer cloud, is already available to a few divisions within Agriculture and will be launched departmentwide in the next couple of months, Lowe said. The site should be available to the public about six to eight months after that.

The Agriculture Department portal was designed by Esri, the geographic information system company that developed the ArcGIS software suite. It was built using a specialized version of Esri's software called Portal for ArcGIS, which gives users more freedom to customize what they produce, said Victoria Kouyoumjian, an Esri information technology strategies architect.

Esri previously worked with the department's Food and Nutrition Service on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a geo-locator that pinpoints retailers that accept federal food assistance cards.

Lowe envisions the portal serving as a meeting ground for the department's mapping experts, spread across different divisions, where they can figure out whose maps can be tweaked to save work elsewhere and develop best practices.

The portal also requires each map to carry a collection of metadata, descriptions of when and how the data was gathered that other mappers can use to determine whether the map meets their needs.

The Agriculture Department isn't alone in trying to mix crowdsourcing approaches with GIS technology.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is standing up a Washington-based "geocenter" to assist map-making specialists and nonspecialists at its missions around the globe. The Defense Information Systems Agency launched a portal to pull together GIS maps, rapidly uploaded YouTube videos and Web chats to help aid workers respond to the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

As GIS technology is adopted more broadly, Kouyoumjian said, Esri's portal or similar products could have multiple uses inside government at the federal, state or local level. As one example, she said, state redistricting commissions could use GIS maps to create more dynamic cost-benefit analyses of moving district lines. GIS maps also could be used to analyze the long-term effects of stimulus spending in different states and districts, she said.