GIS Day: Keynote speaker says GIS now commonly used to assess environment, infrastructure

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Increasingly sophisticated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) used by both government and the private sector will be of greater importance as mankind wrestles with issues like environmental degradation and sustainability of natural resources as the world’s population expands, the keynote speaker for a multi-agency event hosted by WaTech said.Larry Sugarbaker

Larry Sugarbaker, who recently retired as a senior advisor for the U.S. Geological Survey after spending 22 years at the state Department of Natural Resources, was the kick-off speaker at Washington State Agency Joint GIS Day in Olympia Nov. 15.

“We need to think about how cities work in a way that their footprint is less damaging to the environment,” said Sugarbaker, who was also the vice president and chief information officer of the non-profit NatureServe before stepping into his federal role.

Sugarbaker told how as a boy growing up on a farm he would poke at ant hills. The ants would scurry wildly for a few minutes as they put things back together then settle down as their living space stabilized. He equated that experience to what happens when a region is suddenly disrupted by an earthquake, flood, hurricane or other natural event, and how GIS mapping systems can be used to more rapidly put things back together.

“Are we as good as the ants? No, not yet, but we need to think about cities and landscapes in a way that causes everything to react together so that there is a healing effect,” he said.

Staff from multiple government agencies listen to keynote address during GIS Day in Olympia

Sugarbaker said GIS can be used as a tool that can be used to help more quickly manipulate damaged air and water ecosystems that “can’t just heal on their own.”

Beyond land use, GIS can be used on a global scale to monitor changes in human populations, natural resources, disease and energy consumption, he said.

“We need to think about non-polluting energy sources. We can’t just keep strip mining coal and pumping energy out of the ground,” he said.

He noted that the use of GIS has evolved significantly over the past several decades, and especially over the last 20 to 30 years.

GIS systems are now used to make better decisions for agriculture, watershed analysis and hazard assessment.

GIS imagery shows how a landscape has changed over time (from Larry Sugarbaker slide deck)

“We are using datasets to help us think about zoning laws and the landscapes in which people live and play. We can now think ahead,” he said.

 GIS is used commonly to develop better national security policies, aid in vehicle navigation and in municipal planning through 3-D mapping.

Looking ahead to the future with GIS (Larry Sugarbaker slide deck)

The day-long conference was attended by about 250 people from multiple state and local agencies. The event at WaTech was one of many held around the world for GIS Day. Additional coverage of the day in Olympia was posted by StateScoop.

Much of Washington's GIS data compiled from state agencies is available via the Washington State Open Data Bridge web site.