The Blue Highways of GIS

One of my all-time favorite books is William Least Heat-Moon’s 1982 classic Blue Highways.   Considered a masterpiece of American travel writing, Blue Highways is Heat-Moon’s personal journey along the nation’s back roads chronicling his curiosity about “those little towns that get on the map – if they get on at all – only because some cartographer has a blank space to fill.”

When published, I saw myself in Blue Highways relating to the wonder and fascination of the open road.  Raised in industrial northern Ohio in the 1950s/1960s, I journeyed westward to attend forestry school at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, working several years during and after college with the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho, Montana, and the High Sierra in California.   After the Forest Service work, my personal  journey took me back across the country to attend graduate school at the University of Vermont which provided the foundation of my educational work in GIS getting started with ESRI’s earliest software product PIOS (Polygon Information Overlay System) and then on to Westchester County, New York to begin my professional career.    Blue Highways intersected with other parts of my life as Heat-Moon’s journey began (and ended) in Columbia, Missouri –  close to many of my relatives and adjacent to the Wear family farm in Prairie Home, Missouri.   And his journey also went through Moscow where he interviewed a local resident who happened to be a graduate student friend of mine.

Now over thirty years later, and in the fourth quarter of my career with Westchester County GIS, I begin a similar Blue Highways journey albeit of a virtual one across the State of New York.   Destinations where I, and many of you, share a common bond:  GIS.   But these places are different.  Places and cities not necessarily built along the New York State Thruway, the Long Island Expressway, or the Hudson River.  Instead, they are one gas station towns, small villages and schools, or cyber cafes off the beaten track.   Maybe an isolated office in a tiny village along the Southern Tier, the Adirondacks, or the western edges of the state.  A remote zip code.  Or maybe a small business in a midtown Manhattan high rise.

And you may not see the people behind these small GIS efforts at the state conferences, the GeoSpatial Summit, or participating on the statewide listservs.    Nonetheless these are individuals doing the same work you and I do all the time but with little fanfare. A single copy ArcView, AutoCAD, MapInfo, Google Earth, or some Open Source software.   No enterprise GIS spoken here.   Schools, villages, small business, nonprofits, community groups, volunteers, and everything else.  Small places.  Small budgets.  Off the grid and making a difference.   And the beat goes on.

This is the inaugural post in The Blue Highways of GIS which will occur occasionally along other opinions and stories in the eSpatiallyNewYork blog.  If you have similar places or programs you would like to share and appear in The Blue Highways of GIS, please feel free to contact me.

Waterloo, New York

Located in Seneca County with a 2010 U.S. Census Bureau estimated population of 5,171, the Village of Waterloo began developing GIS capacity in the 2009-2010 time period (following a Needs Assessment completed earlier) as part of an effort to automate and map the Waterloo water supply system (the Village is a water producer and supplier of water to surrounding towns as well).  Like many other similar sized local governments during this time period, funding to initiate the project was obtained through the New York State Archives  LGRMIF grant program.

With no prior exposure to GIS and about a day’s worth of ArcView desktop training by staff from the MRB Group (which currently serves as the village’s engineer),  Jared Bromka, NYS Water Treatment Operator, began scanning and georeferencing hardcopy valve “tie cards” to map the location of the water valves.  Using the scanned images, Jared then spent the next couple years in the field with a sub-foot accuracy Trimble GPS unit to field locate/verify all the valves, fire hydrants, and other water system related features.  From this data development effort he was then able to create a complete system-wide coverage.    Ultimately, MRB Group then used this data to create a hydraulic water system model in GIS (InfoWater extension for ArcGIS Desktop) for engineering purposes.

Village of Waterloo Water Distribution System

Village of Waterloo Water Distribution System

Jared maintains the water system, catch basin, and sanitary sewer system data (which MRB also assisted in mapping) on a village Dell Precision laptop which contains the village’s single license of ArcView.  Waterloo also has the ArcReader extension which allows him to distribute ArcReader projects to other workstations in the village.  Jared also makes maps for many of the various programs and events within the village including the police department, as well as various parade routes, 5K run routes, vendor location map for the Memorial Day committee, a shuttle bus drop-off locations map, county water distribution maps, zoning maps, and a bike trail map. He says that the street department references his GIS maps and the water department, understandably so, continues to use the maps heavily for various planning and expansion projects including hydrant and valve labeling and locating efforts.   (Several of his maps can be seen on the village website.)  Visitors to the village website are also encouraged to take a look at the village interactive map. Today, using both the desktop GIS software and the GPS equipment, Jared maintains all of the village GIS datasets while still serving as a Water Treatment Operator.

Jared has never attended any formal GIS training and notes that beyond the introductory training he received from MRB Group, he has also learned how to use Google Earth and that the amount of time he spends doing GIS work varies greatly, sometimes a few months between map use and creation, to other times when he is involved in three projects at once.  While attending statewide conferences and events is difficult, he has attended local events and meetings hosted by GIS-SIG.

Jared exemplifies many civil servants working in small governments across the state engaged in geospatial work and support – though it is not their primary job responsibility.   The many locations and programs with limited in-house or consultant resources, and little if any dedicated funding for geospatial development other than what comes through associated with regulatory programs, or increasingly, via public works and engineering mapping programs.  Many of us will probably never meet Jared but we can certainly appreciate what he has accomplished and will continue to contribute to the Village of Waterloo.

At the end of the day and all said, just one person in a small place making a big difference.  Jared Bromka and the many others along the Blue Highways of GIS.

Thanks for reading and see you down the road.

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