Orbitist: Storytelling on the Western Front

It’s always refreshing discovering new startups and firms mixing geospatial concepts with other technology and media platforms.  Not necessarily true geospatial firms which we’ve come to label as such, but clearly operating on the fringe and providing selected products and services mainstream geospatial consultants market and provide.  One such relatively new firm is Orbitist based out of Fredonia, New York.

Orbitist is led by Nick Gunner who has been filming and directing video productions since 2007 when he began pursuing his Bachelor of Science Degree in TV/Digital Film, Audio/Radio production, and Earth Science at the State University of New York at Fredonia. During that time, Nick started building content management systems and digital mapping technology which he continued while serving four years as the university’s New Media Manager.   On the side, he continued to pursue freelance work as a public radio producer, freelance documentary filmmaker, and web developer. In the Summer of 2015, Nick launched Orbitist LLC as part of the Fredonia Technology Incubator with the idea of using digital storytelling and technology to make important information as accessible as possible.

Initial Work

The Roger Tory Peterson Institute (RTPI) of Natural History was Orbitist’s first client.   In the Summer of 2015 they commissioned a short documentary on the Chadakoin River in Jamestown, as well as map three tours about various natural history topics.  Representative examples of RTPI products can be viewed on YouTube and the bottom three links on this Orbitist web page.  During this same time period – and ongoing today – Orbitist also performed work for the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau.

Other recent products and services include:

A Story Map documenting the Winter 1929 Tewksbury boat and bridge crash on the Buffalo River resulting in the flooding of a 18 neighborhood blocks in South Buffalo.

This Story Map uses a variety of multimedia which pinpoints cultural and historical features from different Spanish-speaking countries, including architectural feats, traditional dances, and tipping customs, among others. Each map utilizes Spanish phrases with English translations to bridge the gap between languages.

Software Suite

Relying on the experience he gained building systems for the last 10 years, software products used at Orbitist reflects Nick’s commitment to combining content management with interactive mapping – much of which is accomplished by integrating and combining leading Open Source components.   Currently the Orbitist mapping platform is a simple content management system which associates posts (internally called “points”) with latitude/longitude values.  The Orbitist team often uses Mapbox GL as a primary front-end mapping library but behind that everything in their system is API-driven, meaning story maps are created top of products such as Leaflet and Google Maps.  They also use Carto as a stand-alone product for building real-time analytics maps.  All combined, the Orbitist “system” also manages images and a variety of data (icon type, time of day, external links, etc.) and provides access to YouTube, Vimeo, and even Facebook for video hosting. GitHub is leveraged to host static web projects.

Orbitist helped Investigative Post map and present lead data from Buffalo city water. The reporting has since contributed to changing policy in the city.

In summarizing their “go-to” software suite, Nick notes:

“I’ve found that for telling stories with interactive data, Carto is amazing. For designing outstanding base maps and for the best mapping interface in my opinion, Mapbox all the way. And for telling stories on top of maps, Orbitist’s original mapping platform is un-rivaled!”

Current Work

Orbitist is currently working with the Chautauqua County Land Bank using all three of their core services (video production, data visualization, and web development) showcasing the important work they do. Orbitist staff is visualizing local datasets for Land Bank to help assess neighborhoods and properties to invest. These include serial code violations, tax foreclosures, property assessments, and County GIS data sets. This work rolling out a map-based crowdsourcing platform which will allow residents to survey their neighborhoods for abandoned and dilapidated properties as well as developing a model to identify slumlord properties in the community.

Orbitist continues to focus on conservation and environmental outreach with the intend of building tools and story mapping to bridge the gap between water, agriculture, ecology, urban green spaces, and the general public.  Making important information and map-based data more accessible.  In addition to these many projects itemized above, Orbitist is starting a series of projects with the Chautauqua Institution.   Their work in this space is reflected as finalists n the Erie Hack competition and will be competing in May for seed money to apply our products to water-related issues around Lake Erie.  A very recent online article via Fredonia.edu News tell more.    Orbitist is also using drone technology for video production and for capturing imagery for making high definition mapping tiles.  Having recently obtained a Part 107 Drone License the firm is intending to use drones for spatial data collection, too.

Summary

Find out more about Orbitist’s products and services by visiting their website.  One can even set up an account to start making and sharing web maps and stories with the online tools Orbitist provides as part of their online  Learn section.   “We are first and foremost storytellers interested in helping people understand and explore the world” comments Gunner, “and right now that understanding comes in the form of multimedia mapping, data visualization, and video production. But who knows what that will mean down the road. We’re going to use whatever tools best allow us to accomplish our mission and business needs.”

With all the talk about statewide incubators aligned with the SUNY campuses,  it is nice to see a start-up with geospatial ties emerging the program.  Orbitist is a relatively young company and only now beginning to define its space across the New York State technology landscape.     We wish them well.

Note:  Orbitist will be presenting at the 2017 Westchester GIS User Group Meeting, May 18th at Purchase College.

GIS Common Core Part 3: Health and Human Services (HHS)

Through a sequence of articles posted in eSpatiallyNewYork, I have proposed a series of GIS applications which provide a framework for establishing and maintaining  GIS/geospatial programs in local  governments (villages, towns, cities, and counties) across  New York State.  These applications areas are referred to as the Geospatial Common Core, many of which are integrated with local government office and administrative business systems.  Others are utilized in the support of regulatory reporting programs.    Together, the Geospatial Common Core contribute towards building sustainable geospatial capacity for local governments.   This is the third installment of the series.

“GIS Common Core” application areas in New York State local governments

The first article entitled Part 1:  Infrastructure and Asset Management focused on the growing and critical role local government GIS geospatial programs continue to serve in rehabilitating and maintaining the decaying and outdated New York State – and national – public infrastructure.  The second article Part 2:  Work Orders, Permitting, and Inspections (WOPI) published in March 2016 focused on geocentric software packages which are ubiquitous in government programs supporting work flows in areas such public works, health, planning, clerk, assessment, buildings/code enforcement and inspections.  Organizations investing and integrating WOPI systems with GIS will continue to help build long-term sustainable geospatial programs in local governments.

Part 3:  Health and Human Services (HHS)

Health and human services can often be broadly defined from one location to another but for the purposes of this article it includes a wide-range of government programs including, but limited to, public health services, social services, public assistance, youth and veterans programs, disability programs, housing and homeless services, child protection services, as well as the important network of contracted service providers governments rely upon in providing counseling and related support services.  I have long been an advocate of building geospatial capacity in these local government program areas.

Why?

Statewide local government HHS budgets typically dwarf other local government operational program areas with regard to annual appropriations.  While I am not a budget analyst and admittedly it’s sometimes difficult to follow the money trail of appropriations vs. revenues vs. actual tax payer costs in county budgets, here are a few examples to illustrate the size and magnitude of HHS programs in a selected 2017 NYS county budgets (Data/information from County webpages as noted):

  1. Stuben County 2017 Budget. (Page 3).  Pie chart indicates nearly 47% of the appropriated budget dedicated to Health and  Economic Assistance/Opportunity (includes Social Service disciplines) program areas
  2. Ulster County 2017 Budget. (Pages 1 & 2). Table and pie chart indicate nearly 42% of the appropriated budget dedicated to Public Health and Economic Assistance/Opportunity program areas
  3. Erie County 2017 Budget. (Pages 93, 159, and 174). Appropriations (rounded in millions) in Health ($86M), Mental Health ($47M) and Social Services ($591M) account for almost 50% of the $1,455,000,000 recommended general fund budget.  (Note:  There are other references to the 2017 budget being closer to $1.7B). Either way, HHS budgets are a significant portion of the overall county budget
  4. Albany County 2017 Budget. (Page 34). Employee Count table lists 657 of 2,535 County employees (26%) are in the Child, Youth, and Family Services (170), Social Services (308), Mental Health (90), and Dept. of Health (89)
  5. Suffolk County 2017 Budget. (Pages 101 and 366).   Appropriations (rounded in millions) in Health Services ($249M) and Social Services ($628M) account for nearly 30% of a recommended $2.9B budget
  6. Monroe County 2017 Budget. (Pages 157 and 275).  Appropriations (rounded in millions) in Human Services ($536M) and Public Health ($62M) account for nearly 50% of an adopted $1.2B budget

Challenges

New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH)  was one of the major supporters in the initial development of the existing New York State “open data” portals providing increased transparency and accessibility to public health datasets.  Today there are at least two primary sites for users to access NYS health data:  www.data.ny.gov and www.health.data.ny.gov.  There is a plethora of public health data being published in these portals which can be used in local government geospatial applications albeit not always necessarily GIS friendly. New York State government agency data providers could go a long way in providing the data/indicators through the existing portals noted above as a web/map service AND making the information available at smaller units of geography (i.e., municipal, zip code, census track, or better census block group). It’s noted many “health-related” environmental datasets covering the Empire State are available from New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

On the other hand, County Social Service program databases are much more sensitive with regard to data confidentiality (patient) issues albeit some program areas such as SNAP are publicly available via the state open data portals though only available at the County level.       Working essentially as agents of the state in administering most social service programs, counties must conform to a wide range of state-mandated reporting requirements as well as using state-designed systems which provide a slew of technology challenges for use in local GIS/geospatial applications.  Particularly in context of preparing, and often generalizing datasets to larger units of geography (i.e., address-based data available as block group data) and/or  removing personal identifiers, for use in GIS software applications.

Where’s the Benefit?

While there are still many challenges, geospatial applications in the public health and human services arena provide tremendous opportunities for governments to improve the delivery of services more cost effectively.

"Service Delivery" nounthe act of providing a service to customers:

Source:  Cambridge Dictionary

As itemized above, government programs in HHS are often enormous with football field size floors of case workers and  managers in-charge of a broad range of assets including field staff, vehicles, real-time data collection applications, scheduling time-required appointments, coordination of contracted service providers, using government or publically owned facilities (schools, libraries, and community centers), and  often  requiring  the use of public and para-transit transportation systems.  To say the least of having to be prepared to answer to an already increasingly internet savvy tax-payer user base looking for government information and assistance 24 X 7 over the internet.

The visualization and analysis of all these geographically based features within the GIS environment can enable HHS administrators and managers to better manage service delivery systems more cost effectively in context of the following examples:

  1. Assigning appointments/cases/inspections based geographic areas; visualizing data on a map based on heat maps, inspection-type assignments, projects, or case loads is more intuitive and can improve a manager’s  ability to better allocate resources in areas of greatest need or priority.
  2. Developing “traveling salesman” schedules; optimally routing appointments so as to minimize road mileage and travel time from stop-to-stop.
  3. Using geography as a primary factor in establishing temporary/leased facilities required or needed to support program delivery. More cost effectively establishing temporary support facilities in the geographic areas(s) of greatest need.

Governments can do more to manage service provider contracts which are geographically and optimally located in the areas of greatest need so as to minimize the transportation burden on individuals required to meet with providers for program compliance. In urban areas, working with and establishing service provider contracts which are close to public transportation systems (bus stops, train stations) which can often be of assistance in connecting individuals with their providers.

5.  Newer and more cost effective vehicle tracking systems enable managers to make “location-based” decisions to dispatch or re-route field workers when schedules change or there is an immediate need to cover a geographic location.  Office managers often have limited or factual geographic information as to what field resources are spatially closest to respond to on-the-fly or emergency incidents;

 6.  Where data is available, GIS applications can be designed for HHS staff to help determine whether certain types of public assistance are legal or appropriate at a specific address based on local zoning designations. By  example, housing assistance subsidies should not be awarded to applicants providing addresses in zoning districts designated Industrial, Manufacturing, or Commercial/Business.

HHS program staff can utilitize GIS technology to help determine the validity of applicant data (re: local address housing use/conditions)  by cross-referencing  local zoning district maps and associated permitted uses.

7.  Mobilizing and automating field data collection work flows. Easy-to-use and affordable mobile apps can now be designed to collect most data electronically minimizing the number of errors associated with paper-based data collection efforts and reducing the need (and time) to key-stroke data into systems after returning to the office.

8.  Online resource directories and applications empower residents towards helping make their own decisions/data gathering lessening the need for “staff” assistance from public agencies – particularly during the traditional 8-5 work day.

Westchester County Office for People with Disabilities provides an online application which enables residents to identify service providers based on a selected radius search from a given address.  Public transportation system components are also included in the application.

9.  Location based mapping applications built with GIS software such as ArcGIS enable HHS professionals to conduct powerful spatial and visual analysis on data sets. Such comparable analysis is very difficult to duplicate when the same data is only being reviewed and analyzed in spreadsheets.    Location-based mapping software is increasingly being integrated with statistical software packages such as R and SPSS which are common in HHS community.   The integration with location based (GIS) and HHS statistical data provide broad and intuitive data visualization capabilities.

10.  As illustrated in the following images, local HHS program data can be mashed-up with a variety of state data sets which are increasingly being published via  Health Data NY and NY.GOV as well as map services from individual state agencies.

Child and Adult Care Food Program Participation locations in Westchester County as provided by NYS Office of Children and Family Services.

Child Care Regulated Programs in central Westchester County.   Data from NYS Office of Children and Family Services.

Local Mental Health Programs in Westchester County and the Bronx.  Data from NYS Council on Children and Families.

Summary:

While the actual cost-savings or increased efficiencies HHS agencies in local governments realize by investing in geospatial technology will clearly vary from government-to-government, many of the program areas itemized above provide specific examples of how GIS technology can be applied in New York State local government HHS programs.  These are big ticket budgets and just as important for the GIS community – mandated programs.  Tax-payer government programs which are not going away and will continue to be significant components of local government budgets.  Building geospatial capacity in these program areas, if only in a small context, will raise visibility of each local government GIS program and further institutionalize its long-term value.  Its time to get started.

Broad deployment of HHS geospatial applications in New York State, however,  will only be realized when there is a more dedicated participation and investment from NY state government agencies which are major stake-holders and data stewards in these systems. To say the least of the NYS GIS Program Office which clearly has other current projects and priorities.

Until this is realized, HHS GIS applications will evolve to some degree across the state at the local level, albeit scattered and not uniform.  What is needed are statewide HHS geospatial systems encompassing architecture, data, applications, and funding – and most importantly, local government input.

Let the discussions begin.

2017 GeoCon Wish List: Part 1

I first wanted to publish this article initially as a wish list to the GIS Santa Claus in early December, but the holidays came and went so I am now submitting it as a New Year’s wish list (Part 1) for the 2017 GeoCon  in Lake Placid.  There will  be other suggestions over the next several months and I’ll remain cognizant  what I wish for as I may be submitting an abstract to present myself.  Maybe.

So to start the discussion, here is an initial list of  ten geospatial mapping applications and program areas I’d like to send a speaker invite to for the 2017 GeoCon – and why.

NYS Office of the Attorney General:  New York Crime Gun Analysis https://targettrafficking.ag.ny.gov/tool/

While mapping continues to be one of the primary end products of GIS analysis, geospatial data is increasingly being used in a wide range of data visualization platforms such as Tableau.    I’d welcome the opportunity to attend a presentation by the Office of the Attorney on the Crime Gun Analysis report outlining data collection, data analysis, and the rendering of the data through maps, tables, and charts.  Not the normal GIS menu.

New York State Regional Economic Development Councils (REDC) http://regionalcouncils.ny.gov/

In context of geospatial, this program reference isn’t so much about “what it is”, as opposed to more about “what it isn’t”.  Or at least I think.  From my level, the REDC framework has always been somewhat of a mystery since current state administration created the 10 Regional Councils in 2011.  And even more confusing that the geography of the REDCs do not coincide with the statewide Regional Planning Commission boundaries. That said, there is an incredible amount of geospatial information and analysis in the Council’s underlying mission.  Everything happens somewhere.  And there is a ton of money coming through the Consolidated Funding Application (CFA) process which I believe the GIS community should be more engaged and recipients of to some degree. Uber opportunities for web mapping applications, Story Maps, and GIS-produced maps for publications though one would be hard pressed to see any real evidence of a professional GIS touch in any of the Council products and services.   I looked through four regional 2016 “progress” reports (Hudson Valley, Finger Lakes, Capital Region and Southern Tier and found very limited reference to GIS/geospatial technologies.   Some kind of presentation by one of the REDCs and/or regional GIS personnel involved in this program would be most informative for the statewide GIS community.  Otherwise I doubt we’re going to hear anything through the state GIS program office on this.

511NY
https://www.511ny.org/

This is more of a selfish request than anything because I really don’t fully understand the makings and how 511NY operates in context of GIS/geospatial data collection, sources, work flows, or even development of their applications including the online mapping stuff.  I do know it’s big, visible, seemingly growing in functionality, supported by a mess of New York State transportation agencies -even though it has its own .org web address.  It also creates a lot of data which would be useful to consume and use in local government web mapping applications.   I’d be the first one to sign up to hear how it all comes together, funding, sources of the data (including what is being taken from and/or generated at the local level), opportunities for collaboration with local GIS programs, and what’s next.  How long before we see an Uber icon on the 511NY homepage to help support trip planning?

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