10 Questions: Dale Morris

Dale Morris is one of New York State’s most recognized and senior GIS statesmen.  With a distinguished civil service career spanning 38 years, he has contributed significantly to the NYS GIS community in many capacities to say the least of directing one of the most established GIS programs in the state at Erie County – and its far reaching influence in western New York.  Ten questions seemed like a slight to an individual with such a body of professional work, so the eSpatiallyNewYork editorial team gave him permission to push it to 15 questions. Or something like that.  Enjoy.

eSpatiallynewyork:  How long have you been with Erie County?

Morris:  I’ve been in the Department of Environment and Planning since 1981. Prior to this I worked as a Planner for the Town of Amherst, NY and before that the Erie and Niagara Counties Regional Planning Board. I graduated from Cornell University with a Master’s Degree in Regional Planning in 1977.

eSpatiallynewyork:  When did you start doing GIS work?

Morris:   Working initially as a Planner for Erie County presented  many opportunities for making and using maps. In the 1980s we were still using Mylar, zipatone, and Leroy Lettering Sets for making maps, which is tedious, time consuming, and not easy to change. I began to investigate the world of digital mapping, which was still in its beginnings as a desktop product. I started with the DOS version of MapInfo. I recall how amazed we all were that we could do something as simple as draw the County and municipal boundaries on-screen. Looking back on it now it all seems so rudimentary!  Regardless of how basic it was, my Division became known for our ability to make computer drawn maps. At that time there wasn’t much concern about the database behind the maps- it was enough to be able to draw and edit maps digitally rather than by hand.

As desktop mapping grew in popularity through the 1990s a number of County departments began independently looking into it. This usually resulted in them calling me to ask for advice or data. Of course, this also meant that everyone was using different systems, and at that time it made exchanging data between systems very difficult or impossible. It was a classic case of disjointed silos of data and applications.

A change in County administration in the late 1990s brought new management in our department, and I was challenged to prepare a white paper for moving the County further forward into the digital mapping world. I proposed creating a new County Division that would be empowered to centralize decisions relating to geospatial technology (by then we could use terms like “geospatial” without getting blank stares!). The Office of Geographic Information Services (OGIS) was born in 2001, and I have been the Director since then. So for me personally, my career started with both feet in the urban planning field, then a gradual shift to one foot in planning and one in digital mapping, and then finally both feet in GIS. I do very little “typical” planning anymore, even though OGIS is part of the Planning Division.

While OGIS is an Office within the Department of Environment and Planning, only a portion of our work is related to this department. We work very closely with our IT shop to maintain and operate the County’s GIS technology infrastructure, and with other departments and outside agencies who either use our enterprise GIS technology or who need direct assistance with their mapping needs.

eSpatiallynewyork:  What’s the relationship between your office and Niagara County?

Morris:  We have a formal Intermunicipal Agreement (IMA) with Niagara County for GIS Services. The agreement is for a five year period and we are well into the second of these five-year agreements. Erie County hosts Niagara County’s geospatial data and provides on-line mapping services to Niagara County. The two counties are connected by a high-speed microwave link, which operates very well. In essence, Niagara County is simply like any other Erie County department that taps into the Erie County enterprise GIS network. In addition to providing Niagara County this service for a fee, the IMA provides a framework for backup of GIS data between the two counties, and as well defines a GIS “mutual aid” protocol for sharing of GIS resources and staff in the event of an emergency.
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Queensbury Geospatial: A Model for NYS Town Government GIS

Northbound New York State Northway Exit 20 leads to the Town of Queensbury which is the seat of Warren County.  With a 2010 population of 27,901 the town covers nearly 65-square miles including shoreline along Lake George and lands within the Adirondack Park.  Further into town, several of the usual NYS town government program offices are located at 742 Bay Road including staff and resources which support the town’s geographic information system (GIS).

GIS Background

Prior to 2002, Queensbury officials had worked with consultants to establish initial GIS capacity including the creation of ArcIMS applications and investing in multiple ESRI desktop licenses.  In 2002, the town’s GIS initiative changed significantly with the hiring of George Hilton.  Hired as a GIS Specialist and planner, George was brought onboard to build and advance the town’s  GIS program.

Prior to arriving in Queensbury, George had honed his GIS skills while a student at Central Connecticut State University and later in government positions  in the Denver and Kansas City areas as well as three years with Westchester County.  Now, 15-years after his arrival, George oversees a program which can be considered an exemplary NYS municipal government GIS program.

Current Queensbury Geospatial Products and Infrastructure        

George designs, codes and maintains the Town’s Interactive Mapper (Firefox and IE only) and a host of other ArcGIS.com map viewers including Fire and EMS, Planning and Zoning, and Phase II Stormwater Infrastructure.    He also supports emerging mobile mapping and data collection efforts which includes Trimble GPS units with Trimble Positions to collect data and update feature services and Geodatabases in the field.  The town also collects data (hydrant inspections, site inspections) with ArcGIS Collector using feature services and make maps available through ArcGIS Online.

The Town of Queensbury Interactive Mapper includes many locally developed datasets as well as data from other authoritative sources including Warren County, NewYork State and the Adirondack Park Agency.

The Town of Queensbury Interactive Mapper includes many locally developed datasets as well as data from other authoritative sources including Warren County, NewYork State and the Adirondack Park Agency.

Other software components – much of which has been self-taught – George uses inlcludes Sybase (RPS) and SQL Server with ArcSDE as well as ArcGIS Server, ArcSDE, ArcGIS (Advanced), and Spatial Analyst.  The town is currently at ArcGIS Server 10.22 and are testing 10.4 with plans to upgrade very soon.  He also works with QGIS and Global Mapper from time to time.  Global Mapper has been particularly helpful in importing updated USGS topo quads (DRGs) in GeoPDF format into our GIS.

The Queensbury GIS program has grown from primarily providing support to the Planning Department to becoming a very important resource for many departments across town government.  Both the Town Board and Town Supervisor are very supportive of GIS and recognize how much of an important tool GIS has become to the Town.

Parts of the Town of Queensbury is actually within the Adirondack Park and therefore subject to stringent land use regulations. This image highlights zoning districts on the southeastern shore of Lake George – within the park boundaries.

Parts of the Town of Queensbury is actually within the Adirondack Park and therefore subject to stringent land use regulations. This image highlights zoning districts on the southeastern shore of Lake George – within the park boundaries.

George maintains an excellent working relationship with Warren County GIS which is under the direction of Sara Frankenfeld where he obtains  parcel data.  The town creates town-wide datasets (zoning, subdivisions, hydrants, infrastructure, environmental, street centerlines, address points, etc) which are then shared back with the County. Referencing her ongoing GIS work with Queensbury, Sara explains:

“George is great to work with and especially in a rural environment where we don’t have any other full-time GIS staff within our respective local governments, it’s so helpful to have a colleague to bounce things off.  He’s a very good sounding board and when I’m considering starting a new project, I often call to get his thoughts.

 We’ve worked closely together on a number of projects.  We recently worked together to streamline the way e-911 addresses are assigned, and this has been a huge improvement to workflows in both of our offices, as well as in the Real Property office, the zoning/building inspectors departments, and the assessors’ offices

 Our current cooperative project is a NYS Archives LGRMIF grant funded project to make the SAM data, along with information about truss roofed structures (as required by a NYS law that went into effect 1/1/2015), and other relevant data such as hydrant locations, available to first responders via an Android/iOS app”.

George also works closely with several state agencies including the Adirondack Park Agency, NYS Parks and Historic Preservation, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, and NYS Information Technology Services (ITS).  Queensbury Town Supervisor John Strough adds:

“Like today’s computers, I do not know how we lived without him. His GIS services have helped us map the town’s infrastructure structures, trail systems, historic places and many other location details that we absolutely need to comply with the needs of today’s municipal world. I am in his office requesting his services almost as often as am in my budget officer’s office, that’s how important GIS services have become to the town.

Broad User Base

The town enjoys a wide user base including ESRI desktop clients in Planning, Water and Sewer, Assessor, and Parks departments though George is commonly called upon to assist in more detailed data creation, analysis, and cartographic products throughout town government.  He also provides training for users in many local, regional and statewide agencies including the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Champlain Watershed Improvement Coalition of New York, and the NY State Conservation District Association at their statewide conference in Auburn and Syracuse.

Additionally, George provides maps and data analysis for many community groups, nonprofits, schools, as well as for other municipalities and quasi-governmental agencies in the area.   Queensbury if one of the few municipalities in the area with a GIS program and is often asked to provide support throughout the area.

Creating More Queensbury GIS Programs

While George brought years of GIS experience to the town when accepting  the job, his ability to advance the town’s GIS program has certainly been augmented by ongoing political and administrative support.  Such combination of experience, competitive salary, technical skills and political support is often hard to replicate –   or even find for that matter –  in small town governments across the Empire State.

The Town of Queensbury GIS program speaks to the importance of educating elected officials in the benefits and  importance of investing – both financially and institutionally –  in the role of geospatial technologies in small town governance.  While the Queensbury GIS solution might be considered a typical for similar-sized communities across the state, it nonetheless can be a model for the GIS community to aspire to and replicate.

Visit the Town of Queensbury website at http://www.queensbury.net or George Hilton directly at GeorgeH@queensbury.net.


NYS Local Government GIS Common Core: Part 1

At the 2015 NYGeoCon in Albany, I presented a paper focusing on several GIS applications which often support and justify GIS/geospatial development at the local level.  I refer to these applications and program areas as the “GIS Common Core” and it was my intent to use the presentation as a starting point to expand the discussion further as part of this blog.

While some of the GIS Common Core program areas are not new to the discussion, several factors have contributed to elevating these day-to-day GIS functional areas to the mainstay of local government geospatial efforts.  Though these factors and opportunities vary greatly across the state, some of the more obvious reasons why “GIS Common Core” applications are becoming the foundation of local government programs include:

  • Improved large-scale spatial data integration across key business applications (assessment-inspections-permitting-public safety-utilities)
  • Better address standardization as a result of E911 implementation
  • Significant improvements on the integration between GIS and AutoCAD technologies
  • Establishing capacity to fulfill ongoing/permanent regulatory and reporting requirements (MS4)
  • Broad deployment of software programs in which using/collecting/maintaining X,Y data is implicit and available by default; GIS/geospatial is often no longer considered an “optional” feature
  • Leveraging flexible, easy-to-use browser-based applications which are accessible in a wide range of environments, particularly in the growing government mobile work force.  A work force which expects maps anywhere anytime.
GIS Common Core application areas in local government

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

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Relative vs. Absolute Accuracy Revisited

I recently attended a presentation by Dr. Wende Mix, Associate Professor, Geography and Planning Department at SUNY Buffalo State entitled “Field Data Collection Using Smart Phones, Tablets, and GPS Devices:  A Case Study Though the presentation focused on using mobile devices for field data collection, augmented with high resolution aerial imagery,   Dr. Mix inadvertently helped revisit a debate on the long standing geospatial issue of relative accuracy vs. absolute accuracy. While relative mapping accuracy issues are certainly pertinent as part of the emerging Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) and crowd sourcing data collection movements, Dr. Mix’s presentation highlights street feature data collection which was once the mapping domain reserved only for surveying and engineering disciplines.

So how do mobile devices intersect with spatial accuracy?  If at all?   Tons of geospatial data being collected with mobile devices (particularly by the growing Smart Phone market), data of varying scales and accuracies by personnel with varying degrees of training and expertise.  But at the end of the day, with all the disparate data combined, the data mash-up stills supports most decision making needs.  Quite a difference from the efforts of New York State Association of Professional Land Surveyors (NYSAPLS) which for years lobbied that similar street feature mapping across the state could legally only be done by licensed surveyors.  So does spatial data accuracy matter anymore?

Of course it does, though an easier answer is that data is normally collected of sufficient accuracy to support specific business needs.    But perhaps the best way to illustrate how this new market of mobile devices plays into the relative accuracy vs. absolute accuracy discussion, one first needs to consider the body of geospatial data development since the late 1970s/early 1980s.

Early Data Development:  With many early government GIS programs getting started with public domain U.S. Geological Survey  1:100000 (+/- 166’)  Digital Line Graph (DLG) or 1:24000 (+/- 40’)  digital files, widespread use of the technology, particularly within the engineering communities and urban environments, was slow to take hold because the data was considered too generalized and “not accurate” enough. Beyond the human resources needed to manually digitize and convert hardcopy manuscripts, much of the first generation of geospatial data was cheap to acquire and develop.  The trade-off was that the geospatial data was of limited accuracy and content due largely to the generalized nature of the source documentation.

However, as data accuracy improved through photogrammetric projects creating many urban and metropolitan land bases at larger and more accurate scales (1”=200’  & 1”=100’), including a wide range of planimetric datasets such as building footprints, edge of pavement, hydrology, bridges and even stone walls – so did the associated data development costs.   However, the increased accuracy and completeness of the data resulted in a much broader acceptance and use within the engineering community.   And certainly some of this increased user acceptance was also a result of the growing inner-operability between GIS and AutoCAD software packages.  Improved  GPS technology (as well as with “Selective Availability” being discontinued in 2000) also gave government and industry additional tools to further push the limits of high accuracy feature mapping, though as a whole, industry mapping costs remained high.  And cadastral programs continued to mature making large scale digital tax map datasets available providing even more reference and content to both hardcopy and online mapping efforts.  Overall, particularly in the urban environment, higher accuracy datasets with features being mapped a higher degree of positional accuracy,  were slowly replacing the more generalized first generation land bases.

Referencing Data Collected in the Field:   With many urban and even rural land bases now created and available online as a service and augmented by a variety of high resolution aerial imagery services, a large portion of data collected by mobile devices can now be easily referenced and spatially edited to its right relative location. (And as an added benefit, normally at a lower data development cost.)  Most mobile devices now include cameras, so including a picture of the selected feature adds even greater context to its relative location.  Using desktop tools, fire hydrants can be moved to their right relative X,Y location in front of the proper house.  Catch basins can be spatially adjusted to register in their right relative locations on street corners, street signs in their right relative location in the right-of-way, or the locations of underground storage tanks or septic fields moved to their right relative location on the proper tax parcel.  Overall, an industry witnessing an increased body of geospatial data that is not absolute accurate, but relatively accurate and ultimately more useful to a larger community of users – including the public works and engineering disciplines.   (It is noted that some workflows and business models may limit or not include resources for the editing of data; thus requiring high accuracy data capture in the field).

Dr. Mix’s presentation unintentionally illustrated how far we’ve come in context of building and using relative accurate geospatial datasets.  The content of her presentation was both typical and timely as much of the work across the state with mobile devices is being used with public infrastructure and street feature mapping.  While non-survey grade GPS units initially introduced some of these very same issues, the new mobile devices, and in particular Smart Phones, are game changers in context of affordability and ease-of-use.   It is to be seen long term how Smart Phone data collection will impact the low-end GPS hardware market.  (Any Google search on “GPS vs. Smart Phone Data Collection” will provide a long list of opinions on the matter.)

There is no question absolute (or near) accuracy – and its high price tag in data acquisition – is still mandatory for engineering and design/build projects.  But for nearly all other business needs, relative accurate and complete datasets will continue to augment design/build projects and support government and industry decision making.    All said “everything happens somewhere – and it is increasingly being mapped in its right relative location”.