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Tech Through the Decades: Part 1

Increasing Access to Geospatial Data Through Technology

12/30/2019 3:05:19 PM

Nancy Rader sitting in her cubicle reading an old printed catalog of geographic data next to her computer monitor showing the new Geospatial Commons.

Pictured Above: Nancy Rader sitting in her cubicle reading an old printed catalog of geographic data next to her computer monitor showing the new Geospatial Commons, an online collaborative space for users and publishers of geospatial data.

The impact that technology has on the everyday lives of Minnesotans is changing exponentially. As we head into 2020, we wanted to reflect on where we were 10 years ago, the challenges and opportunities addressed by technology today, and where we might be headed in 2030. Technology touches nearly every aspect of the services that Minnesota state government provides, and the evolution of those services is underpinned by advances in technology, better business processes propelled by new applications or data management, and a focus on access for all.

Over the next few weeks, we will be sharing the perspectives of six employees from Minnesota IT Services (MNIT) who work hard every day for the State to ensure that Minnesotans have access to a better government.

Q&A with Nancy Rader, GIS Data Specialist

Nancy Rader is a GIS data specialist who works in the Geospatial Information Office at MNIT. Over the past decade, she says that technology has most changed her life by giving her the ability to find information and answer questions without having to physically go somewhere.

What problems did you think technology would be able to solve by 2020? Has that happened?

Nancy: While my job has always focused on improving access to geospatial data so that as many people as possible can use it, how we accomplish that goal has changed so dramatically over the past two decades that it is almost unrecognizable.

In 1996, I was hired to fill orders for geospatial data since most of it was not available online. Every time someone requested data, I would help them choose what they needed from our printed catalogue that described the available datasets: county boundaries, public land survey lines, stream and river locations, road maps, elevation grids, etc. Everything was a custom order that involved finding the data on storage tapes, copying it onto CDs and then mailing it. The staff time and materials costs meant that we had to charge users for the data, which raised some equity issues. People that had money to pay for the information could purchase it, but cost was a huge barrier to students, general members of the public, and nonprofits.

As the cost of data storage plummeted and data transfer speeds improved in the 2000s, we were able to start putting data sets online for free download. At first, each agency developed their own distribution site. Then, agencies worked together to develop the Minnesota Geospatial Commons, which launched in 2015, replacing the individual sites. The Commons is now a single place that anyone with internet access can use to find and access Minnesota geospatial information at no charge. The site is self-service and available 24/7; the content is provided by state agency and local partners.

The time and cost savings, and the increase in number of people served, has been tremendous. In the late ‘90s, I filled about 100 data orders a year; now tens of thousands of people access the Commons resources, currently numbering 844 datasets, applications and web services. They can download data or, increasingly, access the data via web services without having to download it at all. Our imagery service, which is used to display many years of air photos, is accessed several million times per month. As people spend less time and money acquiring data, they can spend more time on value-added analyses that benefit citizens.

What is one thing that hasn’t changed with the increased access to geospatial data over the past decade?

Nancy: The need for collaboration. We have always worked together to share information with our community and to find technology solutions that enable us to share more effectively and efficiently. The specifics and software may change, but the desire to provide useful, documented information remains the same. I couldn’t do my job without cooperative and collaborative colleagues who are motivated by our shared goal of making information more available and useful.

What do you hope will be available by 2030 that will increase access to geospatial data even more?

Nancy: A first hope is for increased access to historical data since people need that to see how the physical and cultural landscape has changed over time. For example, to assess the effectiveness of a change in policy, they may need to know how patterns of land use or land ownership have evolved, or where the quantity and quality of wetlands are changing, or where road or stream locations have been in the past. The Minnesota Geospatial Advisory Council, which we have been a part of since its inception, has an archiving workgroup dedicated to these issues.

A second hope is for increased capabilities to compile and maintain statewide datasets from locally-sourced data. One example project is Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1). In cooperation with Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Emergency Communications Network (ECN), we are aiding local GIS data providers by hosting data, building data quality workflows, and enabling the sharing of geospatial data that helps send a caller experiencing an emergency to the right 9-1-1 call center quicker and with more accuracy.

Anything else about how you think technology will change how we interact with government?

Nancy: We are heading into an era of data overload. As we add information, we must make sure it is of high quality and is worth finding, not just clutter. We also need to talk more with the end users of our systems to see how we can better help solve their problems and answer their questions. For me, the focus will be on the people that use, or could use, the Geospatial Commons. In light of how much has changed so quickly, it’s exciting to think of what else lies ahead.


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