Data Into Dollars: Azavea Brings GIS To Everyone

August 6, 2014 11:44 am PST | Data as a Service, Data into Dollars

Since epidemiologists started mapping cholera outbreaks in the mid-19th century, the power to plot data on to maps has pretty much been in the hands of the technically adept. Even as computers have become more involved in the geospatial information systems (GIS) process, access and comprehension of data maps have still been restricted to techies and map enthusiasts.

Philadelphia-based Azavea is looking to buck this trend by building web and mobile born apps to bring GIS to a wider, less technical audience. “Cartography has long been a useful form of visualization,” said Andrew Thompson, Azavea’s Community Evangelist in a phone interview with me this week, “But, with the web, we can make mapping and data analytics more comprehensible to the the public.”

One example of how Azavea is connecting data and the public is OpenTreeMap, an app the company developed to allow what Thompson calls “citizen scientists” to map trees in their own communities. “You don’t need to understand GIS to enter the location of trees,” he notes, “Because the user experience is simple enough anyone can do it.”

Tree locations and other data entered by these citizen scientists become a resource for nonprofits and parks department, allowing them to document and manage urban forests. For instance, Tree People is using the app to improve green space in Los Angeles. In Edmonton, OpenTreeMap tracks the planting of saplings given to all the city’s first graders. (If you’re interested in setting up your own instance, OpenTreeMap is available on GitHub.)

OpenTreeMap both uses and creates open data. The app leverages open data sets which denote neighborhood and other geographic boundaries. And, it’s adding to the available open data as most cities and nonprofits using the app release the collected tree data as open CSV or shape files.

In other green projects “putting power in the public’s hands,” Azavea won a grant from the Department of Energy to create climate change models for local municipalities. The end result will be a set of decision making tools town supervisors and urban planners can use to determine how climate change will impact their towns. 

Azavea is also planning on creating tools to simulate and predict tree density and health in the future. So, if you plant trees today, you can determine what they will look like 10 or 20 years down the road, including an impression of their ecological benefits, such as CO2 sequestration, or how the trees would transform open spaces.

“Since we are working so much on these [eco] projects,” Thompson says, “We’d really like to see more precise data sets like the National Land Cover Database, LIDAR, and other USGS data sets released with greater frequency. But, we also realize that a lot of these data are collected by the government for their own internal processes and weren’t initially intended for public use. Still, once the government does release data, you can see that it becomes not just easier for those outside government to understand what’s going on inside, but also helps the government get a greater understanding of what it is doing itself.”

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