Jul 02 2013

Google Maps and the Federal Government Partner Up to Improve GIS Data

U.S. Forest Service uses Google to monitor fires and also provides valuable data to Google.

Google offers way more than cloud email. The company’s extensive mapping efforts have helped create a massive resource for consumers and corporations alike. But now Google’s maps are actually saving lives.

The U.S. Forest Service, an agency within the Agricultural Department, is tasked with protecting 193 million acres of forests and grasslands. In 2009, the agency spent 42 percent of its annual $5.5 billion budget fighting forest fires, which threaten not only the wilderness but also the surrounding communities.

The Forest Service relies on nearly 1,000 aircraft to monitor its territory and, until recently, was using paper maps to track the aircrafts as well as workers on the ground. The process was outdated, slow and expensive. Google Maps proved to be exactly what the agency needed to speed up operations. And in this line of work, every second counts:

To address this challenge, the Forest Service developed a new tool to capture accurate real-time data in an easy-to-use application that is accessible to a larger group of users in a timely fashion. The tool, called the “Automated Flight Following” system (AFF), consolidates data transmitted by GPS devices on Forest Service and contracted airplanes and displays their real-time location in Google Earth. Other relevant GIS data created with ESRI can also be imported into the AFF system. For example, the Forest Service gets regularly updated shape files of temporary flight restrictions from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and displays those in AFF as 3-D objects. Weather, road, and fire perimeter information from other agencies is similarly imported into AFF providing a comprehensive situational awareness view to a broad group of Forest Service employees and cooperators.

As for the results, program manager Robert Roth says that a 0.5 percent increase in operational efficiency saves $875,000 per year. “We think the improvement is several times that figure,” he noted. Read the full case study here.

A Mapping Quid Pro Quo

The U.S. Forest Service is also responsible for delivering information about national parks to American citizens. Because the Forest Service collects geographic data in its work, the agency shares information to help Google improve its maps. David George, a Supervisory Physical Scientist at the Forest Service, thinks Google Maps is one of the best ways to make the parks accessible to the public:

An important part of the mission of the USDA Forest Service is informing the public about the forests and grasslands we manage. In order to achieve this, we want information about our lands to be accessible to as large an audience as possible. We are very pleased that Google has used our geospatial datasets to improve the base map in Google Maps and Google Earth so that everyone can easily discover, navigate and enjoy these public lands.

Check out the Forest Service website to see the agency’s data in action.

<p>Credit: US Forest Service</p>