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GIS plays growing role in most counties

September 13, 2017  - By

Report from the National Association of Counties (NACo) Annual Conference, July 21-24, Columbus, Ohio.

Main hall of the NaCo Conference. (Photo: Art Kalinski)

Main hall of the NACo Conference. (Photo: Art Kalinski)

After retiring from the Navy in 1993, my first GIS-related position was with the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC). I was tasked with building the agency’s GIS and promoting GIS within the 10 member counties.

Some of our counties were excited about building their own GIS capability. But some were timid if not hostile toward the new technology because of horror stories heard from a few early adopters in other parts of the country. I soon understood why.

Horror stories for county GIS efforts

Some of those counties were victims of ambitious sales representatives. The sales reps talked them into a GIS “dive into the deep end.” They recommended flying and collecting ortho imagery of the entire county, contracting for creation of data layers such as streets and parcels, buying ArcInfo running on Unix stations and hiring a GIS manager who was most likely the only one in the county who could run the GIS.

Then the fun began. There was a shortage of Unix/ArcInfo programmers, so head hunters had a field day tempting GIS managers to jump ship for higher salaries. This played havoc with some counties that had only one person able to run the GIS. Those counties found themselves in the position of not even being able to print out simple maps despite an investment of several hundred thousand dollars.

Hearing those horror stories, we acted quickly at ARC to make sure our counties understood the issues. We helped them by publishing some Atlanta regional data such as streets, hydrography, land-use and imagery on DVDs that could help our counties get started cheaply.

We also set up an ArcView Learning Center and trained more than 1,200 individuals in the entry-level GIS. This helped counties avoid some of the early and costly pitfalls by starting small and simple using readily available free GIS data.

It took years to shake the bad image that some had formed about GIS being too complicated. With that early experience I was happy to see that GIS had finally settled into playing a key role in county operations.

Today, with revenue being so important, GIS is well established in most county tax assessor operations and online access is available. However, other potential county users are still somewhat hesitant to adopt the technology. A significant portion of the conference and exhibitors were focused on new applications and users of GIS.

Key topics at NACo

I attended the National Association of Counties (NACo) Annual Conference and Expo, held July 21-24, in Columbus, Ohio.

The conference was very well attended with a surprising amount of time devoted to geospatial issues. GIS and related technologies are clearly major tools for most counties, with use and importance growing each day.

Key topics discussed at the GIS sub-committee included use of GIS by first responders, unmanned aerial systems (UAS), tackling the opioid crisis, public access and even new developments in artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

Highlights of the NACo Expo

The expo area had a wide variety of vendors ranging from first responder/public works hardware, to accounting software, human resources software, legal and medical services support. My focus was several exhibitors in the geospatial field who were working to make GIS more accessible primarily to first responders.


The geospatial “500-pound gorilla” has its technology in almost every county in the United States and is working to make GIS even more accessible to all county departments. Esri had a large booth at NACo — in the following video, Philip Mielke explains some of the latest tools of interest to counties including police, fire, opioid response, public works, economic development, drone data collection and even virtual and augmented reality.

I was hoping to see a demonstration of Esri’s photos-to-3D-model data-collection system, but the weather was too severe to venture outside the building. Last year, I did see their “drone to map” capability that spawned this system, so it should work well.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

I was surprised to see that NASA had a large display at NACo. Although not trying to sell anything, the booth was informational so other counties understood the impact on counties where NASA has a presence.

Todd May, the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, explained that most people think that NASA’s efforts are focused in only a few locations. In reality, more than 43 states are involved in the space effort producing hardware, software and capabilities needed by NASA.

As a side note, one of his staffers explained that Huntsville — which has the highest per-capita number of master’s degree holders, Ph.D.s and engineers of any city in the nation — also has more than 70 geospatial firms in the city.


An exhibitor that especially caught my attention because of its number of innovations was an Ohio geospatial firm called GlobalFlyte.

GlobalFlyte is working with the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) to bring some AFRL innovations into the public sector. Working with Esri and Pictometry/Eagleview, GlobalFlyte augments GIS data and oblique imagery with live UAS video.

One source of the video was from a tethered UAV; the tether permits an off-the-shelf drone to say aloft for hours.

GlobalFlyte also showed off a fast-deploying compact mast for communications, lights or video cameras called a zippermast. As implied by the name, three coils of spring steel “zipper” together to create a rigid self-rising three-sided mast.

The company also uses the Plum Case “network in a box” that I saw a GeoHuntsville last year to provide Wi-Fi and cellphone service in devastated or very weak service areas.

The most impressive part of GlobalFlyte’s solution is the seamless integration of the above resources with an innovative radio communications management system developed by AFRL to clear up the chaos of complex fast-paced military communications. The solution creates a 3D-like aural environment that separates and clarifies multiple radio conversations by putting them into a 3D space.

Wearing the earphones significantly reduces the confusing radio traffic by creating a 3D-like spatial environment. It’s surprising how the human ear can separate and focus on specific conversations like we naturally do in a crowded room.

The same audio was also simultaneously transcribed and displayed as text on the geospatial display screen with surprising accuracy.


Until the capability became ubiquitous on most smartphones, Ricoh offered the first affordable digital camera in the ’90s with built-in GPS that stamped each photo with a location. This facilitated the mapping and linking of photos to a GIS layer.

Ricoh still makes high-end digital cameras with both GPS and barcode reader accessories to facilitate data capture; however, at NACo, the company demonstrated a Virtual Self-Service Hologram.

Although labeled a “hologram” by Ricoh, this is really a rear-projected image that acts as a virtual receptionist. It’s similar to a point-of-sale projector I saw last year at the eMerge trade show.

The difference with the Ricoh unit is that it interacts with the viewer in real-time to provide information based on the needs and input of the viewer.

Blue Marble Geographics

Blue Marble Software tools support many different GIS data types (raster and vector) while serving as an all-in-one solution for data creation, visualization or conversion. Global Mapper GIS permits county employees with just a basic knowledge of GIS to develop and manage a fully functional GIS easily and at low cost to the county.

The U.S. Geological Survey, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Census Bureau also had booths explaining data products and services offered by the federal agencies.

Side Note

There was an interesting start-up food vendor in the Columbus Conference Center food court that may be a sign of things to come. They grow their own produce, on-site hydroponically. Top on their list were tomatoes, greens and some fruit. The vendor, “Homegrown Market,” is not fully operational yet but was attracting a lot of attention.

This is posted in GeoIntelligence Insider, Opinions

About the Author: Art Kalinski

A career Naval Officer, Art Kalinski established the Navy’s first geographic information system (GIS) in the mid-1980s. Completing a post-graduate degree in GIS at the University of North Carolina, he was the Atlanta Regional Commission GIS Manager from 1993 to 2007. He pioneered the use of oblique imagery for public safety and participated in numerous disaster-response actions including GIS/imagery support of the National Guard during Hurricane Katrina; the Urban Area Security Initiative; a NIMS-based field exercise in Atlanta; and a fully manned hardware-equipped joint disaster response exercise in New York City. Kalinski retired early from ARC to join Pictometry International to direct military projects using oblique imagery, which led to him joining SPGlobal Inc. He has written articles for numerous geospatial publications, and authors a monthly column for the GeoIntelligence Insider e-newsletter aimed at federal GIS users.