Geographical Information Systems discussed in UI seminar


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Johnson County and University of Iowa officials discussed the use of Geographical Information Systems at a presentation as part of the UI seminar explorer series on Thursday evening.

Geographical Information Systems — otherwise referred to as GIS — are interactive, multiplatform, data-driven, maps. GIS programs are used for a variety of purposes and have played a vital role in a several of areas in Johnson County. GIS programs are used heavily by county officials and are open to public use as well.

UI history Professor Colin Gordon spoke at Thursday’s seminar about “Digital Johnson County” — an online platform for archiving historical information.

The idea of a “Digital Johnson County,” Gordon said, is to pull together an array of historical sources about the area and put them together in one accessible platform. Historical atlases of the area can be overlaid on top of one another to look at geographical changes overtime. 

Rick Havel, GIS coordinator for Johnson County, was first hired by the county in 2001 to help implement GIS programs in the area. Since then, the program has greatly expanded.

“Having the information available on the Internet has cut down on counter traffic,” Havel said. “A process that used to take hours and a trip to the administration building now takes seconds [online].”
The county’s extensive flood history adds greater importance to the role that GIS technology has played in flood prediction and damage prevention.

“We have current and historical aerial photography that, when overlaid by property information, gives us a very good tool to plan for future flood events by either notifying property owners or looking at damage assessments,” Havel said.

The systems allowed officials to predict beforehand what areas of the city would need to be evacuated during floods this summer. During the 2008 flood, officials used GIS technology, which was not as advanced as it is now.

Response times for emergency 9-1-1 calls have also been improved by GIS technology. Havel worked with the Iowa City Fire Department to help improve its response times, which helped the department gain reaccreditation — an international recognition. 

County Supervisor Janelle Rettig said the improvement of 9-1-1 response calls has been a notable benefit for the areas safety.

“They’ve used GIS for changing the routes that they take to places,” Rettig said. “They’re using varieties of the GIS system and overlays of routing for traffic.”

The system, Rettig said, has substantially improved the efficiency of the county’s supervisors in terms of saving both time and money during decision-making. Prior to GIS, when supervisors had to review construction in the county, the supervisors had to make numerous in-person visits to the site.

“It’s one of those things that Johnson County should be very proud of, and it’s changed our business totally,” she said. “We save money and greenhouse gas emissions every day because of it.”

Future hopes for GIS technology, Havel said, are to help the world develop in a more sustainable way. In addition, he said, he wants to continue expanding the platforms for GIS programs and uses throughout the community.

“We definitely want to keep adding to the amount of information that we do push out through the Internet,” he said. “We want to increase the availability [of GIS] through mobile devices, through tablets and smart phones. Education is a big part of that — continuing to educate the public that these resources are available.”

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