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    GIS All Over


    The MassGIS site has simplified your choices to be able to pick certain "theme" maps, such as Color Ortho Imagery, USGS Topographic Maps, 3D Topographic Maps (shaded relief), Assessor Parcel Lines, Wetlands, DEP Title 5 Setback Areas, Demographic Viewer–Census 2000 that allow you to get just the information you need. The proprietary Oliver viewer gives you the control of which data layers you turn on and off but finding the right sets of layers (among hundreds) to turn on as well as understanding what each layer means can tax even a veteran CAD user.

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    With either of these viewers, you can zoom in on any community in the state, and view the data you want to see for that specific locale. We have found a wealth of invaluable data for our community that we can use to begin a detailed masterplanning or site plan study. This data is most easily captured as a straightforward bitmap file (in TIFF or JPEG format) but it is also available in vector formats, although perhaps not ones that you are familiar with such as ARC/INFO Export Files (.e00) and ESRI Shapefiles (SHP). Surveyors and planners who use this data every day might use specialized programs such as ArcGIS or ArcExplorer (programs developed by ESRI) to manipulate this data.

    Still, it is not too farfetched to assume that your architectural CAD program should be able to import this data as well. Currently, some CAD programs and variants can do so directly, while others must import with the aid of conversion programs. Third-party translators are alos available. Until such conversion is universally possible, however, remember that scalable bitmap import will do quite nicely in a project's planning stages.

    Imagine getting a new project in the planning stage and immediately getting your hands on the assessor road and parcel boundaries, the USGS topographical survey, the utility lines, the zoning use map, and any nearby restricted zones or easements all overlaid on a single map in layers that can be turned on and off. You might well keep the ease of getting all this data in a single shot from your client in order to protect your fees, but your job just got a great deal easier.

    The GIS world has quite a terminology of its own. We have tried to cover a few of the major terms in our "GIS Terminology" list at the end of this article. But in general, with a CAD background, you shouldn't have too much of a problem figuring out most of the lingo needed to navigate in this world.

    GIS experts James DeVellis and Catherine Martin of Geller DeVellis, Inc. stated in a recent Build Boston seminar that while GIS represents an "Easy" button for many projects, it certainly does not replace a site walk, a detailed engineers survey, or a compilation of record plans. While the scope of the available information online is extremely impressive, its localized accuracy can be way off-base at times. So, consider GIS data to be a big head start — but don't rely on it so much that you neglect to make sure that this head start is in the right direction.

    Also, bear in mind that the quality of the data itself varies widely from locale to locale. If rated on a scale from 1 to 10, DeVellis said that while the Massachusetts GIS database is an "8," Nevada's is probably only a "5" and Vietnam may only be a "3"...but then, admit it, aren't you impressed that Vietnam has a GIS database to begin with?

    In one case study cited, Geller DeVellis had to do an extreme fast-track design to renovate the Worcester, Massachusetts, Tornadoes baseball park in 3 months. By using GIS data to get a running start down to first base, they were able to finish the job in time with enough kudos to be invited to throw out the first pitch on a season where the Tornadoes won their League Championship. Coincidence or that "easy" GIS button at work? While much of this data is accessible online, don't assume that it's all online.

    Some even more detailed and accurate information may be available to you at the local assessor's office, if you use the magic words "GIS database." While some offices may tell you that such information is private, DeVellis said not to be dissuaded and to tell them in no uncertain terms that such information is by law public and must be made available to the public at a nominal fee. Burning such data to a CD should be easy enough for them (assuming they are computer literate at all), and far better, faster and cheaper than asking for prints. It should not be an expensive proposition at all.

    Check out the world of GIS in your area and we think you will be equally blown away at the resources that are now available to you online. It will save you a lot of time, work, and expense and make you look like a hero to your client — unless, of course, they know all about GIS themselves...But we won't tell them.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Evan H. Shu, FAIA is an architect with Shu Associates Inc. in Melrose, Massachusetts. He is a contributor to The Architect's Handbook of Professional Practice and is publisher and editor of Cheap Tricks, a monthly newsletter for DataCAD users and computer-using architects.

    This article is reprinted from the March 2007 issue of Cheap Tricks © Shu Associates Inc., with permission of the publisher.

    Project Credits

    GIS Terminology

    The following list of terms is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive, just a list that we compiled while learning about GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and a basic list which may be helpful to you.

    Data Layer: one category of information in a geographic database, which can be displayed (or not displayed) over a mapped background.

    USGS Topographic Maps: United States Geological Service contour maps showing elevation grade changes.

    Ortho Images: 2D maps, i.e. "flat."

    Metadata: general information about how the data was gathered and put together — sort of the footnotes on the data that is being displayed, often displayed in a separate "tab" from your map display.

    Query: is way of selecting features based on a set of common characteristics, most often done by turning on/off various data layers. For example, the act of selecting all parcels with household incomes of between $50,000 and $100,000 is a query.

    Infrastructure: the term means different things to different people, but with state GIS layers, it usually means the built environment under public jurisdiction such as roads, schools, hospitals, utilities, etc.

    Geospatial (Geo-referenced Data): mapped data tied to real-world geographic coordinates such as latitude and longitude.

    Non-spatial Attribute: information related to items that have no geographic information associated with them (e.g. the cost of a land parcel).

    Geocoding: The process by which the geographic coordinates of a location are determined by its address, postal code, or other explicitly non-geographic descriptor.

    GPS: Global Positioning System is way of using a receiver to track an exact location in 3 dimensions by timing the length of time needed to receive synchronous (speed of light) signals sent from at least four different global satellites.

    GeoTIFF: The geoTIFF file format embeds image registration information directly into the raster (TIFF) file. GeoTIFF is a universal raster file format used and recognized by all of the major GIS software vendors.

    DEP Priority Resource: environmental data layers suitable for a site assessment as required by the Department of Environmental Protection, such as Potentially Productive Aquifers, Non-potential Drinking Water Source Areas, Sole Source Aquifers, Zone IIs, Interim Wellhead Protection Areas, Wetlands, Protected Open Space, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, etc.

    Open Space: Protected and Recreational Open Space data.

    DEP Wetlands: boundaries of wetlands as tabulated by the Department of Environmental Protection.

    BioMap: data layers developed by the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program showing Core Habitat and Supporting Natural Landscapes areas for both invertebrate and mammal species.

    Demographic Viewer: Displays several demographic categories of data from the latest Census, including Population/Age, Housing, Language, Income, Citizenship, and Race, all based on the 2000 U.S. Census.

    GIS Directory Links

    * Alexandria Digital Library

    * ESRI, Environmental Systems Research Institute

    * Federal Geospatial Data Clearinghouse Search Engine

    * The Geography Network

    * Geospatial One Stop

    * GIS Data Depot

    * GIS Pilot (U.S. and World GIS Links)

    * Guide To U.S. Geospatial Data

    * National Atlas of the United States

    * The National Map, geospatial data from the USGS

    * U.S. Census Website

    * USGS, United States Geological Survey


    ArchWeek Image

    At many interactive GIS web sites, information from multiple databases can be overlaid on the same map view.
    Image: Courtesy City of Cleveland

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    Many city GIS web sites offer interactive visual navigation as well as the ability to search for properties by address or tax identification number.
    Image: Courtesy City of Portland

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    Aerial photography is often available.
    Image: Courtesy City of Portland

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    Building footprints, blocks, and streets are among the data commonly available at municipal GIS web sites.
    Image: Courtesy City of Portland

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    An example of a topographic layer overlaid on a basic GIS street grid.
    Image: Courtesy City of Portland

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    GIS data may be linked with databases of non-visual information.
    Image: Courtesy City of Portland Extra Large Image

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    Cleveland provides a public web interface for city GIS data.
    Image: Courtesy City of Cleveland

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    GIS data offerings as presented by the city of Albuquerque.
    David Owen


    Click on thumbnail images
    to view full-size pictures.

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