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Sunday, April 3, 2016

30th anniversary of URI’s Environmental Data Center proves ‘place matters’

R.I. Geographic Information System vital to government, industry, environment

KINGSTON, R.I. –Do you need to know what’s adjacent to a particular Rhode Island property? Or the location of a wetland where a rare species lives? Or how to find a certain building, roadway, Superfund site or public drinking water well? Maybe you just want to know what your neighborhood looked like 50 or 75 years ago.

All of this information and much more can be found in the Rhode Island Geographic Information System, which is managed and maintained at the University of Rhode Island’s Environmental Data Center. And it is all available free online at with no restrictions on its use.

The Center, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, has proven again and again that geographic information – or what URI Professor Peter August calls “place-based data” – is vital to state and municipal government, environmental conservation, emergency management, business operations and the daily activities of just about everyone in the state.

“Place matters,” said August, the founder of the Environmental Data Center. “The location of things, whatever those things may be, is an important piece of information. And GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is the technology to manage it.”

When GIS technology was in its infancy in the mid-1980s, URI became one of its first users. The early data was initially used to help the state better understand ground water resources and monitor the health of Narragansett Bay. It was also crucial when a new location for the state landfill was being sought. And it became especially helpful when municipalities were required to create comprehensive master plans.

“The list of data is massive now, and new data sets are constantly being added and updated,” August said. “We just received updated road data from the Department of Transportation, and new information about the state’s soils is always being provided to make it more useful.”

Scores of institutions use the system nearly every month. These include every town and city and almost every state agency in Rhode Island, as well as every federal agency working in the state. Engineering firms and survey companies use the data daily, as do many environmental organizations like Save the Bay and the Nature Conservancy, which uses the data to make decisions about what properties to protect as open space.

One of the most important users is the Rhode Island E-911 system.

“Emergencies are place-based,” said August. “If you call 911 and first responders don’t know where you are, there’s little they can do to help.”

According to Greg Bonynge, the technology manager for the system, a new website will be launched by the end of March for users who aren’t seeking the complex data that many institutional users need. The new site will offer pointers to a wide variety of maps that curious residents will enjoy perusing, including statewide aerial maps dating back to 1939.

“That’s one of our most popular offerings,” Bonynge said. “People really enjoy seeing how their neighborhood changed through time. We’re also planning a new program to encourage people to use our remote sensing data, which will include teacher workshops so kids can create custom maps in school.”

During the last five years, the Rhode Island Geographic Information System website has had nearly 100,000 unique visitors and more than 20 terabytes of data were downloaded. In 2015 alone, the Environmental Data Center’s online map services handled more than 1.5 million requests.

Chuck LaBash, who directs the Center’s day-to-day operations, said the data system has undergone significant changes through the years as computer platforms have evolved. It started out running on a minicomputer system, then switched to a refrigerator-sized Unix server. After several additional iterations, it is now in the process of migrating to server banks in the University’s central computing center. 

Regardless of the platform, however, the system software remains the same, ArcGIS. The URI Environmental Data Center was one of the first customers of the mapping software developer, and the company honored the Center’s 30th anniversary last fall with an award of excellence as a pioneer in the use of its technology.

“We’ve been at the forefront of this technology since 1985, and I think we’re still in that position today,” said LaBash. “The use of this geospatial data is becoming ubiquitous in a lot of different disciplines, and many professionals want to use the data in very specialized web-based applications. The trend is being able to access the data in real time wherever you are. So we’re staying ahead of the curve and putting the data into a format that’s consumable by whatever applications are being developed.”

The Center is even investigating the use of drones to collect images and detailed elevation data that conservation groups and others may use to document changes to their properties.

“What’s great about the Environmental Data Center is that we have a critical mass of people who have been working at the lab since its inception,” LaBash concluded. “That means this critical mass of knowledge is a great think tank and learning environment that has enabled us to keep tabs on what’s going on with the technology. It means we can integrate new information on a daily basis so our users can access the data they need.”

Pictured above: Map of Newport showing one potential coastal inundation scenario resulting from storm surge and sea level rise. It is one example of the maps that can be created using data from the Rhode Island Geographic Information System, which is managed by URI’s Environmental Data Center.