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Web GIS - A tool for any community

RESEARCH: WEB GIS…A TOOL FOR ANY COMMUNITY

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Berkeley, CA – At the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, many news organizations’ Web sites displayed interactive maps of Iraq that showed cities, roads, oil fields, coalition troops, battle sites, mountains, rivers, deserts, and the location of ethnic and religious groups. Anyone with Internet access could add and remove layers of information to obtain a better sense of the country and zero in on aspects of the conflict.

Those interactive maps – and others that people use every day, such as MapQuest or Yahoo or Google Maps -- are simplified versions of a very powerful tool called GIS. Geographic Information Systems have been used for a couple of decades by city, county, regional, state and national planners. Like many other information tools, GIS maps are migrating to the Web. What’s revolutionary part is how members of a community can contribute information that makes the site even more useful to researchers and citizens.

The Bay Area Wetland Project Tracker (http://wetlandtracker.org) is a Web-based GIS map that provides free public access to information about wetlands projects in the San Francisco Bay

Area. Over the last 150 years, about 90 percent of the marshes rimming the enormous bay have been filled in for agricultural and commercial development. Recognizing the damage to wildlife and the ecosystem, residents in the nine counties around the bay are restoring thousands of acres and protecting existing wetlands.

The interactive map provides the location, size, sponsors, habitats, people to contact, and status of wetland restoration projects to anyone who works on restoration, such as land managers and staff of regulatory agencies; local, state and national politicians; and members of the public who live near wetlands projects or are interested in the restoration progress or visiting the wetlands.

The San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) started putting together the wetland project tracker in 2000. Information previously scattered on agencies’ computers or in file cabinets was put in a central location and made available to anyone.

“We see part of our mission to steward the cooperation of different groups such as government agencies and private entities in taking care of the estuary and to be a center for many different kinds of environmental data,” says Mike May, who directs the development of the Wetlands Tracker.

“It’s important for the public to understand whether we’re winning or losing the battle on wetlands,” says Marcia Brockbank, SFEI program manager. “It’s a great tool for the interested public to use on the Web to find out what projects are in their neighborhood.”

Dr. Maggi Kelly, an environmental monitoring Cooperative Extension specialist and adjunct professor at University of California Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management, and her graduate student, Karin Tuxen, became involved in 2003. Kelly, who is also co-director of UC Berkeley’s Center for the Assessment and Monitoring of Forest and Environmental Resources, and Tuxen had developed Oakmapper (http://www.oakmapper.org), a Web-GIS site that monitored sudden oak death in central coastal California. Not only was the interactive map useful for researchers and government officials, but it also allowed members of the public to submit information about oaks they found stricken with the disease.

“Web-GIS allows community members to develop their sense of place and get involved deeper with environmental stewardship of their region,” notes Kelly. She and Tuxen applied for RREA funding to add some components to the Wetlands Tracker and to host a meeting for Cooperative Extension advisors and specialists to learn about Web-GIS.

Tuxen, who is proficient in the software on which the Wetlands Tracker is based, enhanced the interactive map with major highways, an address finder that identifies the project closest to that address, a project locater, a way to find a project based on the number of acres it comprises, a way to find projects in a particular congressional district, and a tool to print maps.

Because of their visual organization, Web-GIS sites can grow easily. May intends on adding other features, including a bar chart that assesses goals over time, a chart that shows the number of acres undergoing restoration, closer tracking of a project’s status, and tracking habitat change over time.

The number of Web-GIS sites, including citizen-monitoring sites, are growing rapidly. They range from the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird counts to the massive public input to NASA on location of debris from the space shuttle disaster in February 2003.

“A lot more people are getting comfortable with GIS,” says Tuxen. “It’s a way to get at geography in a user-friendly way.”
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