Mapping the Future with Information Systems

Although mapmaking is an ancient art, scientists are always improving its technology. Today, mapmakers and other scientists can give Pennsylvanians layer upon layer of information about their neighborhood, their county and their state -- literally at the touch of a button.
Gerald Hatcher County Commissioner, Clearfield County

Gerald Hatcher County Commissioner, Clearfield County

"Penn State's Land Analysis Lab was very important in opening our eyes to the opportunities of GIS. They have been extremely helpful in providing training, teaching classes and familiarizing our personnel with the equipment necessary for our Enhanced 911 Project. They have helped us avoid the pitfalls and mistakes other communities experienced while installing GIs technology."

Using technologies known as Geographic Information Systems (GIs) and remote sensing, researchers offer unprecedented insight into land use and statistical information about our communities, our natural resources and our state.

What is GIs? Start with satellites orbiting in space above Pennsylvania and aircraft flying over the state equipped with high-resolution cameras and sensors. The images captured reveal the state's topography, its vegetative cover, the expanse of its cities and suburbs, and the extent of its agricultural lands and watersheds, as well as environmentally degraded areas. These digital visual images are entered into a computer database. Upon this base of visual images can be stacked separate maps detailing roads and streams, county boundaries, farmland preservation acreage, livestock acreage and many other spatial statistics. Scientists can superimpose any or all of these maps onto the visual database to reveal connections between different layers. Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences has played a major role in developing and using GIs technology in Pennsylvania.

The Payoff

Assisting agencies

In 1998, Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was charged with extensively testing about 11,000 water supply wells for pesticide contamination. Using GIs technology, Penn State's Office for Remote Sensing of Earth Resources (ORSER) rated and categorized water systems and identified wells that could be excluded from testing because they were not located in areas where contamination was likely. The process saved the state more than $7 million in unnecessary testing fees. The College of Agricultural Sciences Land Analysis Laboratory also created a GIs database for DEP that allows resource managers to determine how surface water withdrawals will affect future stream flows. The system is used in all five DEP regions and is an integral tool in the agency's permitting process. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) uses College-developed GIs software to streamline the evaluation process for the state's Farmland Protection Program, allowing counties to rate individual acreage for inclusion in the program in a matter of minutes. The software saves thousands of dollars in employee time and resources. In addition, PDA is working with the lab to incorporate GIs systems throughout the entire department. The lab will train PDA personnel, customize the GIs system for individual uses and develop application software for various systems. Penn State, together with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, also is in the process of digitizing all soils data for Pennsylvania. About 10 million acres -- 18 Pennsylvania counties -- have been digitized. As each county's acreage is completed, the lab creates a website where users can access county soils data.

Improving local resource management

The Land Analysis Lab created a GIs water management system for the Laurel Ridge region, which spans parts of Cambria, Fayette, Somerset and Westmoreland counties. The system identifies all surface and groundwater systems that draw from the Mauch Chunk/Burgoon aquifer. These counties use the GIs program to predict how drilling new water wells might affect groundwater resources that are the source for the area's high-quality streams. Each year, the lab also trains approximately 200 municipal and county employees and private consultants to use GIs technology. As part of a NASA-funded project, the College has developed GIs applications to identify, locate and categorize the productivity of soils and monitor urban sprawl across the state. Of the 7.7 million acres classified as agricultural lands, GIs analysis identified farmland in central Lancaster, central Centre, Berks, Cumberland and Franklin counties as the most productive in the state. The process also determined that Lancaster County has experienced major losses of highly productive land, as have Centre, Cumberland and Berks counties, and provides lawmakers with key information that may help to preserve this resource.

Helping 911 find you

It can be extremely difficult for emergency personnel to quickly find the location where they're needed, especially in rural areas. Lab scientists provided technical support to develop a GIs database for Centre County's 911 emergency management system that identifies every house and street in the county. Now, the lab is working with Cameron, Clearfield, Elk, Jefferson and McKean counties to create a similar GIs-based 911 management system. Other counties also have used Penn State's project as a model for their 911 systems.

Desktop resources database

In a collaborative project between ORSER, Penn State's Pattee Library and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences' Deasy Geographic Laboratory, scientists have developed "Pennsylvania Explorer," a CD-ROM database that can be used on a desktop computer. The database contains satellite images of the entire state and overlay maps of streams, roadways, watersheds and other resources. About 2,500 CD-ROMs have been distributed statewide -- to every Pennsylvania legislative district, to personnel in every state agency and to various school districts. Compaq Computer Corp. is distributing about 1,500 of the CD-ROMs nationally to demonstrate how GIs technology can be used. The data also is accessible at a website, which averages more than 100,000 accesses per month.

Extinction prevention

Scientists in Penn State's School of Forest Resources collaborate on The National Gap Analysis Program -- sponsored by the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey -- to identify and categorize wildlife habitat across the state not currently under conservation management, while simultaneously identifying gaps in habitat for wildlife that might cause them to be at risk for extinction or in need of conservation. Penn State's researchers are responsible for classifying habitat information for more than 400 vertebrate species.

The College of Agricultural Sciences Geographic Information Systems programs are a collaborative effort among the Departments of Agronomy and Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and the School of Forest Resources. For more information, contact Dr. Gary Petersen at (814) 863-0291 or Dr. Rick Day at (814) 863-1516. Visit the Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access website at