Bringing The Geospatial Revolution To Rural Communities

Dr. Tora Johnson, GIS Director and Chair, Division of Environmental & Biological Sciences, University of Maine at Machias
Dr. Tora Johnson, GIS Director and Chair, Division of Environmental & Biological Sciences, University of Maine at Machias

Dr. Tora Johnson, GIS Director and Chair, Division of Environmental & Biological Sciences, University of Maine at Machias

In the past two decades, mapping technologies have revolutionized many industries, but the geospatial wave has largely left rural communities behind. Thanks to new web-based tools and expanding broadband access, remote areas are poised to leverage the power of digital mapping. Rural is the final frontier in the geospatial revolution.

When we founded the GIS Service Center at the University of Maine at Machias in 2005, urban municipalities around the US were adopting emerging geospatial solutions. Cities began to use GIS in planning. They hosted web-based tax parcel maps linked to searchable databases. Urban water utilities began to manage their networks and maintenance fleets with sophisticated tracking systems. These powerful technologies, ubiquitous today, played a crucial role in helping urban regions weather the recession and become more efficient.

By contrast, in 2005 in our rural region of Downeast Maine, all towns were using paper tax maps. Many kept property records on index cards. Broadband was scarce. Geospatial technology had made some inroads in local industries: Precision agriculture was widely used in potato farms, and high tech GPS units helped lobstermen maximize their catch. However, cash-strapped towns lacked hardware, software and expertise to use digital mapping.

If a real estate agent needed a copy of a tax map for a listing, they would need to visit the town office during limited hours where the clerk would photocopy the assessment records and the required portion of the map--black lines on white paper. There was no way to see boundaries on an aerial image or a topographical map.

  Geospatial technology had made some inroads in local industries: Precision agriculture was widely used in potato farms 

At the UMM GIS Service Center, our mission is to engage students in helping rural communities access mapping technology. Recent advances have made that work easier. Government investments in rural broadband have expanded availability, making web-based solutions more feasible. Working with regional planning agencies, our service center began in 2011 helping towns take advantage of a state-funded effort to digitize paper tax maps. We were also among the first to adopt ArcGIS Online from Esri, Inc., an online mapping service that allowed us to provide digitized data in interactive maps for municipalities and the public.

One key has been matching the scale of maps, data and computing processes to local needs and capabilities. A town with 300 land parcels doesn’t need and can’t support the enterprise databases, online infrastructure and support staff required for a city with 100,000 parcels. We rescale datasets, as needed, and use ArcGIS Online to host maps that are easy to access and update with a standard web browser--no special software required. Recent updates have added search and analytical capabilities.

Many towns now use digital mapping and analysis for functions such as online tax maps, spatial analytics, and GPS tracking for utility workers. A real estate agent can now access maps from their office, overlay boundary lines on aerials or topographic basemaps, search assessment records. Regional planning agencies are preparing to take over the hosting role long term. Through this work, we are—gradually—bringing the geospatial revolution to rural Maine.

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