I Was Born in 10 BG

June 14, 2016

by Terese Rowekamp, Product Manager


I was born in 10 BG.

In those Before GIS days, the world of technology was much different. There weren’t computers on every desk at work. There weren’t cell phones, let alone smart devices. There wasn’t Bluetooth or GPS (unless you were in the military). Imagine how different the work environment was.

When I was working toward a B.S. in Geography, I used pen and ink and zip-a-tone to make maps. (Zip-a-tone is patterned sheets with a peel-away backing. Using an X-acto knife, I would meticulously cut out a piece in the shape of an area on the map and then gently lift it from the zip-a-tone sheet and place it on my map. Using different patterns for different data values, I could create a categorized population map or soil map or other thematic map. Hopefully, I didn’t spill ink or tear the zip-a-tone while I was applying it to the map.)

In graduate school at the University of Kansas in the late 1970s, I advanced to using dark room techniques to create multiple copies of a single map. One of my professors, Dr. George Jenks, taught a class that introduced us to the idea of using a computer to store (x,y) locations and associated geographic data values. The coordinate was the center of a 10-mile square cell, and the data value was the dominant land cover in that area. Maps were printed using line printers, and assigning a period “(.)” to all cells with a land cover of forested and assigning an “X” overprinted with an “O” (to create a darker symbol) to all cells with a land cover of urban created a map that was similar to my zip-a-tone maps without all the manual effort.

My first “real” job was working for Minnesota’s Land Management Information Center. Because of grad school connections between the direction of LMIC and Jack Dangermond, LMIC was a user of Esri’s first GIS software (PIOS). We worked on UNIX “dumb terminals” that were connected to a PR1ME minicomputer, running PrimOS. This state-of-the-art “minicomputer” filled a small room, ran at 0.7 MIPS, had 2MB of memory, 500MB of disk storage and a 9-track tape unit – and 10 or 15 users connected to it, sharing those resources. When we wanted to work on a project, we would talk to Bob, who would find the tape with that project’s files on it, restore them and then backup and remove them again when we were done. When the computer had issues, special technicians (affectionately known as Primates) were called in to fix it. In addition, 90% of the time it took to complete a GIS project was spent on GIS data capture (and there was no screen connected to the digitizing table so you couldn’t see how badly you traced something like a soil polygon until you printed out a map). GIS analysis was done using commands typed in at a DOS prompt. The Internet and email didn’t exist.

Boy, how things have changed.

My smart phone is more powerful than that minicomputer. Many GIS projects can be completed with ready-to-access GIS data, which is made available through various online data portals. It’s easy to search the Internet to find that data. Smart phone apps utilize GIS to tell me where I am and how to get where I want to be, to report problems like flooded roads to Emergency Management departments in real time, to show me where to find a bank offering the services I need. WebGIS software makes GIS technology easy-to-use and accessible to anyone with an internet connection.  Now even the novice can run applications and share maps through this web-based GIS.

In my early work days, a local government employee would spend hours determining which homeowners to notify of a proposed variance in zoning. The Planning and Zoning employee at the city or county would first manually look up on a map the address of the parcel requesting the zoning change. Then, parcel IDs of parcels within the specified notification distance would be manually identified. Those parcel IDs would be used to manually look up the parcel owners. Names and addresses would be determined and letters would be created for mailing. The next zoning variance request would be received, and the process would be repeated. Being able to reduce the time of this task to minutes was the initial selling point for many local governments to start using GIS.

The power of GIS to streamline work tasks and make better business decisions offers tremendous benefits to all levels of government and business. Every local government has incredible amounts of location-based data, including property value and ownership data in Computer-Assisted Mass Appraisal (CAMA) systems, utility location and maintenance records, E911 addressing, road centerlines, demographic data, planning and zoning boundaries, parks and recreational facilities, school locations and attendance areas, social service recipients and much more. Making appropriate maps and data available to the public through easy-to-use web applications provides useful information to constituents and frees up time otherwise required of staff members to answer questions. A user name and password login can provide additional analysis tools and access to sensitive data to appropriate staff.

GIS Workshop has the ability and know-how to implement GIS within your organization, to collect, build, & maintain your GIS data layers, and to deploy WebGIS to help optimize your workflow while providing increased access to government to your constituents.  Our team will ensure that you end up with a world-class GIS platform for viewing, analyzing and interacting with your organization’s spatial information.

Contact us today for a demo of our WebGIS applications, or for information on GIS professional services and application development offered by GIS Workshop. Let us help you utilize the full power of GIS in your organization!