Geomatics put us in our place

14 Sep

September 14, 2006 

By Geoff Meeker

I entered the Costco store in St. John’s some time ago and ran into a large display of handheld global positioning systems (GPS).

They were right at the front, where you would normally find the latest neat gadget, like mp3 and portable DVD players. And people were buying these instruments at a pretty steady clip.

What on earth does the average consumer need a GPS for? I put this question to the salesman standing beside the display.

“Snaring rabbits,” he said. “Do you know how easy it is to lose your snare? Well, people go into the woods, set their snares, mark the exact location of each on their GPS, and find them all real easy the next time they’re in the woods.”

The handhelds are also highly useful for hikers, snowmobilers and ATV riders, as a way of knowing where they are at all times, especially when bad weather closes in.

Handheld GPS is a perfect example of geomatics in action. There are long and technical definitions for this term but, simply stated, geomatics are what happens when technology and geography collide. I first learned about it through a former client, the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology Industries. The world market for geomatics can reach as high as $20 billion, and is growing rapidly.

If there is one thing we have in abundance in this province, it is geography. And because they respond to our considerable geographical challenges, geomatics products developed locally are finding international markets.

The voyage data recorder and other products sold by Rutter Technologies have geomatics components, as do the electronic charting systems marketed by ICAN. Both companies are being held up as local success stories, and rightly so.

But there are other neat things going on just beneath the radar. I am aware of a proposal now under consideration to develop a geospatial cemetery system for one of our rural communities. Simply put, a relative from outside the province who is researching their genealogy could access a database containing all known information about an ancestor. More than providing information, however, the system would show where the gravesite is located on a map and – if a handheld GPS was used – lead them right to the burial plot.

Two perfect examples of the layering of technology onto geography can be found at Edward and Associates of Marystown. Their InfoTown system integrates all municipal information, such as location of street lights, storm drains, fire hydrants, water and sewer systems and more, with other data, such as hydro and telephone poles, enabling town administrators to plan developments and trouble-shoot issues at the click of a mouse. It also links to databases on property owners, and allows the overlay of other maps, including topography and waterways, to assist in town planning.

Even more interesting is Edwards and Associates’ Land Gazette, an online database of land surveys. I worked as a surveying assistant during the 1970s, and spent many hours at the Registry of Deeds, thumbing through dusty volumes to locate property descriptions of lands adjacent to our surveys. I understand that some of these deeds have since been saved to microfiche, but the process can still be onerous. Now, with the entry of a search word, lawyers, surveyors and their humble assistants can access surveys on the Internet – for a fee, of course.

According to developer Ian Edwards, 3,000 surveys have been loaded onto the database since it was launched in July. His ultimate goal is to have virtually every survey in the province available online, and many surveyors are cooperating by loading their inventories into the system.

“However, I know this isn’t going to happen overnight,” he said in an interview. “But over a couple of years, once the database gets more densely populated, that’s when the real value will kick in.”

Helping things along is an incentive for surveyors to load their work onto the system.

“Our business model is unique,” he said. “In Alberta there is a similar system, where it is mandatory for the surveyor to send in their surveys, along with a $100 fee. Later, if they want to access the information, they have to pay for it. In our system, the surveyors input the information free of charge, and if someone else accesses it, they pay for it and the surveyor receives a royalty.”

For another look at how geomatics makes geography accessible to the masses, check out the link below to Google Earth.


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