There's a map for that

Ian Murdoch
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Geo-mapping project brings big benefits to Town of St. Anthony

The Town of St. Anthony will soon be done with digging through old paper maps and outdated atlases, as it prepares to go digital through a new project that will recreate the town's infrastructure and landscape online.

An overhead view of St. Anthony shows a cruise ship coming into the harbour. The geo mapping project being developed by CNA for the town will help tourists and town in the future.

The Town of St. Anthony will soon be done with digging through old paper maps and outdated atlases, as it prepares to go digital through a new project that will recreate the town's infrastructure and landscape online.

The project, in partnership with the College of the North Atlantic (CNA), will use Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, which acts as a database and analysis tool to find information on anything from roads and sewage to tourist attractions and restaurants.

It allows for large amounts of information to be stored and accessed in one system so that town planners, emergency response workers, businesses, hunting and fishing outfitters, residents, and tourists can all benefit from having relevant, detailed information at their fingertips.

Darin Brooks, an instructor at the college who has worked with GIS technology for 17 years, said projects such as these bring many benefits to towns.

For example, towns generally rely on paper maps to determine the effects of a water main break, such as which residents will be affected and how traffic should be diverted. 

Instead of going through the process step by step, all a town manager would have to do is type the information into a computer system to get the information they need, such as the valve that needs to be shut off, the shortest road route to divert traffic and the exact houses that will be affected - all instantaneously.

"For most cities, this is probably why they get excited about moving from an analog to a digital world. The difference between paper maps and these digital maps is the capability to do analysis in GIS," said Mr. Brooks.

Town of St. Anthony Mayor, Ernest Simms, said this is something the town has been lacking for a number of years because there is no government department that aids in mapping.

"This will certainly bring us up to date with regards to the land in our area and the town's development - what areas are zoned for what - all in an overlay style that will certainly give us a better indication of what's there and what has to be done," said Mr. Simms.

"It's basically modernizing what we have. We have it but it's hard to find in all cases because every time you look for a map area of a certain part of the town or something within the town, you have to go to a different part of the building or office, or even the government.

"So now, this will certainly alleviate a lot of the problems we run into there and make it much easier for us to operate as a town."

Canada has been at the head of the pack in GIS technology throughout the world, largely due to our large natural resource sector.

However, the potential benefits of using GIS go well beyond the natural resource industry.

They include allowing businesses to determine the best locations for their stores and offices, researchers to better understand population demographics, and town managers to evaluate water quality for drinking.

Towns also benefits from using GIS in emergency response situations in order to get crucial information instantly on forest fires and floods.

Mr. Brooks said the college recently had one student who examined the costs associated with ambulance runs for Western Health and another student who worked on helping a city to respond to fires within eight minutes by using the quickest routes possible.

Other information such as the shortest routes for school buses and exact locations of manholes and fire hydrants could be incorporated using GPS technology, which GIS uses.

Another major benefit that the Town of St. Anthony could take advantage of is using GIS for tourist sites and attractions.

Mr. Brooks said that the next logical step of the project in St. Anthony is to include information in the system, such as road names, buildings, restaurants and tourist attractions, so that visitors can type into a webpage the information they are looking for and it will all come up on a map.

"The sky is really the limit" Darin Brooks

They would be able to turn different layers on and off, depending on what they are looking for.

It could also be possible to include restaurant menus and pictures, perhaps of icebergs from the previous year, with the click of a button.

A tourist could even download an app onto their cell phone to get information at the tap of a fingertip.

"The sky is really the limit," said Mr. Brooks.

The CNA project in St. Anthony will be conducted by Tammy Sheppard, a student at the college who is fulfilling her diploma requirements by geo-mapping the town.

The diploma involves two semesters of class work followed by eight weeks of hands-on project experience in order to gain practical skills in the field.

Initially, students go through a five day boot camp to decide whether they want to pursue the diploma or drop out.

Mr. Brooks said that there is a high demand for jobs in this field and the GIS diploma at CNA's campus in Corner Brook has even been listed in Maclean magazine's 2011 "Red-Hot Postgrad Programs," in which it states that some college diplomas are experiencing enrollment rates higher than medical schools these days.

Ms. Sheppard's project will run from April 30 to June 15 and involve a site visit to the town.

"She will hook things up that are supposed to be hooked up, like water and roads," said Mr. Brooks.

Her project will be similar to a project done by another student last year in Churchill Falls.

The Churchill Falls project involved gathering paper maps and air photos, with information on the underground water system, sewage system, manholes, power poles, fire hydrants, buildings, and roads in order to turn it all into one digital map.

"Now they've entered the digital community. He basically took them from paper to digital."

Despite the large benefits towns such as St. Anthony and Churchill Falls will enjoy from geo-mapping projects, there are some potential downsides.

Although megacities like Toronto and Vancouver have the resources to implement geo-mapping systems, many towns are strapped for cash and coming up with a justification for spending large amounts on software and resources to get set up digitally may be daunting.

However, Mr. Brooks said it is all worth it in the long run, particularly if provincial government programs are in place to help subsidize some of the startup costs.

"To me I sincerely think that that's the key. Once they have the software in house and they have someone that has some expertise in it, a graduate from our program for instance, it pays for itself."

 "I would like to think that as we do more and more of these smaller projects like in Churchill Falls and St. Anthony that eventually towns are definitely going to come on board. I have no doubt.

The Town of St. Anthony is fortunate enough to be a beneficiary of the CNA program, meaning that they don't have the high up-front costs they would have had if they did it on their own.

The software is already widespread and it could be used in situations without someone even realizing it.

"GIS is really ubiquitous. It sits in the background. Even though people probably have it they don't even know it. Someone in the back probably is doing it and they don't even know they have the capability.

Pretty soon, that capability will be in the hands of the Town of St. Anthony.


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