For state agencies working with geographic information systems, data storage and transfer can present quite the challenge — GIS files are frequently massive.
For instance, the aerial imagery that Michigan plans to place on dozens of new websites and applications over the next few years takes up roughly 25 terabytes of space.
And yet during hunting season this fall, the residents of Michigan won’t have to worry that the aerial data expansion will detract from their online experience using Mi-HUNT, an online mapping application. The state this spring embarked on a cloud-based GIS program that will bring more depth and analytic power to many of its constituent websites without impacting the performance of those already accessing it.
“The biggest thing that the move to the cloud does for the state is increase the types of data we can handle and give us more use of what we already have,” explains Mark Holmes, geospatial services manager at the Center for Shared Solutions and Technology Partnerships within Michigan’s Department of Technology, Management & Budget.
Besides preventing performance degradation, the move to the cloud will free up resources within the department.
“The cloud service will result in a 30 percent cost savings,” Homes says. “Plus, having the cloud provider manage the imagery and load it for us gives us a savings in manpower hours as well.”
Using the Cloud to Provide Better Services
Advanced GIS data already helps states do everything from tracking the spread of the Zika virus to assessing recent flooding in Louisiana, but migrating that data from on-premises storage into the cloud offers a new set of advantages.
For starters, the more data and processing power IT teams can achieve, the better the services they can provide, says Mary E. Shacklett, president of Transworld Data, a technology and market research firm.
“While there’s no requirement for agencies to move to the cloud, it becomes a strategic decision,” she explains. “It democratizes the use of GIS and provides more benefits to citizens.”
A cloud migration can also help businesses and organizations, as the residents of Colorado discovered with the addition of the Colorado Ownership, Management and Protection (COMaP) data set.
About a third of the state is set aside for conservation; COMaP, which is hosted out of Colorado State University, provides citizens, agencies, nonprofits and businesses with a single, cloud-based view of the state’s land.
“The university gets data from state, federal and local agencies, integrates them and manipulates the data so that it is a fairly stewarded data set,” says Jon Gottsegen, Colorado’s chief data officer.
However, at a state level, the process of moving GIS data into the cloud is only in the rudimentary stages, he says, because Colorado is still working on the most important aspect of data management: making data discoverable.
“It’s the first nut we want to crack, knowing what data is out there and how to get it,” he says.
To that end, Gottsegen doesn’t expect every piece of GIS data to end up on ArcGIS Online quite yet.
“We don’t ask for large GIS data sets to be uploaded,” he says. “It’s a workflow issue. Agencies don’t want to take the time to upload massive sets of data and then do that repeatedly to make sure it stays current.”
Keeping Track of Bandwidth, Security and Governance
But workflow isn’t the only major consideration that comes with moving to a cloud-based GIS service.
“Will you have the bandwidth to support the users and the file traffic going to and from agencies and offices?” Shacklett asks, pointing out a possible hurdle.
She says states managing sensitive data should examine the security and governance policies of cloud providers carefully, and offers this advice: “If your GIS data is mission-critical, you’ll need to make sure it’s part of your disaster recovery plan.”
Although a GIS cloud migration can be complicated, some states and agencies have already proved that the move pays off.
“For us, there were no downsides,” says Michigan’s Holmes. “We evaluated everything in terms of storage space and lowered costs and leveraging managed services in loading the data, and it was an advantage right from the start.”