Orange County Interview – Fighting Droughts and Watershed Monitoring

With the recent severe drought happening in California, we wanted to do an interview with one of our users from the area, Grant Sharp, Environmental Monitoring Section Manager with the OC Watersheds Division of OC Public Works in Orange County, California. We wanted to get his thoughts on the matter and find out what is the action plan for fighting it and see if GIS can be of any help. The entire interview can be accessed in the video below.

GC: Could you tell us briefly what is your role in the Orange County?

GS: The organization I work for is called Orange County’s Public Works and I manage the divisions called Environmental Monitoring and we are a division within the Environmental Resources Service area of OC public works. Our main job as a division is to collect information about the environment in the county, to provide a service of what is going on in the environment to residents and businesses. The ideas is to protect the environment in a better way, that is done in a way that supports wildlife, aquatic habitats, providing safe and healthy habitats for animals, birds, fish and humans to enjoy.

GC: With the recent discussion in the media about the fact that California has one year of water left, do you guys in Orange County have an action plan to fight it?

GS: What is going on in California is a very serious crisis and we are facing severe shortages in water supplies for domestic, agricultural, industrial, business use and so on. There is a strategy to do something about it and residents, businesses and local governments plays an important role in it. We all have to do our part to conserve water so a lot of environmental monitoring that we do is about the surface water. What we have seen is that with the drought a lot of people are cutting back on the amount of water that they are applying to their landscape area or their driveways and sidewalks. So basically they are starting to change their behavior and that is resulting in less impact on the surface water. We are definitely seeing improved conditions in environment because during the dry weather people are using less water which results in less pollutants ending up in the water which reflects on healthier streams, bays and harbors. So it hasn’t all been that bad, people are definitely changing their behavior, so there are some indirect environmental benefits from that change.

GC: There have been some quite shocking meteorological statistical info, that this January has been the driest in the records history. Have you been monitoring and collecting the data that can justify this piece of information?

GS: We monitor rainfall amounts for Orange County, and we just had a January and February with almost no precipitation. Another thing this draught is doing is that it is causing the people to look at the storm water or rainwater as a resource. Our infrastructure is designed so that when it rains most of the rain when it falls on the urban landscape, runs of directly into underground pipe and then from there it goes into a channel. It’s not used or treated as a water resource and so with the draught problems, it is causing the people to start looking into the storm water more as a resource of drinking water. And that is a good thing because people are looking into engineering ways to harvest and reuse water so it has a good impact on the environment.

GC: Given that you rely on different methods of collecting the data, how do you see the importance of GIS in your everyday workflow?

GS: In terms of being able to collect data from the field, GIS Cloud has provided a major benefit to our organization. It allows us to be more efficient and productive in terms of how we go into the environment and collect the information. We are able to record and document data in real time. It has helped us streamline our workflow and processes. We were able to convert what used to be done largely on paper and can now be done electronically with mobile devices. Once that information was in the GIS Cloud applications, it opened a lot of doors in terms of what we can do with that data.

GC: What did your workflow look like before you started using GIS Cloud and how has it improved since?

GS: We basically recorded info on a piece of paper, brought it back to the office and inputed the information into the database or an excel spreadsheet at which point you were still not able to do anything really with that information. So having the ability to push the data into the cloud in real time in the field has definitely made us much more efficient.

GC: Do you use Desktop solutions together with the GIS Cloud?

GS: Yes, the ability to integrate both GIS Cloud and Desktop had been a great asset as well. We can have people working on the desktop and then pushing the info to the cloud for everyone to see and collaborate on it. This especially comes in handy with working with our customers and clients or for sharing internally with our staff. So it becomes a very powerful tool for collaboration once you combine it with desktop.

GC: Your data was in ESRI shapefiles prior to using GIS Cloud, so has transferring your data into the GIS Cloud been an easy road?

GS: Yes, the transfer process has been really easy and that is another thing we really like about the GIS Cloud package. You can easily publish the existing data using ArcGIS Publisher. It publishes ESRI shapefiles to the GIS Cloud platform in only couple of clicks. The process for taking the existing data sets and converting them into usable layers in GIS Cloud platform is a very easy and a quick process. And because it is so easy and straightforward and while the entire system operates so fast, it has opened the door to a lot of our data that previously we didn’t have the use of. It has allowed us to explore datasets we haven’t explored before and to get more use out of the existing data sets.

GC: In terms of customization of some of the apps to fit more your area of expertise, can you tell us from your own experience how did you find using the GIS Cloud’s API?

GS: Yes, so we have used GIS Cloud’s REST API and it has been relatively easy to bring in real time data from some of our Remote Sensing equipment that collects rainfall and water level data from over 80 stations throughout the county. We were able to customize the map so that the data is being pushed to the map in real time. Our users are able to pull out charts and graphs of the historical data and export the data in various formats. So we are providing our customers with the current information they need, especially with everything that has been going on lately. They have a lot of interest in where it’s raining and so on and can get that information but also historical data as well.

GIS Cloud has reduced the amount of time that we as an organization have spent helping people obtain that data. They are able to access the data themselves and download exactly what they need from any device.

GC: You have used GIS Cloud for volunteer projects. What was their take on using the MDC app in terms of user friendliness?

GS: We do a lot of volunteer clean ups where residents can come out and help collect the garbage and trash, preventing it getting into the environment. So we wanted to be able to collect the data on the trash that was being cleaned up. We did a crowdsourcing type of a project where the volunteers accessed the Mobile Data Collection app for the data collection and they all found the MDC app extremely easy to use. And once we had the collected data that the volunteers had sent to our map, we were able to continue using the data for different analysis.

GC: With the GME shutdown, there has been a lot of discussion in terms of alternatives. Would you consider GIS Cloud to be a good alternative or as we like to say, simply a better solution?

GS: I would definitely see GIS Cloud as not necessarily alternative but as a viable solution for anyone who looks to extend their abilities to manage and share data and collaborate. There are several things what makes GIS Cloud unique compared to other providers. First and foremost is the relative ease and simplicity of the platform is what sets GIS Cloud apart from every other application I have used. It doesn’t require a lot of training, you don’t have to sit through expensive online webinars to be able to use the platform. You can literally jump in day one and be able to develop content and collect data from the field. Additionally, I want to provide my employees with tools that will make them do their job more efficient and effective, and that is what makes GIS Cloud a very attractive solution.

Another thing that sets GIS Cloud from other providers is the speed that the platform operates, there is no delay in caching layers even when it comes to large amounts of data. Whether you are on your desktop connection or mobile device you are able to work very fast.

I would also like to emphasize that while these things are advantage, I don’t want to understate the fact that you can use GIS Cloud to do powerful analysis with large amounts of data. We have used GIS Cloud for integrating a lot of different data bases, data sources and data sets so that we can do powerful analysis by using the tools and features GIS Cloud provides. It helped us in decision making and how we manage our assets, so that is another thing that sets GIS Cloud apart from other providers. And the ability to integrate GIS Cloud with other desktop solutions as I had mentioned has been a tremendous feature when it comes to collaboration throughout our organization.

GC: As a conclusion, what would you like to add?

GS: We have been using GIS Cloud for the past 3 years and still use it on a daily basis, and we keep finding new and improved ways of utilizing the apps. It has helped us a lot in achieving the goals we he have set for our organization in terms of providing better services to our customers. So we really look forward in many more years of using it.

GC: Special thank you to Grant Sharp who was kind as always to find the time and do an interview with us.