A year after its inception, Columbia County government offices are finding considerable worth in a program that mapped the county like Mars.
Last August, an SUV with a complicated camera rig mounted on its roof spent 2½ weeks patrolling the county, covering more than 1,130 miles and 2,500 sections of road. Its goal was to provide an accurate portrait of Columbia County in three dimensions. Called Earthmine, it’s the same technology that recently touched down on Mars with NASA’s Curiosity rover.
“I saw this technology at a conference and immediately thought of so many things it could do,” said Mary Howard, Columbia County’s Geographic Information Services (GIS) department manager.
Built on a model similar to the popular Google Maps Web tool, Earthmine is built on a foundation of thousands of still photographs shot last summer. Unlike the Google tool, Earthmine also allows users to mark, measure, overlay and otherwise interact with the visual information. It not only shows users a road, but also provides accurate width, slope and rake information and provides ancillary information such as the location of signs, water lines and drainage.
“Every department that gets this seems to come up with a new way to use it,” Howard said. “It’s very exciting.”
Because Columbia County was an early East Coast adopter of the Earthmine program, it was able to get it at a discounted price of $75,000. Howard said she believes doing in the office what used to be done in the field has probably already saved the county that money.
A year ago, evaluating a stretch of street would have meant dispatching a crew, walking up and down an often busy road and spending considerable time taking detailed measurements. Today, Columbia County Road Construction Project Manager Don Barrow is able to accomplish the same thing without ever leaving the office.
“I’m able to do it all from my desk,” he said. “It means I’m not standing out there and I’m not having to send out inspectors.”
He said that not only does Earthmine make his job less labor-intensive, it also allows him a measure of accuracy that’s difficult to equal in the field.
“In the office I’m not worried about traffic or maps or any of the other things that affect us outside the office,” he said. “I’m really able to focus on the details.”
Currently, there are approximately 60 Earthmine users in county offices. They include maintenance departments such as Barrow’s, emergency service providers and Howard’s own office. She said the Sheriff’s Office will probably be next to be connected, and she is working on a system that would put a limited version online for the public.
Because Earthmine works from a set of photographs taken at a specific time – in Columbia County’s case, last August – it does require updating. Howard said she would love to have new mapping photography every year, but feels like it might be more fiscally prudent to update every other year.