GreenInfo Network provides geospatial consulting for a large number of Californiaand other public interest organizations and agencies. This capacity-building initiative has been aiding conservation, environmental and other causes since 1996. Matt Ball sat down with Larry Orman, founder and executive director of GreenInfo Network (www.greeninfo.org) in their offices in San Francisco recently. The discussion ranged from the mission of his organization to the current and future state of the geospatial toolset.
V1: You’ve been a conservation pioneer, directing San Francisco’s Greenbelt Alliance for years before founding the GreenInfo Network, and you’ve used GIS tools for years in both capacities. How do you feel about the current push for sustainability?
Orman: Sustainability these days is wrapped into everything. I’ve had a long history in the growth management world, which is the whole issue of balancing urban demands on community and landscape, and environmental demands on community and landscape. I’ve never been very involved in the green building or the ecosystem strategies part of it. But it’s all related, and you can’t tear it apart very far before you find it’s all hooked together.
V1: With the greenbelt movement, as I understand it, there multiple aims to physically limit growth, to create wildlife corridors, and increase proximity to nature.
Orman: It’s a metropolitan-based strategy that recognizes that big urban regions fare very poorly when they grow out forever. They don’t do well by sprawling because they screw up a lot of very important landscape functions. In essence, you could have a metropolitan region in an area of absolutely no ecological value and you’d still want to do exactly the same thing that Greenbelt Alliance pushes for, which is to contain growth. Greenbelts keep cities more compact, provide a very effective basis for transit and for housing affordability, and many other things that all have to do with how a big city, a metropolitan region or a collection of cities work.
The fact that in the San Francisco Bay Area in particular, but in most regions, you also have landscapes of great importance for environmental and ecological reasons, and for human reasons as well, adds a tremendous amount of weight to the whole reason to do this. But you do it no matter what, because it’s not sustainable otherwise.
The whole thing about a greenbelt strategy is that it’s two sides of one coin that you can’t pull apart — what the metropolis needs is an urban place that factors in environmental considerations. You cannot separate those two things. The real focus that Greenbelt Alliance has is that it’s not really looking that much at natural landscape, it looks at that in relation to the urban landscape at the metropolitan regional level.
You’ve got big ecological systems mixed with big urban systems – watersheds, wildlife corridors, agricultural systems, whole systems of job and housing relationships, culture, people, complicated transit systems, marketplace economics for housing and other real estate sectors, and all that has to fit together.
Vector1: What is the state of GIS for the kind of work that you do? Do you feel that the tools have come a long way?
Orman: The tools are fabulous. The tools and the capacity to do things are no longer an obstacle. The obstacle is people’s ability to conceptualize what has to be done and find programatic pathways to make the outputs useful. There is no limit to what we can do at the tool level now.
There are some extra data that would be good to have --we don’t yet have fully good vegetation mapping tools for the conservation biologists, and we don’t have perfect up-to-date parcel maps for the people that want that detail yesterday afternoon. But those are trivial things -- if you compare where things were seven or eight years ago, we’ve seen an enormous geometric curve of capacity.
The real issue is why are you doing it? How’s it going to make a difference? And that’s what you have to focus on. The technology itself, who cares? It’s all been done. I mean we’ve got one-meter or better photography everywhere. We’ve got digital data on almost everything almost everywhere in the United States. Globally it’s a different question, but in the United States it’s just the rural areas that don’t have complete data sets. But in any of the big metropolitan regions or big states, I think you’ve got everything you need. The real question is, what are you doing with it?
V1: The process is a factor to some degree as well, right? Isn’t there a need for greater collaboration with others and multi-disciplinary collaboration for greater understanding?
Orman: I think it becomes more a question of who the actors are that want to do something, and why does GIS offer a way to support that thinking. Here at GreenInfo Network we’re in a support role. We work for other groups that want to do great things, and we’re there to help them apply technology tools to do their work. But they have to know what it is that’s the great thing to do, so that we can tell them how the tool can help them get there.
If they don’t know that, we might be able to help, because we work with so many groups, but ultimately we’re just here to help groups do what they want to do. If they don’t know what they want to do, or they’re not very smart about what they want to do, we can’t solve that problem. I think that’s true of GIS generally, it’s a terrific tool, but unless you know what you’re trying to do and why it’s important to you, it doesn’t matter how good you are at it, it won’t help.
V1: You’ve built a great deal of domain expertise in helping communities do land use planning. Do you customize your own tools to some degree or do you have set methodologies that you work through?
Orman: Our audience is primarily non-profit organizations of all types – conservation, environment, public health, social service and a few public agencies. We work as a consultant, so people have to pay us to do things. We’re non-profit, but we still have to get paid to do the work because we don’t have another financing model.
Either you’re a big organization and you’ve got your own capacity to do GIS work, or in more cases we aim at smaller organizations that have to get spatial analysis from somewhere, and its better to get it from a non-profit. It is going to cost money, therefore, it’s not appropriate for every non-profit. If you can’t afford $1,000 to $3,000 to have us do something, there’s no way for us to help you.
Our audience of non-profits are usually trying to do one of two things. They’re trying to make a case that they can change the world, or they’re trying to do things internally to help them run better so they can change the world. We work largely on those two avenues. For instance, a lot of groups need complicated analysis and all sorts of other deep thinking, but at the end of the day, if they can’t communicate powerfully, it’s useless. Our specialty is knowing how to do everything underneath the hood, and at the end of the day we can make the data and presentation stand up and sing. The communication piece is absolutely, fundamentally important.
V1: Does communication primarily take the form of map products?
Orman: It takes the form of almost anything, whether it’s a map or a PowerPoint, or even formatting data reports so that they’re understandable. I mean, you can get a large amount of data that seems like it has very important implications but if nobody can understand it, what’s the point? In this busy world, we all have a lot of choices of what we put our attention to, visually and mentally. If you can’t compete for that attention span it doesn’t matter how good you are, you’re not going to succeed.
Everything we do is oriented toward that question of how is it going to make a difference to the people you’re trying to persuade. It’s not, “Isn’t this the most interesting aspect of this little problem.”
There are some things we do that are extremely esoteric, like some analysis in the Sierras on historical fire management data that gets unbelievably complicated. Delving deeply into details works really well for that specific client, but for us that’s rare.
Most of what we’re doing is taking images for groups that are advocates. Just yesterday the State of California adopted very strong coastal protection measures under its Marine Life Protection Act. We drove the maps for the advocates that got most of what they wanted in the new legislation in terms of the conservation side of things.
Fishermen came out okay, but they didn’t get quite what they wanted. One reason the conservationists succeeded is that we worked really hard with them to do terrific products that take a lot of technical details and make it clear to decision makers. We communicate the spatial implications of various policy choices.
V1: Does this work involve a lot of temporal aspects, tracking change over time?
Orman: No, it’s mostly distilling a lot of complicated image information, getting rid of it all and saying, “This is what matters and here’s a visual framework that does that.” But in order to do that you’ve got to be very skilled at the whole suite of GIS tools to know how to pull out the stuff that really matters.
There are certainly designers to whom you can say, “Here’s a bunch of complicated data, make me a simple map.” That’s useful on occasion, but that’s not what we do. Typically we’ve got to sort through what information matters or doesn’t and test different things. At the end of the day it all gets boiled down to something simple and something really compelling.
Another small example of our work is the oil tanker that crashed into the Bay Bridge here in November. There was a group in our building that saw early on that the real issue was you either respond in the first three hours or it’s all over with. They came to us because at about four or five days after it happened they realized that they had a chance to make a case in front of major hearing bodies and they needed a presentation to convey that fact.
We scrambled and found NOAA data that simulated what the oil had done hour by hour for a day and a half. We sliced that into some movie software and ran it through YouTube and put some voiceover on it, and in 60-seconds or so you get to see exactly why that point is completely true. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EeXCxKQpKE&feature=user)
All the oil goes away after the third hour. It completely scatters and you’ve lost, as far as containment goes. That’s knowing how to work the data, knowing how to understand what the data is, but also knowing how to put it into a communications framework. It’s that tension between needing to do lots of complicated thinking and detail work and marrying that to an ability to boil it all down to the parts that make the most sense.
V1: Do you often times keep all the detail in the background and provide it in reports?
Orman: Our whole strategy of mapmaking is that maps get unfolded in layers as stories, and that’s the secret to everything we do. Good maps don’t all present at once. When you stare at almost any map we do you usually get one main message quickly, and then you go in a little closer and you find some more, and you go in closer and you find out some more. If you found all of the details in your first impression you would walk away in half a second. Your mind would not absorb it, you’d lose interest and you would go away. You have to reel people in to the steps of your story and you do that by layering information in different ways.
V1: What other tools are you using besides the traditional map?
Orman: We create whatever our clients need to succeed. Most of what we do is GIS based, but we also do imagery, we put PowerPoints together, we develop written materials, we create databases, and we make web applications. They’re all designed to fit the context of why it is important, who are you trying to change, and how is this going to help you do that.
V1: Traditionally you’ve worked on the regional level within San Francisco. How large of an area do you cover?
Orman: GreenInfo got started in the Bay Area because I had worked for an organization that focused on the Bay Area, but most of our work now is throughout California. We’re doing a project now with a group that’s got an argument with a huge amount of soil that’s getting pulled off a single hillside of a couple hundred acres. We’re also doing a project that includes a database of all the protected land in the entire State of California. So the scale of what we do ranges enormously. It doesn’t follow any particular model. We do a lot of work for land trusts who work in particular counties, we do work for almost any scale of activity you can think of, it really just depends.
V1: Does your work scale down to the neighborhood level?
Orman: Our work scales from the neighborhood level to city to region to state to even nation. We’re involved in some national work as well. We’re doing some work now in the whole western United States looking at the energy alternatives for a client who needs to visualize the policy choices for alternative energy policies. We don’t do too much at the actual neighborhood level, however – GIS can be difficult for public interest groups at that scale.
Our ability isn’t that we have great depth in any particular area (although there are a couple areas that we know a lot about) but it’s that we know how to take GIS and put it inside of somebody’s issue, and then untangle for them how it can best apply to that issue. That’s our skill.
V1: There’s much more interest and need for visualization tools these days. I get the sense that you certainly don’t find yourself lacking work.
Orman: No, we don’t lack work. In the public interest world there’s a tremendous demand for what we do because the world has exploded in its geographic awareness in the last five years. The online mapping systems that Microsoft and Google and others have developed certainly have driven an enormous amount of that demand, but there’s much more to it than that. And as all of the GIS trade journals will quickly show, the demand for GIS products integrated into the web of how we do work and thinking and commerce has been dramatic.
GIS is relatively complicated and the data, and what data is, and how you can apply data all change so quickly that if you don’t have a group of five, six, seven, eight people to work with you, you can’t do this. You can’t attract a good person into a sole practitioner position. Most of the time they’re going to leave quickly because GIS is mostly done well in collaboration.
For non-profits, having a whole person doing GIS is a a very challenging thing unless you’re a very large group, like The Nature Conservancy, which has a gazillion people doing GIS, or a few other very large public interest groups. But even the larger ones don’t really have much of this capacity because you’ve got to put a bunch of GIS people together and they’ve got to know how to support the groups they’re working for. That’s a learned skill; that’s not usually a natural skill.
Private consulting firms can sometimes help public interest groups, but a lot of times they don’t understand the culture of non-profits. So being a non-profit, we speak the language much more easily. We don’t work for commercial interests, that’s not our deal. We probably wouldn’t do well because we probably wouldn’t understand the language, but we understand the world of the non-profit institutions very well.
We’re working for about a hundred groups a year, and we’ve got this whole web of people who know what we can do. Sometimes it’s new groups that say, “Because you could do it for them you can do it for me.” The network in our name is a result of all the connections that go on.
There is a culture in the non-profit world that’s decidedly different than the non-profit world, and even to some extent the government world, and it stems in part to the capacity question, which is if you can’t afford somebody to do something, what do you do? For the non-profits who know about us, have access to us, we’re a great resource because we’ve been here and we’re going to be here for them, and we know the world and we’re already engaged probably in some aspect of the issue they’re doing already.
But if you’re a non-profit where this doesn’t exist it’s kind of hard – you get a volunteer who goes away quickly, you get a consultant who is a commercial person who comes in who wants to help but maybe doesn’t really quite get it and may or may not have the ability to stay with it very long. Especially since $2-5,000 is a large GIS project budget for most local non-profits, much smaller than private consultants usually deal with.
If you’re a non-profit, you typically have a hard time getting government agencies to help just because they’re so swamped. Universities are very good for leading-edge research, but terrible for production. They often don’t have a clue how to communicate. They can do really, really great thinking work but communication often is lacking. For the public interest world there’s not a lot of good choices for using GIS, and using it yourself is often hard. So that’s where we come in.
V1: Is your model replicated in any other region?
Orman: It has been, there was another group similar to us in Seattle that folded a year or so ago, which was too bad because that was a good place to do this work. There was another group somewhat similar in New York that also had a dispute with its parent organization and it fell apart. There aren’t room for too many GreenInfos in the U.S. We’ve tried to encourage the idea that foundations should help get going three to five groups like us in different parts of the country, regionally focused so that you have a big enough market base. We have 12 employees now so we’re big, way bigger than anybody else. But so far there hasn’t been a lot of replication, which I think is too bad. We don’t worry about it much because we’ve got way too much to do.
There’s a lot of room for a service center that can do all this. I’ve got people who can do just about anything here. If somebody in this office can’t do it for a group, they can reach over and grab somebody else who can do it, whether it’s our officein L.A. or up here. We have a woman who used to work for us who’s down in Brazil now, and she still works for us. We have this web of capacities that’s always here.
V1: Do you lean on the services and support of ESRI to some degree?
Orman: ESRI has been terrific. They’ve been a tremendous supporter of the environmental organizations, and us in particular. They’ve made a lot of software donations. They have a whole program that donates software to conservation groups, and other groups, and that’s just made all the difference in the world (www.conservationgis.org). They deserve nothing but credit for having been a leader and being committed to public service institution as well as maintaining a profitable business.
Technically we don’t work too much with them. The network of people who work on public interest stuff is pretty thorough and we tend to find pretty much what we need in those groups, especially the Society for Conservation GIS (www.scgis.org). We certainly show up at ESRI conferences, and we use ESRI software almost exclusively on the GIS side.
V1: Are you working on multi-disciplinary collaboration with say, soil scientists and ecosystem folks? Are there a lot of inputs to some of the projects that are outside your own domain expertise?
Orman: In the public interest world I think it’s hard to assemble things like that. The governmental world and the private sector have much better opportunities to do that because of the scale of projects. Most of the projects we do are two, five, or ten thousand dollars.
There are a lot of commercial consulting companies that wouldn’t even go near a project if it was $10,000 or less. The scale of projects that we work on often doesn’t allow for a lot of collaboration. That having been said, there are quite a few projects that we work on where there are webs of people involved. But the GIS work itself isn’t often put through 15 people doing interesting aspects of it – it’s much more narrow casting.
I recognize that in the broader GIS world there’s tremendous collaboration, and that’s a good thing. We certainly benefit from that, we hook into networks of people who have data or analysisthat we can pull into what we’re doing.
V1: Is there any leave behind data collection that you do over time?
Orman: The only data that we maintain is the California Protected Areas Database, which is, just as we sit here, ready to go up on the State’s website, version 1. The data itself will be on the California Spatial Information Library (CaSIL) website [www.gis.ca.gov] – more information at www.calands.org
That’s a dataset that replaces what had been done before, which was just a very cursory summary of state and federal holdings. This new data set goes down and takes every urban park in the state and goes all the way up to the biggest National Parks and Wilderness areas at extremely high levels of accuracy. We’ve managed to put together data now for the entire state for the first time ever at great levels of accuracy, for the protected open space lands and other protected areas.
There’s no answer yet to how to maintain that data over time, and we’re also having a national conversation to fund updates over time. That’s the only ongoing project that we are involved in where we’re developing data and that’s because a lot of the core groups we work with are environmental and are desperate to have that information. They need to see what protected areas there are already before they figure out what more they’re going to do. That was the driver for doing that particular data project and we received funding from a wide number of sources.
V1: Are there a number of different land classifications and different attributes to that data?
Orman: The attribute structure generally has a couple pieces of information. For the protected lands the things you most want to know are who owns it, is it under fee or easement (fee is outright ownership, easement is the ability to limit development on the otherwise privately-owned parcel) what’s the degree of public access to that land, whether you can get onto it for recreation or not. And then there’s a whole class of conservation measurements (USGS Gap Scores and IUCN Scores) for this data set. Those are being developed through the Nature Conservancy and USGS now, and those will be added into the dataset.
For protected land inventories that’s about as good as you can get because there are so many data sources. In California we have over 700 agencies that are holding all this detail from cities to counties, to state, federal, special districts – and to maintain a deep level of attributes over that broad a user base is just way too hard to do.
You have to narrow it down to just a few things that really matter. And then for agencies that are doing their own land inventories, they may know a lot more obviously, but we don’t coordinate that. The national inventories are generally headed toward the same data structure, which is about 20 key attributes.
V1: What’s the aggregate land mass of the protected lands in California?
Orman: The total area of the state is 100-million acres. The protected lands total about 49.5 million , acres, of which fee lands are 48,600,000 and easements are 845,000.
V1: Will the dataset be utilized for a lot of projects that you have ongoing?
Orman: Well, certainly for us, but it’s also going to be available for cities, counties, the state, the feds, planning consultants and others who are working on general plans and need a data set to represent all of the protected lands. If we can find the resources, the ability for people to just send their data in would be great. We pushed the bar up so high now that the marginal need for a little bit more data is very small. If it gets out of date for a long time then we have to take another big step. So hopefully we’ll have support for that.
V1: How difficult would it be to be able to go back and update it?
Orman: We’ve done an enormous amount of data collection already. We took the strategy of rebuilding it from the parcel databases up. Most California counties have a GIS parcel database (some counties don’t, and some don’t let their parcel databases become available for a reasonable price). We took the parcels that were available and then used that as the building block to run all the data from different agencies through to create the geometry that describes what’s protected or not. So you have to go to each agency and get their data and throw it into the mix and throw it out and filter it back in. It’s a huge amount of handwork, just an enormous amount of handwork. But at this point, updating it is not a huge task, given how much we now have inventoried.
V1: In terms of the tools that you have at your disposal, is there any one area that you’d like to see more advancement?
Orman: If I let all the staff around here answer that you’d be here forever! The open source tools are very important. They do things that the industrial-strength GIS doesn’t do super well because they’re very light weight. There’s some stuff that’s starting to emerge now that if it just keeps moving ahead quickly will be very helpful at deploying online data systems that are browser based and that are extremely simple. This goes beyond Google Maps.
I think that’s an area that really is terrific. It remains to be seen how far ESRI’s ArcServer strategy will push, and that’s again a very promising arena in terms of building applications that you can then serve out. ESRI sometimes takes a while to get it all to work, and so we don’t know how long that’s going to take to get it all to function right.
Getting data more available and more accurate is a driver all the time, because there’s this tremendous expectation now that because I can see ahigh resolution photo anywhere everything else should relate to that, and everything else doesn’t relate to it at that level of detail and isn’t at the same consistency or the timeliness.
I guess my final wish is for tools that continue to make communicating easy. ESRI has made good progress recently, for example, in putting better cartography and map production tools into its ArcGIS software. Other people have taken and developed strategies that allow us to export out smart PDFs, Geo PDFs, which are very useful.
There are companies that provide software that allows you to do atlases and books of maps very easily. There’s a whole bunch of applications that make it more useful to have map products, and that’s a part that I think needs continued investment because ultimately the big engine of GIS can do a lot of stuff. The Oracle databases and the big enterprise level GIS systems that ESRI often develops are all wonderful and terrific, but for those of us who work really at the retail end of things in the public interest sector, the applications that help you make something useful, immediately useful without a lot of complexity, are by far the most prized things.
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