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Statewide Geospatial Data Sharing for Broadband & Public Safety

Experts from Ecopia, Dewberry, & State of New Hampshire highlight how data collaboration across state agencies powers GIS use cases in broadband & public safety.

Lately, it seems that geospatial data collaboration across state agencies is top of mind for many GIS professionals in the public sector. At Ecopia AI (Ecopia), we’ve been hearing this theme from our contacts in state governments, as well as from industry professionals at this year’s Esri UC. It seems that more and more states are looking to develop a comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date database of geographic information for various agencies to access and leverage in a wide range of analysis and decision-making.

Ecopia recently hosted a webinar on this topic featuring geospatial thought leaders from Dewberry and the New Hampshire Department of Safety. In this session, former NSGIC president and Minnesota GIO Dan Ross led a discussion on the growing need for a unified source of geospatial data for state agencies, as well as how these agencies can apply such data for critical initiatives related to broadband equity and public safety. 

To help you get started on your own data collaboration strategy, we’ve included the recording to this virtual panel discussion below, as well as the main takeaways for implementing a statewide geospatial data repository.

Data management, accuracy, & accessibility challenges

The session begins with an overview of geospatial data challenges experienced by state agencies. Sean Lowery, Senior Director of Business and Product Development at Ecopia, highlights how a complex and rapidly changing world presents data management and accuracy challenges that could be resolved by a maintained, statewide source of truth database. 

Common challenges in geocoding building footprints.
Geocoding is an extremely complicated science that requires linking address points to their location on Earth; many state agencies use disparate geocoding systems with varying levels of precision, resulting in disjointed analysis.

In particular, geocoding is notoriously difficult to align across multiple agencies, despite its foundational importance for a host of GIS applications. Leveraging different geocoding engines results in state agency misalignment on where places are actually located, which can severely impact the efficacy of critically important address-based analysis, such as identifying broadband-serviceable locations (BSLs) or reaching an emergency caller. 

Sean also emphasizes how accessibility to the right data is essential for state GIS operations. As the world changes each and every day, land cover data is increasingly hard to keep up-to-date as a true reflection of the real world. Ecopia has been working with state GIOs across the US to leverage artificial intelligence (AI)-based mapping to alleviate this need, drastically reducing the time and effort required to create and maintain a statewide source of truth for geospatial analysis. This provides state agencies with access to authoritative building-based geocodes, road network, and 3D building data to power next generation solutions in broadband equity and public safety.

Building footprints & geocoding applications in broadband equity

The next portion of the webinar focused on applying a statewide database of building footprints and rooftop-level geocodes to broadband network expansion and equity. Hillary Palmer, Geospatial & Technology Manager at Dewberry, walks through how she and her team leveraged Ecopia building footprint data to challenge the FCC’s nationwide BSL fabric map to secure roughly $2B in Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program (BEAD) funding for both Alaska and Arizona

Building footprint map in Alaska
A sample map of the Ecopia building footprint data analyzed by Dewberry to support Alaska’s BEAD funding application; this map won third place in the reference map category at Esri UC 2023!

Hillary explains how $42B in BEAD funding was earmarked by the federal government for increasing broadband access within states, and how each state’s share of funding was essentially determined based on the percent of unserved and underserved BSLs they had compared to others, as determined by the FCC BSL fabric map. To ensure this map accurately represented the real world, states had the opportunity to  submit a list of addresses not currently represented on the FCC’s map via a location challenge process. However, disparate addressing and building datasets in Arizona and Alaska made this difficult without a comprehensive source of truth to analyze, and manual digitization or map annotation is extremely resource-intensive.

As large and diverse states, both Alaska and Arizona faced similar challenges when applying for BEAD funding. For example, 70% of Alaska’s landmass (and the 4th most populated area) does not have a local government to manage an authoritative source of address data. Similarly, Arizona struggled to develop a complete and up-to-date building footprint database given rapid population growth in urban areas and data scarcity in rural and tribal areas.

By working with Dewberry and Ecopia, both states were able to create and gather statewide location information derived from up-to-date geospatial imagery, which were then used to perform GIS analysis and submit challenges for BEAD funding applications. Hillary concludes by sharing details on the expected ROI for using geocoding and building footprint data for broadband expansion, and the recent BEAD funding announcement showcases exactly how this data helped the states receive a combined $2B to promote digital equity.

The role of AI in public safety GIS

Following this discussion on statewide data collaboration for broadband, Tim Scott from the New Hampshire Department of Safety presents his thoughts and experience on geospatial data sharing for public safety applications. Specifically, he focuses on how AI is changing the game for states looking to develop a comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date database of addresses, building footprints, and unnamed navigable features such as driveways, parking lots, and access roads so that response teams can reach emergency callers quickly - ultimately saving more lives.

As the Technology Manager for the New Hampshire Emergency Services and Communications division of the New Hampshire Department of Safety, Tim has experienced how both data quality and accessibility can have dire consequences for state agencies. While many public safety agencies lack the data necessary to reach emergency callers as quickly as possible, others are forced to use inaccurate or out-of-date information, which is often worse. Thanks to AI-based mapping, authoritative data can now be generated efficiently, but geospatial professionals often cannot access data across different local and state government agencies. Tim and Sean then emphasize how the same data needed for broadband expansion is foundational to public safety GIS, so should be shared amongst all state agencies that can make use of it. They also discuss how this data can be with neighboring states who may need it to assist during particular emergency situations.

The discussion also touches on how expanding upon this statewide database with 3D buildings provides an added layer of situational awareness that can mean the difference between life and death. As the global population trends towards urbanization, having 3D building data is crucial so response teams can locate exactly where a person in need is calling from, including their elevation. Sean supports Tim’s point by highlighting how emergency response teams across the US are leveraging 3D building data created by Ecopia in this way. 

3D building data for emergency response
A sample visualization of how height-attributed 3D buildings can aid first responders as they locate emergency callers in multi level structures.

Developing a statewide geospatial strategy

To conclude the webinar, the panelists discuss how AI is making it easier than ever for states to generate a source of truth for critical geospatial information, but that to fully recognize their ROI, states must make this data accessible across agencies. Advancements in AI-based mapping have made it possible to create and maintain authoritative geospatial data that reflects a dynamically changing world, and states have the power to enable their various agencies to apply it for critical use cases that can have a real impact on people’s lives. While broadband equity and public safety have clear overlap in the type of data needed for analysis, other agencies can also leverage this data to inform climate resilience strategies, urban planning, and more. 

This session was a fascinating look at how everything has a geography, and why having a digital representation of that geography is essential to so many elements of our world. Be sure to check out the full session below:

To learn more about Ecopia’s work developing statewide geospatial databases, get in touch with our team of geospatial experts

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