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GeoData@Wisconsin – Tracking and Providing Pandemic/ COVID-19 Geographic Data

October 9, 2020

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced much of the UW-Madison campus to suspend traditional in-person offerings in the spring, one particular service was uniquely positioned to continue uninterrupted.

Because of its digital nature, GeoData@Wisconsin remained fully available to students, researchers, and community members. 

“During the period of transition to distance learning because of COVID-19, the geoportal was accessible by students or researchers via an internet connection – from anywhere,” explains Jaime Martindale, a Map, and Geospatial Data Librarian at RML. 

The service is maintained by the Arthur H. Robinson Map Library (RML) and the State Cartographer’s Office (SCO), in collaboration with UW Digital Collections (UWDC).

Peter Gorman, Assistant Director for Digital Library and Preservation Strategy at UWDC, adds, “Because it’s always been our mission to provide easy discovery and access to research content, we’re proud to be well-positioned to help out during the current crisis.”

This help extends well beyond the campus community. As the UW-Madison Libraries’ representative and task force member for the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) Geoportal, Jaime, along with Jim Lacy from the SCO, is involved in a unique collaboration between the partner institutions to track pandemic-related geospatial data in their respective states and share the resources through the geoportal.

On the importance of this project, she says, “This effort makes it easier for researchers to quickly discover COVID-19 geographic data and maps for individual states and the entire U.S.”

All of the data archived by RML and accessible through GeoData@Wisconsin, and several scanned map collections from UWDC are available through the BTAA Geoportal. 

Jaime points out, “The wonderful thing about the BTAA Geoportal is that it combines geographic resources from the thirteen participating institutions in one place – giving users the ability to locate data or maps covering entire regions instead of just within individual states. It’s a handy research tool.”

While GeoData@Wisconsin existed long before the BTAA Geoportal, Jaime and Jim see great value in the partnership. It gives users the ability to discover Wisconsin data and maps alongside additional data from the other partner institutions that complement or enhance UW-Madison’s resources and allow discovery and access to unique university research data for geographic areas outside Wisconsin.

RML and the SCO developed GeoData@Wisconsin as a way to promote discovery and access to the wealth of geographic information produced in Wisconsin – something which had not been pursued by any other agency or organization in the state. It soon became a trusted research resource for users seeking Wisconsin geospatial data and maps.

There are myriad reasons geodata is used. Students from departments across campus often need data for projects, such as Planning and Landscape Architecture students who use geospatial data to begin mapping and analyzing community-based landscape planning projects. Data from the geoportal can help students in Geographic Information Systems or Cartography courses understand how to approach an analysis project.

In 2019, RML and the SCO received a grant to create a coastal collection within the geoportal. Researchers can use that data to learn about the fifteen coastal counties in Wisconsin. One example of the information available is data showing the current and historical extent of Lake Michigan’s bluff tops and toes. This information can be combined with other geospatial data to improve understanding of coastline change’s societal or physical impacts.

Jaime has found there is as much public/personal interest in these types of material as professional/academic interest. Community members frequently use the WHAIFinder to help settle land records issues or legal questions related to Wisconsin’s properties. 

“Rural landowners in our state find the images extremely useful when facing property disputes – using the photos as evidence supporting text descriptions in property deeds and other documents,” she explains. 

The WHAIFinder is a separate online application for accessing the historical collection of Wisconsin’s aerial photographs between 1937 and 1941. UWDC digitized the collection, and the SCO created the interactive map interface. Collaborating with UWDC, SCO generated geographic metadata for the county’s images, creating an additional avenue for discovery and download from GeoData@Wisconsin and the BTAA Geoportal.

The partnership between RML, the SCO, and UWDC serves UWDC’s goal of providing the broadest possible community the greatest possible access to resources, which embodies the Wisconsin Idea. This commitment was recognized when the WHAIFinder collaboration was made possible through a grant from the Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment. 

“UW Digital Collections is not a special project, but is rather a fundamental service of all the UW-Madison Libraries,” says Peter. “We are always looking for new ways to work with our campus partners to advance the mission of the University and make researchers’ work more efficient and effective.”

An early project UWDC and GeoData@Wisconsin worked on together was the original Public Land Survey System maps collection held by UWDC. While previously digitized, the maps were only available through a static website with links to Wisconsin counties. Working with Peter, Jaime and Jim provided bounding coordinates for each map. This information was then inserted into the metadata, allowing the maps to index into GeoData@Wisconsin and the BTAA Geoportal. 

“Users can search for them using the interactive map,” describes Jaime. “This makes the collection easier to access geographically – since users don’t need to know the exact PLSS description for the plat they want to view.”

The interactive map feature is a unique search method offered by the geoportal. Users can access content by traditional searches like subject or time, searching by the interactive map results in all the data maps contained within the geographical extent, or “footprint” of the map. Jaime explains, “This is a powerful way to see all the content available in a specific area – especially if keywords or place names may be difficult for a user to come up with.”

GeoData@Wisconsin is an online geoportal that provides discovery and access to Wisconsin geospatial data, imagery, and scanned maps. It is developed and maintained by the UW-Madison Geography Department’s Robinson Map Library and State Cartographer’s Office. The geoportal combines a map-based spatial search with traditional keyword searching and faceted browsing options to locate and download geospatial data.