Putting Huntsville on the map: a look at the City’s Geographic Information Systems

single-meta-cal August 29, 2017

They can tell you the location of every stop sign in Huntsville. They can show you where the old airstrip was in Mayfair, alongside Whitesburg Road, an area now covered in trees and homes. They can lead you to a grave site or help decide the ideal spot for a new fire station. 

Nary a new industry comes aboard, seldom is a shovel stuck in the ground and barely a bit of geographical tidbit about our city emerges without the involvement of the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) of the City of Huntsville. 

It’s an 11-person division (with three part-timers) of the Planning Department and operates with equal parts science fiction and pure old painstaking legwork. 

GIS is charged with knowing every square inch of the 210 square miles of the vast City of Huntsville. (Huntsville is No. 38 in the nation in size by square mile, larger than New Orleans, Denver, Birmingham, Las Vegas and even Atlanta. And that does not include the nearly eight square miles of Redstone Arsenal.) 

“When I put it in simple terms I always say we make intelligent maps,” says Tim Barnes, the GIS director. “If I really want to simplify it, I say we’re Google maps on a local level.” 

As Barnes says, “We attribute everything we have on a map.”  

GIS is an enormous support team for the rest of the City departments. It’s the Amazon Prime that delivers all varieties of product quickly and efficiently. Says Barnes, “No task is too small.” 

You want examples of the work GIS does? How about… 

— It assists the Finance Department by providing data on sidewalks, streets, sewers, etc., that must be submitted in reports to Wall Street as the City ventures into the bond market and seeks to keep its AAA bond rating. 

— It has built a database for Traffic, with the coordinates of all stop signs, yield signs and even no-parking signs. The locations must be precise, even undergoing a reflectivity test to meet federal standards. 

— It aids Public Works and Water Pollution Control in mapping and compiling data on myriad bits of infrastructure, whether it be roads, pipes, etc. GIS doesn’t just say there is a pipe at so-and-so location. It also informs the size and material of the pipe and where it leads.  

— GIS has helped Huntsville Fire & Rescue in determining the location for new stations, based on population density, traffic routes and area served. 

— A GIS programmer, Tom McDonough, developed “pet finder” assistance for Huntsville Animal Services to see where animals are picked up.

— It has mapped the location of every grave at Maple Hill Cemetery and the location of each brick paver at Bicentennial Park and U.S. Space & Rocket Center. 

— Most obviously, GIS is an essential aide to the Planning Department as new industry or new developments are being planned, or for annexation and rezoning. Frequently, Barnes will be asked something along the lines of, “We need 600 acres of flat land, it needs to be near a railroad and convenient to four-lane roads for a potential industry looking at Huntsville.”  

Barnes joined the City of Huntsville in 1985 as “a department of one” to inaugurate the GIS work. The first step was standardization. Each department seemed to use different maps, different scales, even different spellings on streets. 

All this was before the Internet, the proliferation of satellite images, 3D computers and handheld GPS devices.  

The process is as varied as the assignments. Once every year or so, depending on budget, GIS will do an extensive flyover in a small plane. Much of the time, it’s collecting data on foot and in cars, with laptops and GPS devices. 

“You don’t think about it, but (the assignment) could be tomorrow you’ll be mapping 3,000 bricks,” Barnes says. 

There is the occasional request for paper maps and the files in the GIS headquarters at 200 West Side Square are full of old maps and photos, many with landmarks long gone, with neighborhoods you’d never recognize now. 

“But it’s all on the computer,” Barnes says. It’s on a computer not just for other departments, but for industry as well. 

“All the data we have, contours, topography, anything builders and developers need is made available at no cost,” Barnes says. “We try to be an open source, to provide as much education as we can and hopefully fuel the business world here.”