B.C. maps out opportunities for digital cartography service

Marijuana growers beware: The RCMP now has access to digital maps, aerial photographs and other data that can be downloaded at any time of the day or night.

Amin Kassam, the director of the Agriculture and Lands Ministry’s base mapping and geomatic services branch, says at least one RCMP officer is using digital photographs downloaded to his personal digital assistant to track marijuana grow ops.

“He’s got these PDAs loaded with maps, working with conservation officers, busting marijuana operations, flying in helicopters,” Kassam said in an interview.

Previously, the Mountie – or any of the branch’s other 5,000 customers – would have had no choice but to go to a government office or air photo agent to order the material.

But the new online service provides access 24 hours a day to thousands of digital geographic records.

Among the products now available online, in various formats, are the Terrain Resource Information Management (TRIM) base maps.

The TRIM maps constitute a 1:20,000-scale representation of the province, including all of the features seen in an aerial photograph: streams, bridges, large buildings, forest openings, and contours.

After placing an order, customers are sent an e-mail with a link to their data.

Digital orthophotos are aerial photographs that are “rectified” to appear as a map. They are shipped to customers on DVD within three to five business days.

Besides helping the RCMP bust marijuana growers, some of the digital products proved helpful to other authorities.

During the 2003 forest wildfires in the Lillooet-Town Creek area, the service’s maps and other data came in handy.

“For the office of the fire commissioner, they would have used this data to help with the evacuations and then also with the crews trying to plan how to fight the fires,” Kassam said.

Cherie Stutz is the GIS mapping manager for Vancouver firm Chartwell Consultants Ltd., which specializes in forestry and environmental science consulting.

Stutz said the new system is saving her company considerable time. While some of the products were available online, others were only in old-tech format.

“We had microfiche,” Stutz said, “and that became harder and harder to use, of course, because we don’t live in that kind of a world any more.”

“For us the benefits are that it’s all in one place now,” she said. “We don’t have to do a bunch of different searches for photography in different areas and we can also give our clients the ability to do that for themselves.”

Meanwhile, Stutz still has that box of microfiche, to remind her of the old days.

The government’s Kassam calls the new online system “exciting,” and said it came about only after considerable effort.

“We’ve been at it for a few years, trying to get to a place where we can offer seven by 24 access and have an interface that’s intuitive and user-friendly,” he said.

However, the work isn’t over: “We will continue to develop thing so that there is better data and more product available.”

The online access to mapping data, along with other B.C. government online services, is expected to boost efficiency for various resource industries, such as that of oil and gas.

“These oil and gas folks, because they would have had to scout around different ministries and go to different systems to gain access to information, it would cost them something like $10,000,” Kassam said. “Now, the companies can see all of the information in one place, permitting them to make a decision much quicker.”

Some of the records are available for free download.

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