University of California
Informatics and GIS Program


2017 in Review: Focused on the Long Wave of Progress

It's amazing how quickly 2017 flew by. The dominant theme of current events this year seemed to be that of change, and not always for the better. But as the news cycle spins faster and faster, we in IGIS continued to focus on the long wave of progress, building bridges between ANR's research and extension mission and the super-exciting developments in geospatial technologies and data. Our year was extremely busy. A few of the big highlights are below.


Strategic Planning. We started out 2017 winding up an internal strategic planning process we began in 2016. After numerous discussions, reflections, and iterations, the result was a draft Strategic Plan for our program based around five core goals.

  1. Provide GIS training and support services across the ANR continuum and program implementation cycle
  2. Expand ANR's capacity for drone research and applications
  3. Strengthen collaborations within ANR, UC, and beyond
  4. Be a bridge for ANR to access cutting-edge geospatial data, tools, science, and research
  5. Sustain and develop ANR's flux tower network

Our Strategic Planning will continue in 2018 so we can incorporate the key recommendations from our Five-Year Program Review.


Five-Year Program Review. 2017 marked our Program's fifth anniversary (talk about time flying!), hence it was time for our Five-Year Review. This was a welcome opportunity as a lot has changed since IGIS was established in 2012, and we needed to assess what we've achieved and where we need to focus moving forward. The Review started with a presentation by Maggi Kelly to Program Council in January 2017, and concluded eleven months later in December 2017 with a presentation by Committee Chair Michael Cahn on the Review's key findings and recommendations. In between were numerous information requests from the Review Committee, an extremely interesting Ripple Effect Mapping stakeholder exercise in June, and a lot of behind the scenes work by the Review Committee including meetings, surveys, phone interviews, and writing. We are enormously grateful to all the members of the Review Committee, Michael Cahn for chairing the process, Jennifer Caron-Sale for coordinating everything, and all of the stakeholders who provided input through surveys, meetings, and interviews. We are looking forward to hearing the final recommendations by Program Council and Vice President Humiston early next year, and have already started to implement many of the draft recommendations. We want to use this information to make IGIS more effective and useful in the future.


Drone mapping the Mojave dessert,
Drone Services. As expected, our drone services program continued to take off in 2017. Thanks to the incredible efforts and boundless energy of Sean Hogan, we mapped over 4000 acres using RGB, multispectral, and thermal cameras. One of the bigger missions was 2500 acres of the Mojave desert, which Sean and Andy Lyons mapped over a week for a project studying desert tortoise habitat. To help carry the load, all IGIS staff obtained their FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot licenses in March, and we now have basic drone equipment at all staff locations. This new capacity was put to good use shortly after the wildfires in northern California, when Shane Feirer flew a series of missions for UCCE Forest Advisor Yana Valachovic and fire ecologists seeking to understand fire dynamics and impacts. We also partnered with Drone Scholar on the novel #Fly4Fall project, and helped collect images of vegetation changing color worldwide.


DroneCamp 2017. Another ambitious undertaking this year was our inaugural offering of a multi-day workshop called DroneCamp. We've been doing one-day drone workshops for awhile now, but the three-day DroneCamp was designed to give participants exposure to the full range of skills needed to collect data with drones safely, legally, and effectively. 36 participants from all over California and as far away as Hawaii came to Davis for three intensive days at the end of July. The curricula included a wide range of topics from mission planning, to flight operations, to visualizing the processed data. It was a huge amount of work but very successful and we've enjoy staying in touch with everyone through the new California Drone Mapping email list we launched in August. Watch this space for an announcement about DroneCamp 2018!


CA Land Use and Ownership Portal
CA Land Use and Ownership Portal
GIS Service Center. The GIS Service Center continued to provide support services for all things GIS in ANR. From 20-minute consultations during our online office hours, to large projects lasting several months, Shane Feirer and Robert Johnson handled over two dozen projects this year in addition to maintaining all the GIS licenses for the Division and keeping several important ANR websites up and running. A couple of projects that came to fruition in 2017 were the California Land Use and Ownership Portal, which we developed for Specialists Van Butsic and Luke Macaulay and was recently featured in Cal Ag, and the Coyote Cacher citizen science mobile app for UCCE Advisor Niamh Quinn, which is quite literally putting coyotes on the map in Southern California. We have also been working hard as the lead unit for a climate adaptation resource website for the Office of the Governor that will debut in 2018 (stay tuned for more). To keep everything organized and track progress, Shane and Robert developed a sophisticated project tracking and billing system using Google apps powered by scripts that automate tasks and generate reports (Advanced Google Apps workshop anyone?)


Workshops. Our workshop calendar filled up quickly. Aside from DroneCamp, we held 7 workshops on drones, 4 workshops on GIS and mobile data collection, 2 remote sensing workshops, and one workshop on spatial analysis with R. These were held all over the state in collaboration with more hosts than ever before, including RECs, UCCE offices, 3 UC campuses, and for the first time ever a private aerial imaging company. In-person workshops are a lot of effort, but we enjoy doing them and many spin-off projects have come out workshop conversations. Our workshops are complemented by an increasing number of resources on our website, including Tech Notes on important workflows and a growing number of videos on our YouTube channel. In 2018 look for a new training needs assessment that will help us continue to meet the professional development needs of the Division.

Drone workshop at DREC, February 2017

Connecting with Policy Makers. Policy moves slowly, but it's sets the stage for almost everything we do and is an important part of the long wave progress. Sean Hogan had a busy year, starting with a trip to Capitol Hill in April where he met with California's representatives to discuss the critical role the federal government plays in remote sensing. In November, he testified at a NIFA listening session in Sacramento, laying out what USDA can do to help the ag industry reap the benefits of the many advances in data science and technology, and later gave presentations to the Ag Commissioner offices in Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties. We've also stayed active with the CA Economic Summit, where Maggi Kelly co-chairs the Action Team for Working Landscapes, and other events with a lot of government presence such as CalGIS. We've also been following and writing about the proposed license changes for the extremely important National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP), and standards for open data stewardship that are gaining traction and already required in the EU. Closer to home, we are proud to be one of the lead drone units within UC, and have stayed active in conversations with the UC Center of Excellence on Unmanned Aircraft System Safety on policies and procedures that ensure ANR operates drones in compliance with FAA regulations, and also joined an interagency UAV Working Group chaired by the California Natural Resources Agency.


Looking ahead to 2018. In 2018, we are looking forward to incorporating the recommendations from our Program Review and completing our Strategic Plan. A big theme for 2018 will be finding more and better ways to connect with and stay in touch with all parts of ANR, and expand the reach of our small staff. We already have a number of new projects in the pipeline that will keep everyone busy, in addition to the usual portfolio of ongoing GIS support, workshops and drone services. Our research work will continue tackling some of the big technical bottlenecks in working with drone data, including data management, image processing, and extracting more juice from the high resolution 3D data. We're all going to the Statewide Conference in April and will be taking part in several sessions - see you in Ontario!


Happy New Year everyone from us at IGIS and ANR.

Posted on Friday, December 22, 2017 at 12:18 PM
Tags: IGIS (51), Year in Review (1)

IGIS and UCCE assess the spread of fire in Sonoma and Napa Counties

Recently I was fortunate to work with the IGIS team in Santa Rosa and Sonoma to explore why so many homes and buildings were lost in the October Tubbs and Nuns Fires.  With the IGIS's Shane Feirer we collected drone-based video to record how the fires burned through the vegetation near and around the lost structures.

We observed several sites where there was little fire activity in the forests or woodlands, yet the homes burned.  This type of video helps us document how devastating a wind-driven ember fire can be and of the important lessons we can learn to be better prepared for wildfire.

From this experience I came away with a painful reminder that we all need to do a better job at focusing on fuels near our homes (e.g. combustible wood mulches used in landscaping, lawn furniture, leaf accumulations, dry landscape plants, etc.), especially in the 5 feet immediately adjacent to our homes. While the Tubbs Fire originated in grassy area in Calistoga it easily picked up embers from the burning vegetation which were moved by the 40-70 mph winds and created spot fires ahead of the flaming front. In short time these embers were blasted into homes via attic or soffit vents (critical to let moisture out of a building) or they ignited combustible materials close to buildings; these types of exposures are the primary way the Tubbs Fire started to consume homes.  Eventually the Tubbs Fire moved to the more densely populated areas of the Fountain Grove subdivision in Santa Rosa and with each new home that was ignited a new source of embers were created. The embers that came from the burning buildings included 2 x 4s, chunks of wood the size of a frisbee, and other materials. These materials were blasted over Highway 101 on to homes and businesses in the urban center of Santa Rosa- a place most thought could not be impacted by wildfire. The winds persisted till mid-morning on October 9th providing considerable time for an ember to find a weakness in the home. All of us hope we never have a fire like this again, but as history shows us, California's most damaging fires typically occur in the September and October and are often wind-driven. 

For many years UC has worked in educating homeowners about fire preparedness in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). These fires have resulted in the largest number of structure losses to date in California and we all need tools to better understand how to learn from these experiences.  I greatly appreciate IGIS's willingness to help me collect some critical data in a time sensitive manner.


Posted on Monday, December 4, 2017 at 2:34 PM
Tags: Drone (4), Fires (1), IGIS (51), Napa (1), Sonoma (1), UAV (9), UCCE (2), Yana Valachovic (1)

USDA Considers Switching NAIP Imagery to a License Model

Intermountain REC, Tulelake, CA
False Color Composite Image, NAIP 2016

The National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) is a USDA service which has been collecting aerial imagery once a year during the growing season for the entire continental US. Established in 2003, the images are taken from airplanes and then stitched together to create a four band (blue, green, red, & near-infrared) digital orthomosiac at a one-meter resolution.

This dataset has become the foundation for many important analyses across the country, including crop distribution maps and agricultural forecasts, and has served as the basemap for countless maps. For us in IGIS, NAIP imagery is one of our go-to datasets for map backdrops or raw data for things like classification or georeferencing drone images. ESRI makes NAIP imagery easy to use by distributing it through their ArcGIS online platform.

Aside from its national scope and high quality, a big reason why NAIP imagery has been so widely used is because it has always been public domain, available at no cost through the USDA Geospatial Data Gateway. But this may soon be changing. As recently reported on GIS Lounge, the USDA Farm Services Agency (FSA) is considering making NAIP a Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) product subject to a license. This means everyone, including government agencies and researchers, would have to start paying for the data, and have limitations on what they can do.

According to a recent presentation by John Mootz, Imagery Program Manager at the FSA Aerial Photography Field Office, the switch to a license model may become necessary because the current funding model isn't working. NAIP is funded under an innovative arrangement where costs are shared by state and federal agencies (not unlike Cooperative Extension). However, some states haven't been paying their bills, leaving a $3.1 million shortfall over the past few years. Aside from being financially unsustainable, late or missing payments cause delays in scheduling flights which can result in images being collected past the peak agriculture growth season. The time it takes to process the data, which has already stretched from 2 years to 3 years, is also affected.

What does this mean for ag? For cash-strapped agencies, researchers, and members of the public, losing access to a valuable dataset is never a good thing. But a lot of questions are still unknown. Collecting geospatial data is expensive, particularly for the entire USA, and as we've already seen with NAIP funding shortfalls can affect the quality and timeliness of the data. A lot of other data collection is funded through license models, which can work well if they are affordable and licenses tailored to the different needs of users. How will the state agencies who have been funding NAIP respond if FSA switches to a license model? Could other technologies fill the gap, such as the many commercial high resolution satellites that are now in orbit? Can political will be mobilized to convince USDA that collecting data that serves a public good is a good role for government, or has that cow left the barn?

FSA needs to make a decision by May 1, 2018 whether or not to change the distribution model for the NAIP 2019 data (to be collected in summer 2019). They are currently collecting impact statements "to allow FSA leadership a clear understanding before they make the final decision". MapBox, the popular mapping engine, for example has come out strongly in favor of keeping NAIP open. If this affects you, please leave a comment below and also consider letting the FSA know how your work would be impacted, for better or worse, if NAIP data become licensed. 

Related links 

Posted on Sunday, December 3, 2017 at 11:56 AM
Tags: GIS Data (1), IGIS (51), NAIP (1)

ESRI Imagery Education Summit

ESRI held its first ‘Imagery Education Summit' in Redlands California this week, and even though I came with high expectations, I was still pleasantly surprised with the caliber of the summit's presentations.  It is very difficult to pick out a favorite among these talks; however, I can say that I particularly enjoyed the presentations by Jarlath O'Neil Dunn from the University of Vermont (pictured below), on ‘Success Stories and Progress' in image analysis and mapping, and by Jason Ur from Harvard University, regarding his work with ‘Drones and Archaeology Case Studies' in Iraq.  The innovative approaches that they and others at the summit presented were truly inspiring!

One take-away from this event is that ESRI is making huge strides to incorporate more remote sensing processing options into ArcGIS Pro's ‘Image Analysis' toolbox.  Speaking for myself, as both a remote sensing and GIS practitioner, I am excited about the prospect of being able to do more of my work within just one application environment, as opposed to doing my image stitching in Pix4D, image analysis in ENVI, and then finally my spatial analysis and mapping in ArcGIS.  For the sake of efficiency, I look very forward to the day that I can do all of this in just one app. 

For you drone enthusiasts out there, one neat new feature in the ArcGIS Pro Image Analysis tools is basic image stitching for producing color balanced orthomosaics and digital surface model outputs.  This new function is not at the level of what Pix4D or Drone-to-Map can do yet, but for basic RGB image processing it may be good enough for many people's needs.  Plus, it is a brand new tool that is bound to improve over time.

A couple more neat news items that were mentioned at the summit include:

The future for spatial science has never looked brighter!

Posted on Friday, November 10, 2017 at 6:28 PM
Tags: Education (1), ESRI (12), Imagery (5), Summit (1)

GIS and Remote Sensing Workshop with CERES Imaging

Last week IGIS was very pleased to partner with CERES Imaging Inc. ( to provide a workshop on GIS and Remote Sensing for Crop Agriculture, in Davis CA.  This particular event represents an example of how UC ANR's IGIS Program is working with private industries to better deliver valuable services (in this case training) to public audiences who are eager to put the services/information into action; reinforcing UC ANR's priorities of public service and Cooperative Extension. 

This event was partially funded by a Department of Water Resources (DWR) grant to CERES, which among other things has helped CERES to provide very affordable, high resolution, multi-spectral, thermal and NDVI data to agriculturalists around California.  The objective of the DWR funding was to help facilitate more agile farming practices for water conservation, through the adoption of newly available aerial image products, while introducing farmers to contemporary image processing and mapping methods.  By partnering with CERES in this effort, IGIS is helping farmers to better utilize CERES's image products, to ideally make their operations more efficient and profitable.

Posted on Friday, November 10, 2017 at 6:09 PM

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