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GIS at the Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian Projects

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) relate to the overall emphases of the Smithsonian Institution, which are as follows:

First, with infrastructure improvement, GIS technology can be coupled with facilities software for monitoring and maintaining the physical plant and grounds of the museum complex.

Second, GIS may be used with other tools for planning and designing floor space. Floor plans in most computer-aided drafting (CAD) formats can be easily transferred to GIS. Information concerning department personnel, space assignments, exhibit layouts, utilities, and furniture/equipment inventories can be accessed from existing museum data bases. Short- and long-term planning with GIS for both current and projected space requirements enable the user to: lay out permanent and movable walls, doors, windows, and supporting building services such as HVAC, electrical and lighting systems; locate available space; and explore alternative solutions for placing large exhibits or departments in multistory buildings. All of the above were incorporated throughout the institution in the 1990s using an AutoCad-based facilities management programs: Archibus and Aperture. In 2003, the Office of facilities Engineering and Operations (OFEO) signed an inter-agency agreement with NASA for consulting services as OFEO incorporates all of its existing architectural, engineering and utilities drawings and CAD files into a GIS.

Third, for geographic education of the public, GIS are perfect mediums with which to create electronic atlases on exhibit showing biodiversity, distribution, or cultural, ecological and geological changes. An exhibition, titled The Power of Maps, concerning cartography as a medium and a metaphor for understanding the world and our place in it, took place at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum from October 1992 to March 1993, and was repeated at SI's International Gallery from November 1993 through January 1994. A variety of historic and contemporary maps were presented, illustrating how maps are researched and compiled, designed and structured (map language), updated, and analyzed. This exhibit included an integration of GIS by ESRI, whereby GIS methodology was demonstrated through the display of non-static interactive maps on Arc/Info and ArcView. In 2003, the Global Volcanism Program is building an exhibit and web-based interactive mapping program concerning volcanoes and earthquakes around the world, to be updated every six minutes.

Fourth, regarding basic research at the Smithsonian, GIS and GPS are instruments that permit the efficient and accurate collection of spatial data, while combining and comparing time-sequential maps and satellite imagery for estimating global change and environmental degradation. The analytical and statistical capabilities within GIS then allow analysis and determination of causative factors. GIS are also ideal for comparing species diversity of flora or fauna with variables in their habitats so as to better design or manage biosphere reserves and conservation areas with which Smithsonian scientists are involved, such as at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Conversely, habitats can be identified with overlay analysis producing maps of where field teams might locate rare or endangered species of plants and animals.

Fifth, the Collections Division use GIS to spatially catalogue when and where items were collected in addition to where they are stored now. Subsequently, many studies using GPS and GIS would then be able to access the collections research information system's (CRIS) RapidMap project on the World Wide Web for historical geographic information on a variety of topics that may undergo overlay analyses. A note of caution: since the Smithsonian's institutional collections currently total over 142 million objects, the completion of the CRIS modernization program is not anticipated soon.

Sixth, GIS can be utilized as a spatial demographic tool for marketing and development and to reach existing and potentially new members and contributors, as is happening with our development offices that are using the BusinessMAP program. And seventh, GIS are good tools for cataloguing and tracking the worldwide extent of Smithsonian international activities, as is being accomplished by the GIS unit at the Conservation and Research Center.

Coordinated from the Automatic Data Processing (ADP) Office is a GIS special interest group covering more than 400 installations of software for people from several different bureaus: Conservation and Research Center (CRC), National Air and Space Museum (NASM), National Museum of American History (NMAH), National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), National Zoological Park (NZP), Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), Smithsonian Libraries (SIL), and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). These people represent many disciplines; they have a great commitment to continued noncompetitive GIS development at the Smithsonian and to the creation of a strong partnership among units and individuals who together can comprise a working GIS support network.

To learn more about the capabilities of GIS, group members initiated several prototype projects in 1989 including studies of Washington, D.C. area flora, South American primate distribution, three-dimensional (3D) geological analyses of paleobiological and archeological excavations in southern Kenya, land-cover change on the island of Palau, and small mammal and bird distributions at the CRC in Front Royal, Virginia. These projects were accomplished on the GIS software, pcARC/INFO, by staff on their spare time or by volunteers. Group members cultivated contacts with outside groups and vendors that produced benefits for the Smithsonian, including data exchange and donations or loans of hardware and software.

Currently, occasional GIS related seminars are presented and a series of monthly GIS classes are offered at the NMNH Computer Learning Center to all staff and visiting interns and professionals (including a number of foreign nationals) who are interested in using GIS with their future projects.

Written by Dan Cole, GIS Coordinator, Smithsonian Institution