New environmental software

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The problems faced by the directorate of environment at Fort McClellan in Anniston, Ala., are not unique. The Army installation is in a period of transition, and environmental questions must be answered before land parcels can be transferred, for public use, as part of the base realignment and closure (BRAC) process. New analytical data must be collected, analyzed and combined with historical data in order to form a comprehensive understanding of environmental conditions.

This involves relating large amounts of seemingly disparate data. The environmental directorate required a way to assimilate, readily access and analyze the data in order to make defensible environmental judgments.

In the past, environmental data were usually thought of as analytical data from soil and water samples. These were usually collected by subcontractors and delivered in a paper report. Anyone wishing to use the data had to find the report, copy and analyze the data and often prepare a hard copy graphic of the results. Not only was this process difficult, but errors could easily be introduced through manual manipulation of the data.

Environmental data
Today, environmental data are any data that can aid in the understanding of the past, present and future environmental conditions. Still, at the core are analytical data such as results from soil and water samples. However, data that were once thought of as tangential, such as base maps and geophysical data, are now integral parts of the solution. The common thread among all environmental data is the spatial component. All environmental data relate directly or indirectly to a place: an X,Y,Z coordinate.

A fundamental example is a soil sample. All analytical measurements of that soil can be related to the sample location. Map data, by definition, are related to locations. However, not all environmental data are directly related to a discrete location. Instead, the data relate to a general area such as a parcel of land or a building. The spatial location of the land parcel or building is used by the data related to it. Since all environmental data can be related spatially, spatial tools can be applied to access, analyze and display them.

Bits and pieces
Over the years, the Fort McClellan staff hired contractors to collect analytical data. These data were delivered in different forms and formats. Some were archived as paper documents, while others were in various electronic formats. It was not easy to find and assimilate these data into any analyses. Those data that were stored in an electronic database or spreadsheet format usually suffered several problems. The data had different laboratory processes, units of measurement, detection limits and reporting protocols, as well as differing levels of completeness and accuracy.

The Fort McClellan staff had also accumulated historical maps, aerial photographs, and geographic information system (GIS) and computer aided design (CAD) data. The GIS and CAD data were in disparate formats and different coordinate systems. In short, Fort McClellan had a lot of data, but could not easily use it.

Putting it all together
Over the last year, IT Corp. has developed VisualizeITTM, a software tool that brings together a variety of environmental data based on their spatial component. Historical data, new data, soil and water analytical data, GIS data, CAD data, aerial photography and text documents can all be accessed and used.

The software features an interface combining an Oracle-based database management system (DBMS) called ITEMS and a GIS. The interface allows the user to use ITEMS or the GIS separately. The software filters and transfers the database information into GIS.

Environmental data management
The new DBMS supports data input, validation, storage, query and reporting. Using the forms-based interface, a number of data input forms were created to allow data to be input from paper reports.

Using the data import option, custom electronic data loading scripts were created for loading historical data in Microsoft® Excel spreadsheets, Access databases and ASCII files. This meant that the environmental data stored in these other formats were compiled into one format and could be accessed and used together.

Error checking during input was automated partially through the use of valid values tables, which maintain lists of standards, such as analytical parameter names and synonyms and Chemical Abstract Service (CAS) numbers, lithology codes and analytical method numbers. As data are entered or imported, they are checked against the valid values to ensure accuracy and consistency.

Currently, the Fort McClellan database contains over 1.5 million records. These records were input by a combination of people who were responsible for various data types. The sample coordinator at the site was responsible for most of the sampling information. Three IT Corp. technicians spent six months inputting the remainder of the data and handling the quality assurance and quality control aspects of the project.

The data manager has been responsible for the addition of the analytical data, as well as data reporting. Data, as expected, take the majority of resources in a large environmental information system. However, once the data are in the system and quality checked, they can be used to their full potential.

Sampling locations were organized into location groups within the DBMS. By pre-defining groups of locations for generating data reports, the user can retrieve data for these locations using the output generator.

The GIS component
A GIS is a computer system capable of assembling, storing, manipulating and displaying geographically referenced information - data identified according to location. Environmental applications using GIS can involve any project where spatial data are used. Examples include optimum site location, risk assessment, facility management and emergency response.

ArcView®GIS from Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. was adapted for the new DBMS, thereby permitting both spatial and non-spatial queries of the attribute data from a map interface. The resulting data can then be displayed and analyzed within GIS. For example, analytical data can be color-coded, symbolized and annotated on a map before being printed on a background of base map roads, buildings and topography.

Using this interface, a user can select a group of locations from the location group table in the DBMS. This returns an ArcView Shape file and displays the locations on a map of the facility. Next, the user can select a water level, well construction or a number of analytical data reports. Using a report wizard, the user instructs the DBMS on the types of data and the range of dates for which to retrieve data.

The data are returned to the GIS in standard database tables that indirectly use the spatial component of the Shape file. Users can then use a data viewer to query the resulting tables by clicking on the sampling location on the map or on records in the tables.

As technology produces more and more electronic environmental data and the demands on data to produce information increases, software tools to organize the data become more important. They maximize data use and management and result in a better understanding of environmental conditions.


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This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1999 issue of Environmental Protection.

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