Digital mapmaker

Jason Balmet

Photo By David Robert

Jason Balmet is a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technician for Michael Baker Jr., a large engineering firm that’s working on digital mapping projects, including one for SBC Communications, Inc. He talked over the phone about professional and recreational uses of GIS technology.

What is digital mapping?

Geography is the analysis of the Earth. It’s looking at the spacial interactions of different features of the Earth, whether it’s biological, geological, there’s an environmental side, urban side, anything to do with the Earth. GIS is a tool that we use to describe the Earth using layers. It’s really a database with a pretty picture on top. …

The only information on a map is what you write on it. Whereas, with GIS, there’s a lot of information you can see on it, but, underlying all that is a database with millions of definitions, points, symbols, descriptions and things, anything you want to put in there.

What kind of information are you putting on your maps?

We’re using it for utility purposes, so all we’re capturing are the streets in California and Nevada that are in the area that SBC controls and a little bit outside of that just for a buffer. And, we’re also capturing the parcels, the lots and any easements that fall on these lots, that we can put these utilities into.

What will SBC do with the maps?

They’re going to use these maps for planning out utilities. Their engineers can use these maps to plan out the facilities inside of neighborhoods, along streets. They also have made these maps available to the FCC to track where one telephone exchange begins and ends, so that when you dial long-distance you know exactly where that border is.

Does GIS technology have any applications for the general public?

This is the tiniest of possibilities. GIS can be used for anything from mapping your son’s paper route to global climate change. Anything you can put into a database can be mapped by GIS.

What are some of the more notable uses you’ve seen?

Global climate change is a big one. You also have biogeographers who use it to track wildlife. You can track different layers, such BLM land in Nevada versus private land.

We’re kind of lucky because GIS data is built by users and modified and refined. … The U.S. government will just publish it freely. It’s made with your tax dollars, so really it’s your information. You can go onto plenty of [online] GIS warehouses, where people throw this data out there for the public, and you kind of use it at your own discretion. It’s out there for your own use. Just about anything that you can think of … a whole range, from physical geography dealing with the Earth’s process to economic geography inside of cities. And anything in between.

If I wanted to use GIS recreationally, is there software I could purchase?

There’s plenty of software packages. … Some are more expensive than other, which means they’re more powerful. There’s plenty of recreational purposes for this. I don’t know if you’ve heard of geocaching before.

What’s that?

Geocaching is like a very large scavenger hunt. … There’s geocashing in Nevada. People take a GPS unit and put objects down in the desert and get a GPS location … and then people can go out and hunt for these objects by a description. … This millionaire planted these little tokens around the country. You go out and you find these tokens, which are extremely rare. You can cash them in for these beautiful jeweled bugs and such. … It’s a treasure hunt. It’s really cool.

Where could someone find more information about that?

There’s plenty of web sites. There’s books now … about geocaching and how to get it set up and prepared. I even think there’s a kids’ book out now.