Saturday, March 24, 2007

Hello, America. You've been mapped.

For better or worse, while we weren't looking the government has been compiling a database of... Oh, let them tell you: USGS Release: Land Cover Database Details State of the Land: Lower 48 described with Census-like accuracy (3/19/2007 3:01:46 PM):

The U.S. Geological Survey and the federal interagency Multi‑Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium (MRLC) recently announced the completion of a massive database that describes the land surface condition of each 30-meter cell of land in the conterminous United States. Nearly six such cells - each 98 feet long and wide - would fit on a football field. The 2001 National Land Cover Database (NLCD 2001) and its products are available at

Land cover is broadly defined as the biophysical pattern of natural vegetation, agriculture, and urban areas. It is shaped by both natural processes and human influences. NLCD 2001 data portrays 16 classes of land cover in the lower 48 states, the percent of tree canopy, and the degree of surface imperviousness in urban areas.

"Just as the U.S. Census is fundamental in assessing patterns of national population growth, we also require an authoritative, periodic review of land conditions ‑ a Census of the Nation's Land Resources ‑ to understand how people and the land interact," said USGS Director Mark Myers. "The National Land Cover Database gives us that. It's a versatile, balanced look at the state of the land."

Based on satellite imagery taken in 2001, the broad, yet precise database was constructed in a six‑year collaborative effort by the 11 MLRC agencies ( The range and accuracy of information in the database enables managers of public and private lands, urban planners, agricultural experts, and scientists with many different interests (for instance, climate change or invasive species) to identify critical characteristics of the land for a wide variety of investigations.

"With a growing population of more than 300 million people and the challenging prospect of climate change, comprehensive information about the condition of our land resources becomes more and more vital," said Barbara Ryan, USGS Associate Director for Geography. "Land cover information is essential for understanding a wide variety of issues: for example, ecosystem status and health; spatial patterns of biodiversity; land use planning; and land management policy."

NLCD 2001 is a second generation effort to update the Nation's land cover information. The first NLCD was completed in 2000 with imagery acquired around the year 1992. Information from NLCD 1992 has been used in thousands of applications in the private, public, and academic sectors ‑ applications that range from helping to site cell phone towers to tracking how diseases spread.

The national consistency of NLCD information makes possible the sweeping, contextual analysis of national land perspectives, such as the Heinz Center's State of the Nation's Ecosystems, the Environmental Protection Agency's Draft Report on the Environment, the USGS National Water Quality Assessment, and the Landfire Program (a federal interagency program to predict and mitigate wildfire). Complete, updated coverage of NLCD 2001 data for Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico is expected to be available by December 2007.

NLCD products are web enabled for download from the MRLC website at USGS is currently working with private software developers to create publicly available, user friendly tools that can be used to conduct web-based geospatial analyses of NLCD. Future nationwide updates of NLCD 2001 will continue to monitor land cover change across the Nation.

I'm not sure if this is good news or bad news or something in between. Something about having my yard scrutinized and put into a database without my permission doesn't exactly thrill me. Nor does that "sweeping, contextual analysis of national land perspectives" idea. Or the "enables managers of public and private lands, urban planners, agricultural experts, and scientists with many different interests (for instance, climate change or invasive species) to identify critical characteristics of the land for a wide variety of investigations" business. And should I possibly have any concerns about mention of the Heinz Center? (Board of Trustees here.)

Well, the database is there. If it can be put to good uses, like improving wildfire programs, that's to the good. If it can be used to show how "climate change" tends to be worse in urban areas because of too much asphalt, I won't complain about that. (Side note: I understand that buildings with roof gardens are naturally much cooler in summer than those with a black tar roof. Which stands to reason. Not that I want roof gardens mandated - I don't - but if you've got a roof that lends itself to the addition of a garden, it's a thought. Plants can also help clean up pollution a wee bit and birds and insects find them useful, too. Such a deal. Just be sure to learn the ins and outs: too heavy a garden and you'll endanger the inhabitants, too light of planting containers and you'll be sending flying objects into pedestrians below on windy days, etc.)

But I have a funny feeling that the info will be misused as well, cherry-picked and diced and plugged into beta-version computer models by people with agendas that aren't necessarily friendly to private property rights or personal freedom.

I hope I'm wrong. But.

You might keep your eyes open. It will be interesting to see what various people/groups/agencies/activists/politicians/the press do with all this data. I don't intend to lose any sleep over it, but I am afraid it might get interesting once any well-positioned folks who confuse knowledge with wisdom get their teeth into it.

What was it President Reagan used to say? Trust, but verify? I like that idea in this case. I'm sure everyone involved with this project means well, but that's no guarantee they won't accidentally run people over while they have their eyes on the far horizon, so to speak.

Oh, and if I had a betting window it would be open right now: Will the press think this massive compiling of data about private property as well as public is good, or bad, or not worth mentioning?

1 comment:

Donna-Jean said...

It is odd to think about all this. I found my house on google earth and it was bizarre to look at 'us' from space.

I also just read that they've put the pre-Katrina photos up on such sites. Rather jarring, I think, to people whose homes are still damaged and missing to now see them 'good as new' when they're not.

Thanks for the food for thought...