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GIS team innovates way district does business, communicates data

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Louisville District
Published April 2, 2021

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District workforce includes engineers, park rangers, locks and dam operators, scientists and much more – all which play a vital role within the organization. Another role, which many may not be aware of, is the role of a geographer. The Louisville District has eight geographers on staff who make up the Geographic Information Systems team. 

“As geographers, we support the needs of our district through the creation of a wide variety of spatial products that could be as simple as a paper wall map to as multifaceted as building web applications and dashboards,” said Rachel Byrd, Engineer Division geographer. “I like how we work with technology like James Bond in the sense that we have a number of helpful gadgets we can pull to support any project. From programming GPS collection equipment, to flying a thermal drone, or building custom web tools.”

Geographers and Geographic Information Systems professionals, also known as GIS, do much more than just create pretty pictures of maps. 

“Many people don’t realize the powerful benefits that GIS can provide to their work in regard to data management, spatial analysis, and the ability to visualize the relationships between data,” said Paul Deatrick, Louisville District GIS coordinator. Deatrick was named USACE Geospatial Professional of the Year in 2020 for his efforts to lead the GIS team in Louisville.

Deatrick says he is proud of leading a team that has a reputation of continually meeting, or exceeding, customer’s needs and expectations. “While we are not perfect, we are able to effectively balance a large workload amongst a small team by efficiently prioritizing and understanding what the customer requires.”  

The district’s GIS team has broad use of applications within the district that have contributed to a variety of projects. 

“Recently, we’ve developed a web application for gathering community comments for our lake master plans within the district,” said Eli Litzelman, Engineering Division geographer. “It’s been rewarding to see the community engage with these web-tools and to facilitate communication and feedback between lake-goers and the Corps.”

Another unique project and application that geographers helped create was the USACE National Levee Database, which Deatrick was involved with the from the beginning stages – both at a district and national level.  

“It’s been a rewarding experience to have been involved in the early days when the levee database was just being created and to now see how it has developed over 15 years to include not only Corps levee systems, but now other federal, state and local systems as well,” Deatrick said.  “The Louisville District was also the first pilot district to begin collecting and inputting data into the NLD and lessons learned assisted other districts throughout their data population.”

With Byrd’s help, the district developed a new drone program, which offers many benefits to the district.

“Some may be unaware of our new drone program that is about one year old,” Byrd said. “We have the capability to support any project with a drone and we have a remote pilot able to produce detailed terrain models, inspection footage and much more.”

Louisville District geographers help employees, and the public, understand basic physical systems that affect everyday life.

“I think the projects I’m most proud of are the ones I feel contribute to the safety and livelihood of individuals” Litzelman said. “For example, projects that involve the floodplain management and inundation mapping of towns at risk of flooding. It is nice to know that I have contributed, at least in some small way, to a plan or infrastructure project that may protect someone’s home or business.”

Byrd echoed that sentiment describing her deployment opportunity to provide support during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I was deployed to support the North Atlantic Division as New York City was hit heavily with COVID-19 early in the pandemic last year and geospatial products and GIS support helped decision makers track the spread of the disease, their resources, workforce, and other hazards positioning them to make informed decisions with real-time data at their fingertips,” Byrd said. “GIS has been essential to tracking the spread of COVID-19 globally. It was a rewarding experience to utilize my professional skills to assist another division during an emergency event.”

While Louisville District geographers love using all the GIS technology, they all agree that working with each other and the variety of projects is their favorite part of the job.

“It’s a profession that continues to grow and working with GIS in the Corps, provides, not only myself but my teammates, the opportunities to work on all types of projects and interface with a wide variety of professionals,” said Deatrick. “We are all involved in a wide variety of both civil and military projects that can include data management, data development and collection, cartographic production, application development and visualization, geo-processing and spatial analysis. Due to our involvement in so many areas, it is challenging but never boring.”