Bringing Satellite Data Down to Earth

November 18, 2013 | Mark Hobson

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Local representatives of the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) global community will gather on November 20 from 10 am to 2 pm at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery to promote GIS Day.

GIS is the blanket term for software tools used worldwide to gather and analyze information related to the Earth’s surface. Combining many types of data into one map helps illustrate interactions, enabling a better understanding of patterns and relationships in a wide array of fields. For example, a police department may chart incidents of crime to a neighborhood or scientists may compare population growth in an area to the availability of drinking water.

Bringing satellite data into the mix are Russ Dengel and Sam Batzli, researchers from the Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) and the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS). They will demonstrate two unique programs at the conference, RealEarth and WisconsinView.

RealEarth, an SSEC-developed web map application, can combine large-scale  satellite imagery from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) showing entire weather systems, with very high resolution Landsat images showing street level details. This integration allows direct map-based comparisons of satellite images with more traditional terrestrial GIS data such as population centers, land cover, road networks, and water features that were previously not possible. Layering up to the minute satellite data onto existing maps can reveal the immediate effects not only of recent weather events, but also of longer-term climate change.

“What we want to illustrate for the GIS community at the conference,” Dengel says, “is the kind of data we at SSEC can supply and how we are bridging the gap between high resolution GIS-type displays and the broader ranges of meteorological captures.”

In addition, RealEarth can be configured to supply imagery and data products to any type of display device from mobile phones to high-end GIS work stations. RealEarth also powers SSEC’s Weather Sat (WxSat) iOS app.

Sam Batzli will demonstrate WisconsinView, which since 2004 has made aerial and satellite imagery of Wisconsin freely available on the web. WisconsinView is part of a nation-wide effort called AmericaView.

“Our goal,” Dengel says, “is to be an interface with our scientists to allow them to reach the public as quickly as possible with their data. Hurricanes, satellite imagery, CIMSS products. They are all on line and software products like RealEarth running on a GIS can assemble the information and make it available in near real-time.”