An Interview with NOAA's Tony LaVoi

Survey Summit Keynote Identifies Opportunities for Surveyors

At the upcoming Esri Survey Summit in San Diego, July 21-24, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) geospatial information officer Tony LaVoi will serve as the featured keynote speaker. In anticipation of his address, Professional Surveyor Magazine interviewed LaVoi via email about NOAA’s relationship with the surveying community, NOAA’s products and services, new technology, and the direction of our changing industry.

PSM: What is your role at NOAA?

Tony: I have a dual role in NOAA. First and foremost is my NOAA geospatial information officer role, where I serve as the focal point for much of the policy development and coordination activities related to geospatial technologies out of the NOAA CIO office. I also lead a group of extremely talented GIS and web developers, database administrators, visualization experts, and IT staff at the NOAA Coastal Services Center, a product development office within NOAA.  I’ve been with NOAA for 15 years. 

Before that I spent five years working on a range of GIS projects with state, regional, and local governments as well as the private sector. I should also mention that as an engineering student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I worked for four summers as an engineering intern with Wisconsin Department of Transportation working on road survey crews.

PSM: What is NOAA’s mission?

Tony: We have a compelling and important mission—to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems. Much of the work we do can be seen in the headlines of today’s news, as our work involves climate change, severe weather, natural and human-induced disasters, and threatened oceans and coasts. This organization really believes in the effectiveness of the partnership approach, so we work with numerous organizations, including all sectors of government, universities, and the private and nonprofit sectors. Our collective goal is to help our nation be more resilient.

PSM: You’re the keynote speaker at this year’s Survey Summit, which is a part of the Esri User Conference.  What message do you intend to bring to surveyors in attendance?

Tony: I hope to provide a deeper understanding of NOAA’s mission and our associated geospatial and mapping activities. From a geospatial perspective, NOAA is a fascinating agency given that we work from the surface of the sun with our space weather forecasts to the depths of the ocean through our hydrographic survey program. While I plan to highlight some of our recent successes and partnerships, especially our use of new and innovative tools and techniques, I also plan to identify some key challenges and opportunities for greater collaboration with the surveying and other external NOAA constituencies. Our current budget realities are only increasing the importance of working together using increased communication, coordination, and collaboration. I hope this presentation can foster a continued conversation.

PSM: How have geospatial technologies allowed NOAA to better meet its mission?

Tony: Geospatial technologies play a foundational role in our ability to understand and anticipate changes in the Earth’s environment and improve society’s ability to make scientifically informed decisions. We use a wide range of tools including GPS, satellite systems, radar, ships, buoys, aircraft, gliders, research facilities, high-performance computing, and information management and distribution systems.

Geospatial technologies have allowed us to improve the ways in which we monitor and model the environment to forecast daily weather as well as warn us of hurricanes, tornados, and tsunamis. NOAA’s Nautical Charting Program provides data that is integral to the safety of the tremendous maritime transportation industry. High-resolution digital elevation models and research have advanced our scientific understanding of a changing climate and its impacts on coastal communities. Biological mapping sensors and on-board vessel navigation systems allow us to manage the nation’s fisheries and support the responsible management of coastal habitats and species. The list goes on and on. The bottom line is much of our work is fundamentally defined by geography, but we often overlook the importance of geospatial technologies in the translation of NOAA’s science into messages that the public understands and information they can use. It is an area in which we are consistently striving to improve.

PSM: What impact does NOAA have on the U.S. surveying community?

Tony: We have a very strong partnership with the surveying community, principally through the staff and programs at the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) who are again active participants in this year’s Survey Summit. The National Geodetic Survey’s main customer for the past 200 years has been the surveying community. In the past, NGS performed a lot of survey work on its own. Over the last decade or so surveying has shifted to the private sector. NGS’s role has shifted from performing surveys to providing data for the surveying community.

NGS is the last word in authoritatively determining positions and heights.  This is essential for a broad range of things, for example:  Elevations for all FEMA flood hazard determination must be based on NGS vertical control; it is a requirement that most aerial mapping projects be referenced to NAD 83 and NAVD 88, as defined by NGS; most local (state, county, city) control is referenced to NGS control; engineering projects (especially large ones) are tied to NGS control; GIS is ultimately referenced to the NSRS as defined by NGS, and this is becoming ever more important as GIS data becomes more accurate.

PSM: Can you give some examples of NOAA’s products and services most valuable to surveyors and geospatial professions?

Tony: Datasheets are one of the more popular products of NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey office, providing accurate positions and heights.  The Continuously Operating Reference Stations (CORS), in conjunction with the Online Positioning User Service (OPUS), provides accurate positions within just 15 minutes to anyone who performs a GPS observation. Vdatum vertically transforms geospatial data among a variety of tidal, orthometric, and ellipsoidal vertical datums, allowing users to convert data from different horizontal and vertical references into a common system, and enables the fusion of diverse geospatial data in desired reference levels. The Horizontal Time Dependent Positioning software enables users to estimate horizontal displacements and/or horizontal velocities related to crustal motion in the United States and its territories. The software also enables users to update positional coordinates and/or geodetic observations to a user-specified date.

PSM: New technologies are rapidly changing how surveyors and anyone in the geospatial professions work.  Are the professions coming together or setting out on separate paths?

Tony: Geodesy has certainly become more diversified, bringing together astronomers, mathematicians, and now geophysicists to make satellite signals useful here on the ground. Within the broad geospatial network, surveyors are most concerned with accuracy and precision. Still, the professions are converging, especially in the visualization area that is the great benefit of GIS. While individual survey methods remain distinct, many are based upon GPS or a similar foundation, and they all meet within a GIS.

Surveyors have always performed spatial analyses—getting statistics from mathematical adjustments and other operations.  While statistics provide valuable information regarding how well stations “fit,” showing a map with the data is far easier to read and interpret.  A map also makes it easier to see spatial trends.  GPS makes everyone a geodesist, whether they wanted to be or not, so they need to understand the biases and limitations of these techniques in order to merge their data with others. GIS professionals are increasingly using data that require great accuracy.

An example is the use of GIS for maintenance and operation of utilities, such as sewers, where accurate horizontal coordinates are needed (e.g., to locate submerged valves) and accurate elevations are needed (e.g., to perform hydraulic analyses).  I believe everyone is beginning to realize that GIS is more than just a way to make “pretty maps”; it is instead a relational database with a geospatial component.  This vastly increases the value and power of GIS to perform a wide variety of spatial analysis. 

An example is using GIS to evaluate the vertical accuracy of a digital elevation model (DEM) by using a very large number of point positions (many thousands or millions) determined using precise surveying methods, such as continuous RTK GPS or terrestrial lidar.  So, a convergence is occurring, and the roles and tasks traditionally associated with GIS or surveying are overlapping more and more.  This is largely driven by an increased availability and decreasing cost of accurate positioning, computational power, and data storage.

PSM:  What technologies do you see as most influential in the coming decade?

Tony: Where to start? Of specific interest to the surveying community should be the increased GNSS constellations that will greatly enhance the ability to get more accurate positions as well as many new signals that are being included in the new systems like GPSIII and Galileo.  Research in IMUs and the gravity surveys NGS is doing will also greatly enhance our understanding of gravity and the ability to get elevations from GNSS. The application of gravity-based vertical datum to model the Earth’s geoid that is being undertaken by NOAA’s Gravity for the Redefinition of the American Vertical Datum (GRAV-D) is very important as accurate heights are critical to many scientific endeavors, but particularly to understanding and protecting low-lying coastal ecosystems. Lastly, the development of integrated topographic and bathymetric lidar systems will provide a cost-effective tool for comprehensive near-shore and shoreline mapping as well as environmental/ecological assessment for coastal zone planning.

PSM: Since you’ve been at NOAA, what technological change has had the single biggest impact on NOAA products and services or on how NOAA does its job?

Tony: For this audience, it is tough to limit to one so I will offer three. First is the use of GNSS to define the National Spatial Reference System (NSRS). GNSS has almost entirely replaced traditional classical (optical) methods for horizontal positioning. To give some context to this, the NAD 83 datum (finalized in 1986) was determined almost entirely using classical methods.  Now our National Geodetic Survey no longer even accepts classical data for horizontal positions. The two most recent national adjustments (2007 and 2011) were done exclusively using GNSS data, with no classical data at all.  This is a complete reversal from 1986 and is a profound change over a relatively short time. The second is the increased use of lidar throughout society—including applications to extract structures and other features. And, lastly, it is difficult to underestimate the impact of the internet as a delivery platform for our products and services.

PSM: Can you give some examples of how advances in technology have changed NOAA products and services?

Tony: The internet, of course, has made the reach of our data and products unlimited. One of our challenges is how we can best provide these products to audiences whose skillsets may be different from our traditional data user. Data visualizations, especially mapping applications, and internet-enable spatial analysis tools seem to work better than anything else for this purpose, and we continue to expand our use of this versatile set of tools.

One of my favorite examples is how we use geospatial technologies to turn complex environmental models into user-friendly forecast products, such as river flooding forecasts. Not that many years ago these forecasts were text-based products that were difficult for most users to understand. Using a mix of high-resolution DEMs, river forecast models, GIS, and visualization techniques, a user can now visualize forecasted flooding over time.  (See this forecasting product at http://water.weather.gov/ahps/inundation.php.) National standards for creating flood inundation maps have made this type of mapping much easier to read and share; similar approaches are underway for storm surge and coastal inundation data (www.stormsurge.noaa.gov/ and http://www.csc.noaa.gov/digitalcoast/tools/slrviewer/).

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