Get the gist of GIS

Fitbits are trending across the globe. Every day people use these devices to monitor their heart rate, keep track of calories burned, track their steps and much more. What most people don't realize is that Fitbits and many other smartwatches use ...

This is an example of a view you can get from exploring the 2015 aerial imagery option on The aerial image happens to be of the St.Louis River and swinging bridge in Jay Cooke State Park.

Fitbits are trending across the globe. Every day people use these devices to monitor their heart rate, keep track of calories burned, track their steps and much more. What most people don’t realize is that Fitbits and many other smartwatches use a Global Positioning System (GPS) to enable the devices to track their destination and then their steps and distance.

But what powers a GPS to work within so many modern watches and devices?

That’s where a software known as Geographic Information System (GIS) comes in. As a digital system used widespread, GIS allows computers and people to visualize and analyze data in order to understand patterns trends, as well as relationships among various variables.

It takes into account data used to analyze weather trends, create road routes, predict damage from natural disasters, and plan for resources and emergency management.

GIS has revolutionized our ability to predict, plan and prepare, said Carlton County GIS coordinator Jared Hovi. Closely cooperating with the 911 dispatch system, public safety offices, county sheriffs, zoning and much more, GIS shares information with all kinds of public entities as well as tons of organizations and industries.


When it comes to fitbits and smartwatches, GIS mainly comes into play through the images displayed when the device is plugged into a smartphone or computer displaying a visual of their route traveled.

Or even more common use for GIS is the mapping systems on smartphones and other devices.

Although GIS is beneficial in terms of worldwide technology, GIS can also be extremely helpful in terms of things based in Carlton County.

“GIS is a resource that informs people about what is out there," explained Hovi.

He explained that one way the county uses GIS data collection is as a “digital plat book” - a book that contains townships’ information about land divisions and their descriptions.

Carlton County has its own GIS website (, and anyone with a computer or smartphone can explore the software and benefit from it.

The site has a mapping application displaying a basic map of the county but with a little exploration it can become very useful. A user can go on the website and do different searches, by owner name, parcel number, tax payer or actual physical address.

“And we have the [ArcGIS] map software where you can see your legend and mapping layers, where you can turn on different layers of data,” Hovi said.


Carlton County Land Commissioner Greg Bernu chimed in.

“It's the same concept, same feel as Google Earth,” Bernu said. “You can measure things out, find area.’’

Similar to the looks of Google Earth, the software also gives the option to to change the map to aerial imagery, which allows a person to see Carlton County from an overhead view.

Hovi said this option is ideal for looking at personal properties or neighboring properties.

“You can zoom into an area, click on the parcels and [look at the data chart to] see who’s actually living around you, or maybe if you own a larger body of land, you can get a better view of it,” Hovi said.

This imagery was done specifically for Carlton County in spring of 2015 and it’s now available for anybody to use.

“It’s used a lot by realtors. I’ve seen their maps, they print them off and they use them out there for real estate and purchases,” Hovi said. “It's a real visual of what is out there as far as land. It’s really land oriented ownership.”

Ever wondered exactly how different trails connect?


As of now, just from the aerial imagery, the general public can also use GIS to locate marked snowmobiles trails and the trails in Jay Cooke State Park.

“You can see the different snowmobile trails going through the area, and the Munger [bike trail] and Jay Cooke State Park trails, so you can start seeing the network of things that go within the county,” Hovi said.

The snowmobile trails are a great example of an area in which data is shared.

“We get stuff from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Department of Natural Resources, and we try to integrate data from different areas as well to display to the public, that ‘this is what’s out there’ instead of just keeping it confined to our information itself,” Hovi said.


Aside from the basic Carlton County GIS online mapping application, the County Land Department has been working to create many more applications.

“Together we’ve come up with specific applications for things, such as county land and timber sales,” Hovi said.

“It’s nice to use as a quick visualization of where you’re located in relation to the sales. If you find one you’re interested in, you just click on it and it brings up further information and details in regards to that property, like tax value and acreage,” he added.

Carlton County GIS creates these applications using ArcGIS software.

“It gives you the flexibility for GIS people like myself who are not programmers to make an application for displaying GIS data,” Hovi said.

Before hiring Hovi as GIS coordinator, there were fewer connections between the different county positions, which made documenting data and making online information visible to the public much harder.

“Mark Westphal, our forester, was making all these individual maps and naming them a certain way and sending PDF documents and all this stuff over to [the IT department],” Bernu said.

Not only was Westphal using GIS to make everything but he had to relay the information to IT; it was an inconvenient and inefficient system.

“We tried to think ‘well, how could we do this differently,’ so we started making a web mapper like the one for Carlton County timber sales,” Bernu said.

The system has worked so efficiently that Hovi is to the point now where he is teaching Bernu and Westphal how they can enter all the data and go through all the steps by themselves.

“That’s something I’ve focused on more - how can we use GIS technology between multiple departments and make things more efficient,” Hovi said.

One advancement that has greatly impacted the county in progressing with GIS is their increasing use of iPads and other tablet computers.

“We use an app called Collector, an Esri GIS - which is our main software provider - and it pretty much acts as a handheld GPS but just used on your smartphone, tablet or Ipad,” Hovi said.

“It’s just like using Google Maps on your phone but on steroids,” Bernu added.

The app allows data to be taken and entered while in the field, increasing the accuracy and freeing up time to work on other things.

Hovi explained how the app works.

“Let's just say somebody’s doing a new address assignment,” he explained. “Now what our employee would do is just tap on the location and specify if he was at the driveway or at the structure where he is collecting the information. The device then uses a GPS and collects where they are at on the ground. And let's say he’s at the driveway, then he can put in all this information, then at the end I can set up and look over things and basically assign different rights to who can edit it and who can’t.”

Afterward the zoning department will use the data for some of its work and the transportation department will put in signs.

“So you can see we have zoning and sign departments doing part of the work and you have myself verifying that everything looks good and then all that information gets compiled and it goes into a database for 911 dispatch,” Hovi said.

This system is much more efficient and has helped the accuracy of the data by minimizing the multiple steps of passing on information.

Towns and cities will sometimes use GIS maps for city planning. When it comes to building a new house or any kind of construction the software can be incredibly useful.

“A person can use the different layer options to see the ground features - elevation gain, wetlands - and say ‘I want to put my house in this area,’ print the map off, bring it into the zoning office and have it drawn out,” Hovi said.

The process helps zoning a lot because they can see what’s in the making and it helps them with future planning, he said. And with the county GIS and other applications open to the public, it opens doors to finding errors in data as well.

“I’ve had people call me up, ‘I own 40 acres, but I sold 20, and your map doesn’t show that,’ so that’s an example of something that slipped through; I didn't realize that parcel had been divided up,” Hovi said. “But I like it when people contact me because it can sometimes show areas we can improve upon,  and it gives me the chance to ask people what do you or don’t you like about what we’re putting out there.”

The land department has lots more in planning too.

“We have a lot of ideas for the future, building more applications, and providing a resource for recreational opportunities in the community,” Hovi said.

Another project that’s in the works involves finding land for hunting.

“With hunting coming up, I know other counties are now showing ownership layers, and that’s something we’re working on here at Carlton County with making sure we have all of our lands classified a certain way,” he said. “There are different classifications of public lands: state, federal, reservation.”

The County Land Department is hoping to get to the point where they can display public lands so people can have another visualization of what's out there.

“A good example is St. Louis County and Lake County which are actually displaying their public ownership layers, so you can use that to say ‘OK, I’m in this area, here’s a chunk of state land right next to the road - I’m going to go grouse hunting there,’” Hovi said.

Again, that is something Carlton County GIS is working on.

But the county website is already a success on its own.

“Our public link surprisingly gets used a lot,” Hovi said. “We have ways to track how much it’s getting used, and I think last time I checked it’s getting over 100 hits a day, so this lets us know that the public is using it and that it’s beneficial.”

Mentioning how he’s starting to find more people who are educated about the website and GIS applications, Hovi said, “People know where they are, who lives where, and it really just helps the public to see and know more things.”

For those who find GIS very intriguing, the software is available for purchase by anyone.

“You can go buy a basic GIS software for $1,500 if you want. You can buy it for yourself or a person who is really interested in GIS, and depending on data sources, if it's public data you can request it yourself as a private individual and put it in your own GIS software and make your own maps and stuff like that,” Hovi said.

With all the technology advancements, the opportunities for GIS education and new applications seem endless. But Hovi and the County Land Department can’t do it all, so it’s up to individuals and departments to give GIS a try.

“I’m trying to be more of an advocator of ‘Yes, we can do that and I can help your department set it up, and I'll educate you on some things, but your department needs to explore it together yourself,’” Hovi said.

Even though GIS is incredibly efficient, many statewide departments aren’t up-to-date with it.

“I try telling people GIS is the solution to our problems,” Bernu said. “It’s simple; it’s instantaneous.”

“And it can make for better decision making for the future,” Hovi added.

Readers can do their own exploring at the Carlton County GIS website,

Related Topics: CARLTON COUNTY
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