In these days of GPS and smartphone apps, Russ Peterson still makes maps. Paper maps.
Peterson is the only GIS specialist in St. Louis County’s public works department. That makes him the go-to guy when policy makers want to know which roads are in bad shape. When construction companies are assembling bids to rebuild a bridge. When county engineers decide how many miles of highway to restripe this year. When hydrologists calculate the best place to install a culvert. When snowplow drivers need to know where to turn around on a stretch of gravel.
“I won’t say I’m the key that holds it all together,” Peterson says, “but I’m certainly a cog in it.”
Helping you find your way
Peterson’s “calling card” is the official county highway map – a 4-foot accordion of heavyweight paper that, if you do it correctly, folds neatly into a glovebox. “People are saying maps are dead,” he says. “But we go through 15,000 maps a year. People like to have them.”
Peterson also puts together maps for the digital age. He makes maps for the county’s website that let drivers and media know which roads are under construction this week. Every spring, he creates maps that show which roads have seasonal weight restrictions – and where the safe detours are.
When flash floods washed out dozens of roads in the county in June 2012, Peterson was the one who mapped out which routes no longer went through. He’s behind a mobile app that shows aerial land parcels, which hunters often use to figure out property lines.
W.A. Fisher, the well-known mapmaking company in Virginia, is using his data for an upcoming project. Finally, Peterson says matter-of-factly, he’s also the guy Google Maps should call if they actually want to publish accurate maps of St. Louis County.
Blending the old and new
For Peterson, the road to mapmaking started in highway construction, then detoured into aviation and geography in college. He eventually combined those experiences when he landed a job with the U.S. Geological Survey in Florida, on a hurricane research project. In a decade there, he figures, he photographed about two-thirds of the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines from 500 feet in the air, strapped into Coast Guard aircraft. “That was a tough job,” he says.
Now he and his family are back on the Iron Range. Peterson works out of a cramped office in the public works building on the northern fringes of Duluth. Three computer screens compete for space with rolled-up maps and stacks of old binders. The binders are filled with vintage aerial photography and what look like ancient accounting ledgers. Those ledgers are the predecessors to the GIS software he uses today.
Information is power
Hidden away in the clutter is the heart of Peterson’s operation: a server full of data that are organized into what essentially are spreadsheets. These GIS spreadsheets contain screen after screen and column after column of coded information about roads, sewers, soil, water, topography, and a whole lot more.
GIS stands for Geographic Information System. It’s a technology that’s been around nearly 50 years. As Peterson explains it, each cell of information in a GIS spreadsheet can be a point, such as a bridge or manhole cover. It can be a line, such as a road or a river. Or it can be a “polygon” – a parcel of land, a lake, or a drainage basin, for example.
Keeping this information up to date, and combining this information in usable ways, is what Peterson’s job is all about. GIS relies on software to layer the information – piling points and lines and layers into a “map” that makes sense. For those of a certain age, think of the slides that teachers used on overhead projectors – folding one transparent layer over another, with colors and boundaries piling on top of each other to illustrate, for example, the westward territorial expansion of the United States.
“You need the good sense of how to put stuff together so people can decipher it,” Peterson says. “Anybody can make a map. But if it doesn’t tell you what you need to know, it doesn’t do anybody a whole lot of good.”
Road trip verifies reality
The information Peterson provides makes it easier for policy makers to spend public works money wisely and more efficiently. For example, his spreadsheets can tell you not just when sewer lines were installed, but also the acidity of the soil surrounding them. That gives engineers a better idea of which lines are likely to wear out soonest.
Peterson constantly tracks about 600 bridges and 3,000 miles of roads in the county. About half the roads are paved, half are gravel. In a large and still rugged county like his, questions occasionally come up about where a public road ends and where a private drive begins. There are old logging roads still visible in aerial photographs, but not from the ground. Peterson has to document them all.
“I’ll go back down that road and check it out,” he says. “Stuff like that, you go out in the field and verify it.”
Despite the high-tech power at his fingertips at his desk, when he’s out in the field, Peterson does not rely on GPS. “I’ve never personally used one,” he says. “But then, I like maps.”
Adapted from the July-August 2015 issue of Council 5’s Stepping Up magazine.