Webinar 17
Houston-Galveston Area Council Eco-Logical Application - Online Environmental Resource Mapping

February 27, 2013

Summary of the Federal Highway Administration’s Quarterly Webinar: Applications of Geospatial Technologies in Transportation

These notes provide a summary of the PowerPoint presentation discussed during the webinar and detail the question and answer sessions that followed the presentation.

The presentation is available upon request from the webinar speakers, Meredith Dang (Meredith.dang@h-gac.com) and Bill Bass (William.bass@h-gac.com).

The webinar recording is available at: https://connectdot.connectsolutions.com/p6gkj9fc5s8/.


Meredith Dang, AICP
Land Use Transportation Coordinator
Houston-Galveston Area Council

Bill Bass, GISP
Chief GIS Specialist
Houston-Galveston Area Council


Approximately 20 participants attended the webinar.

Introduction to Presentation

Mark Sarmiento of FHWA thanked participants for joining the webinar. This webinar was the seventeenth in a quarterly series of FHWA-sponsored webinars. The series deals with the application of geographic information systems (GIS) and other geospatial technologies to transportation. This webinar focused on the Houston-Galveston Area Council's (H-GAC's) Eco-Logical interactive decision-making application for long-range planning.


The Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) is the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) for the eight-county area that includes Houston and Galveston, Texas. The MPO area covers approximately 9,000 square miles and is one of the fastest growing areas in the country. The population is expected to increase from 6 million to 9 million residents by 2040. The area surrounding Houston-Galveston is rural and contains a variety of ecological resources.

H-GAC must carefully balance the projected growth of the area and associated mobility needs with the importance of protecting the surrounding natural resources. Currently, the region does not employ an ecosystem approach to long-range planning, but instead plans around specific resources, such as wetlands or prairies. H-GAC decided to develop the Eco-Logical tool in order to enable a more holistic view of the area's natural resources and prioritize them according to their ecological value using assigned metrics.

Eco-Logical Overview
The Eco-Logical application is an online, interactive mapping tool and decision support system that aids in H-GAC's long-range regional planning. Eco-Logical allows planners to overlay project information with natural resource data to determine potential impacts. Eco-Logical also provides a “one-stop shop” for ecological information on which regional organizations and the public can provide feedback.

Tool Development
H-GAC began the application development process by convening an ecological advisory committee. A number of relevant subject matter experts gathered to discuss appropriate measures for prioritizing natural resources. The committee identified nine metrics for rating four ecotype features (coastal prairie, upland forest, bottomland forest, and tidal wetlands); features receive a rating from 0 to 100 in the following metrics to determine an overall quality score:

  • Size (area occupied)
  • Shape
  • Quality (beneficial qualities of the ecotype feature)
  • Regional Scarcity
  • Watershed Scarcity
  • Presence of Threatened Species (Yes/No rating)
  • Adjacency to Other Ecotype Features
  • Isolation from Other Ecotype Features
  • Diversity

H-GAC used Esri ArcGIS and SAS analytical software to produce the combined scores for each feature. SAS was well-suited to process the large dataset while ArcGIS was used for mapping and geo-coding each feature. The resulting output is a map that displays the location of ecotype features. The ecotypes are categorized into one of three levels based on their cumulative metric score in order to identify the highest-priority ecological areas. H-GAC provides two models for geo-processing its data: a weighted and un-weighted calculation. Users can treat each metric as equally important, or can elevate the importance of particular metrics of interest. H-GAC used the Eco-Logical output to forecast the change in ecotype coverage between 2008 and 2035 based on projected growth and land use.

Technical Details and Architecture
H-GAC is available to its users in variety of formats. Eco-Logical operates using ArcGIS Server, but is available using ArcGIS Desktop, in an internet browser using Flex application programming interface (API), on tablets and smartphones, and via third party applications. Ecotype layers and metric models are available through all platforms. H-GAC built Eco-Logical using Esri ArcGIS 10, Model Builder, Python, SAS, and Adobe Flex Builder with Esri Flex API. H-GAC provides mapping and geo-processing services using Esri ArcGIS Server 10 and Esri ArcGIS for iOS, and created video tutorials using Camtasia Studio 7.0.

H-GAC spent approximately 1,000 hours working with its advisory committee to define eco-types and metrics, about 130 hours developing the metrics model and geo-processing method, and 150 hours developing the Eco-Logical application. In total, H-GAC spent about 1,440 hours and $5,000 developing Eco-Logical, and an ArcGIS Server license cost an additional $16,500 for the first year and will cost $5,000 for subsequent years.

Eco-Logical Demonstration
Mr. Bass provided a demonstration of the web-based version of Eco-Logical. Upon visiting the site (https://datalab.h-gac.com/EcologicalGIS/), Eco-Logical displays a disclaimer about the data and its use and recognizes H-GAC's partners in developing the application. Users can use simple navigation tools to explore the map and toggle the base layer between a street map and aerial imagery. A “Map Layers” feature provides access to relevant environmental data, including water quality monitoring stations, impaired waterways, and wastewater outfalls. This feature also provides access to layers displaying ecotype quality and cumulative metric rankings. Each ecotype polygon features a feedback feature, so that users can contact H-GAC if they discover data errors or discrepancies. Users can spatially query data in Eco-Logical using a buffer point or polygon or by drawing a polygon. The resulting query provides detailed information about the selected area and can be saved as a comma-separated value (CSV) file.

Mr. Bass also demonstrated the capability of Eco-Logical to stream data to a desktop GIS program. Users can create a desktop GIS file using data layers streamed from Eco-Logical, which allows them to use the more robust tools available in desktop GIS programs.

Finally, Mr. Bass demonstrated the capabilities of Eco-Logical on smartphones and tablets. While limited in functionality compared to the browser-based version, it nonetheless provides another means of accessing the data in Eco-Logical, especially in the field. In order to use the mobile version of Eco-Logical, users must first install a free ArcGIS application from Esri. Users can then establish a connection between the ArcGIS application and Eco-Logical. Once this connection is established, users have access to the ecotype and cumulative metrics layers, several basemap options, as well as feature attributes and measurement tools. Finally, the mobile application can zoom to the user's location based on their coordinates.

Question and Answer Session

Does H-GAC have agreements with partnering agencies to update data? How often are the data updated?
H-GAC does not have a regular data updating process in place. It can rerun the Eco-Logical models at any time if partners provide new data.

Does Eco-Logical address coastal subsidence?
No, the analysis in Eco-Logical only identifies where resources exist.

Does H-GAC plan to incorporate cultural or other non-natural resources into Eco-Logical?
H-GAC originally wanted to include cultural resources, but was unable to obtain the data to do so. Through a public outreach process, however, it identified specific resources of cultural or historical importance to the communities in the study area.

Is Eco-Logical a cloud based application?
Certain components are part of a cloud-based application. Eco-Logical can display layers that are hosted elsewhere. Also, Eco-Logical pulls certain data, like roads, aerial imagery, and common geographic features, from other mapping services.

Can you provide an example of how this tool has been used in a transportation project?
The intent is for H-GAC to use Eco-Logical for long range transportation planning. It does not replace the existing review processes that a project must go through, but is instead used during very early planning stages. Instead of measuring the impact of a project on environmental resources, Eco-Logical provides a way to consider how to avoid the most important ecological resources early in the process. H-GAC would like to use Eco-Logical during the project prioritization process and in identifying projects for its long range transportation plan.

Why might a user want to weight specific metrics?
The ecological advisory committee could not reach a consensus on which metrics were most important. Therefore, H-GAC decided to weight the metrics equally, but recognized that certain users might be interested in elevating metrics, or perhaps excluding some altogether.

What does H-GAC do with feedback on specific data elements submitted by users of Eco-Logical?
When a user provides feedback, H-GAC examines it against available data and high-resolution aerial imagery to validate the comment. Based on that assessment, the feedback may or may not be incorporated into revisions to the data in Eco-Logical.

What feedback have you received regarding mobile access to the Eco-Logical maps?
Feedback on Eco-Logical has generally been positive; however comments are not identified by platform. Overall, users appreciate the access to data in a variety of formats. Most users access the browser-based version of Eco-Logical in order to use the geo-processing tools. These tools are not yet available on the mobile version, though H-GAC has plans to add them soon.

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