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Successful Data Insights using Less than Modern Technologies

I had the opportunity to attend a local AWC meeting that brought women and technology together for a night of networking, learning and spirits!  And with a topic like “Data in the Environment: GIS Applications for Source Water Protection”, I couldn’t pass it up!

The Speaker had responsibilities for providing decision making tools used for New Jersey source water protection and open space acquisition for the Water Supply Authority.  She provided an introduction to Geographic Information System (GIS) technologies and case studies that help in the decision making process for open space acquisition.  Her intensity for this topic and her 15 year dedication for this career was quite noticeable. As she expressed the importance of protecting source water, I couldn’t help but look down and reflect on what it took to put the simple glass of water in front of me on the table.

As the case studies ensued, we learned about the different layers that constructed the GIS visualizations of specific land parcels which supported decision making.  The layers included data attributes related to geography, roads, source water type, contaminates, owners and many other topic areas.  The attributes and their specific concentration was then related to colors in the mapping tool.

All of this leads up to the moment that any data professional/technologist waits for:  Where did the data come from, How is the data procured and What Technology is used.  So as the presenter “Pulled back the curtain”, I sheepishly tried to contain my snarky reaction and to avoid eye contact with my fellow Microsoft SQL Server pals at the table.  A 2000’s version Microsoft Access was used to store data and the inclusion of attributes was signifies by the word ‘IN’.   I took a long deep breath and went on to ask “So how long does it take to create the visualization for a parcel of land”?  The response was “About one day” and another attendee chimed in with a “That’s not bad”!  I squirm uncomfortably in my chair and attempt to come up with an elaborate reason for exiting the meeting.

Another attendee asks how often the data is refreshed and how it’s aligned with the geospatial shape files and I decide to hang in there.  The presenter indicated that some data is refreshed every 5 years.  I think I have now discovered one of the slowest moving industries ever.  Well at least I discovered an industry that had a transaction frequency slower that Real Estate (my current industry).  I start to ask a question about national open data initiatives for sharing water source and I’m abruptly censored by a friend who indicates “Melissa, your data geek is showing”!

I left this meeting with more questions than answers, but maybe that’s the point of getting out and learning about how others do their job!  I’d love to hear your feedback on the following questions:


How many businesses are still using Access?  Especially government-like organizations?

How many still think Access is adequate?

Should the successful use of old technology be applauded or shamed?

How many important decisions are being made by using antiquated technology?

How can we use this opportunity to educate and consult?

If funding for modern tools like Microsoft Power BI or Tableau were available, would these business upgrade?


Interesting GIS/MAP Resources:
Web Soil Survey | NRCS – USDA:
EPA Mapper:
Historical Aerials:
Common Census Map Project: