Our Blog

Friday, October 25, 2019

Developing the Story Behind the Data

Telling the Data Story

HARC's Geospatial and Analytics team utilize data to share information in a compelling way.

Written by Bill Bass, GISP, Geospatial & Analytics Senior Manager

HARC’s team of geospatial and analytics researchers spend significant time developing and analyzing data to unlock value and communicate information to a diverse audience. Whether the resulting products are written reports, report cards, data dashboards, analytical tools or narratives called Story Maps, there is something for everyone interested in the research conducted by HARC.

HARC leverages a suite of geospatial and analytical tools from industry leaders such as ESRI, SAS, Tableau, and Microsoft. The software and services from each of these companies provide strong capabilities as individual systems, but when integrated to provide geospatial data development and analytical workflows, a value greater than the sum of its parts is realized. Analyses require access to high quality data, and HARC leverages a variety of authoritative datasets collected from private and non-profit sectors, as well as federal, state, and regional agencies. Many of these data are publicly funded at a fraction of the cost compared to obtaining data from private sources, and is in turn, delivered at little cost to the public. The public funding of data development allows research organizations like HARC to focus resources on data analysis and the creation of usable information products.

One example of how HARC integrates multiple data systems is in the development of HARC's Land Cover Change story map. Within this interactive application, viewers can obtain information by watershed on regional changes to impervious cover, developed lands, forests, wetlands, and other types of land cover. Data in the story map were produced using an integrated workflow across multiple software platforms, leveraging each for its strengths to produce the final product. The result is a guided narrative on changes to regional land cover that also delivers access to statistical information for those wanting to explore data in greater detail.

HARC’s Houston-Galveston & Southeast Texas Land Cover Story Map

Conducting analyses as described above would not be possible without access to large scale federal and state datasets like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Change and Analysis Program NOAA’s C-CAP Land Cover land cover or the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Surface Water Quality Monitoring Information System or the TCEQ SWQMIS water quality databases. Understanding our natural environment, environmental risks, and changes to our ecosystems are near impossible without access to these databases; and without these programs, collection would be cost prohibitive and rely upon private funding. These programs provide a vast wealth of information that academic, nonprofit, and private sector entities can leverage in understanding a changing world. Another example is Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data, a remote sensing, data collection technology that has traditionally been used in determining ground elevations. HARC has recently been working on models and workflows to extract other important data from this dataset, such as land cover classification and tree canopy coverage. Innovative programs and processes such as these will help to produce new information products that can be leveraged in a variety of ways beyond their initial use cases. Ultimately, access to these data and the development of new information products allows for a consistent and standardized framework upon which partners can leverage resources and expertise, provides better inputs to decision making processes, and creates stronger opportunities for public education and community outreach and engagement.

At HARC, collecting data is just the beginning. The real value is created when data are combined with new information from other sources to find relationships not previously known. HARC’s extensive geospatial systems architecture provides a platform upon which research teams can develop innovative and engaging information products. No longer does a system need to be installed and configured to meet the needs of a single project, which takes time and resources from the core focus of the research project. HARC’s integrated geospatial capabilities allows our researchers to develop, analyze, and share information in a visually compelling way through maps, graphs, and visualizations using a platform that can be leveraged in an on-going manner. This enables a reduced time to market for research projects and allows researchers to focus on the analysis and content aspects of the project.

When a natural disaster strikes, there is often a gap in information describing environmental impacts. In August 2017 Hurricane Harvey, a devastating hurricane and flood event, struck the Upper Texas Coast. Media reports of Harvey’s impact on the Houston-Galveston region in terms of damage to life, property and communities were immediate. However, information on environmental impacts was less evident. A number of organizations actively collected hydrologic, air quality, and water quality data throughout the region while the natural disaster unfolded. The stories of what those data represented needed to be told in a manner that could quickly reach a broad audience. Using HARC’s geospatial and analytics platform, researchers were able to collect data, process it, and develop the interactive Summarizing Hurricane Harvey’s Environmental Impacts, story map, helping individual users and other organizations in the region access and understand information and take needed action.

HARC's Summarizing Hurricane Harvey's Environmental Impacts Story Map

HARC's geospatial and analytics capabilities allow for a higher degree of interactivity with project stakeholders and business partners. In a recent research project, HARC business partners and project stakeholders accessed web-based maps that allowed them to see the analysis products being generated by HARC during development. This type of interaction facilitated an iterative feedback loop between business partners, stakeholders, and the HARC research team, thereby allowing the project to adjust end products as project needs evolved. Throughout the process, and through various adjustments, HARC produced a final product that exceeded the needs of stakeholders and partners.

To view HARC’s geospatial products and learn more about our capabilities, visit, or e-mail us at