High tech maps give Nation insight to real time census count
  Picture of the map Chris Maytubby, left, and Austin Joines look over a map showing the percentage of people who have completed the 2020 census by county. The map is part of a software tool developed by the Choctaw Nation’s mapmakers to help Chief Batton and the Nation’s leadership determine the success or failure of the ongoing 2020 United States Census. The map is available at https://bit.ly/census-response.
Photo by Chris Jennings

By Bradley Gernand

Scholars used to spend years drawing and coloring maps for use by kings and explorers. In more recent times, maps played a crucial role in helping Choctaw national leaders lay out their new nation in the Indian Territory, after arriving on the Trail of Tears. And, as territorial days wound down in a slow transition to statehood, cartographers surveyed and platted the Choctaw Nation—then owned in common by the tribe—so that land could be owned in parcels by individuals.

Maps are as important as they have ever been, but the creation of them has become high-tech. Many maps prepared for the Choctaw Nation are interactive and never see the light of day outside of a computer database.

As the Choctaw Nation’s government moves forward in exercising sovereignty and serving the Chahta people, maps have played an increasingly important role. And not every map is of roadways or terrain.

Space management is the art and science of managing physical facilities, both indoors and outdoors. At the new Tribal Headquarters in Durant, for example, the lawns and trees are kept watered via an irrigation system comprised of over 3,000 sprinkler heads. The location of each one was painstakingly charted and is kept up to date in a database. It is just one of many layers of information or data that is charted and mapped. Other layers include trees, electrical conduits, and other infrastructure. Indoors, the data includes air ducts, piping, telecommunications lines, and other important information.

“I never thought I’d become a cartographer,” said Devin Lindley, a member of the Choctaw Nation’s Geographic Information Systems staff. “It’s not a career choice anybody ever mentions to you in high school or college.” But, he said, those who possess a certain mindset—mindful of detail, with a certain capacity for spatial mechanics—are often drawn to it.

“I definitely never dreamed of mapmaking, even though I loved maps when I was growing up,” said Cale Russell, one of Lindley’s colleagues on the GIS team. Russell enjoyed school but it was not until college that he realized cartography continues as a viable profession. His alma mater, East Central University in Ada, is one of only three universities that offer a Bachelor of Science in GIS Technologies in Oklahoma. It is often a profession one reaches, even today, through apprenticing—something Christopher Maytubby has been doing since joining the GIS staff.

“We’ve got all the fun toys,” said Maytubby, explaining that today’s cartographers rely on a variety of equipment to get the information they need. A sandbox constructed by the GIS crew allows them to model the effects of terrain on water displacement—a matter of key importance when designing a new building, parking lot or addition. The cartographers sculpt actual sand into specific landforms to match real ones and apply a software program via an overhead camera to model what will happen during heavy rains.

Critical to any toolset in mapmaking today is aerial photography. The Choctaw Nation’s GIS department operates several drone aircraft, as well as a Cessna 172 aircraft with a mounted camera pod that is stationed at Durant’s city airport. The small but sophisticated drones can tease out details of local terrain that are difficult to understand from the surface, Russell said. “A lot of the Choctaw Nation is rugged and mountainous, making small drones ideal for carrying out some of our work,” he noted.

The Choctaw Nation’s GIS department may be the most advanced among the Five Civilized Tribes. During last year’s heavy flooding along the Arkansas River, the team assisted multiple tribal governments by making frequent overflights of the river, capturing recent changes in flood levels for monitoring by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as well as by the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

Very recently the GIS team built an online map for use by Choctaw Nation authorities in determining the potential success of the 2020 Census across the 10½ counties, the state, and the nation. The interactive map is fed by data received from the U.S. Census Bureau every day and depicts the local response rates for every city and county in the Choctaw Nation.

“This is amazing,” said Chief Gary Batton recently, looking at the daily Census response rates displayed on the GIS mapping software. “Literally, we had a need, and the map folks came right to the rescue,” he said. “They never cease to amaze me.”

Chief Batton pointed out their flexibility, noting their successful efforts to map on a daily basis the spread and incidents of the COVID-19 pandemic within the tribe’s service area as well as throughout Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. The GIS group also created a mobile dashboard incorporating several layers of data to show, in real-time, which areas may be at a higher risk based on both health indicators and economic data.

“The locational intelligence we create has become a new frontier of opportunity for the Choctaw Nation,” said Dustin Holt, Senior GIS Manager. “Our future plans are to continue meeting the everyday needs of the Nation and prepare for the future. As technology advances, big data gets bigger, and artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes ubiquitous.”