LITTLE ROCK - The state’s Geographic Information Systems Office has just completed a project to update all of the aerial images of Arkansas. Last week, I had the privilege of joining GIS Director Shelby Johnson to deliver a thumb drive to the leaders of Madison County. The thumb drive had the last aerial photographs to complete the statewide project.

Aerial maps are a fascinating way to view the state, but more importantly, the images are crucial to the safety and economic development of Arkansas. It is important that we keep the images up to date because the face of Arkansas is changing rapidly. We are always building new neighborhoods and shopping centers. We are constantly building new roads and widening existing highways. The maps benefit emergency responders, surveyors, farmers, realtors and lenders, public works departments, and city and county governments.

The Sanborn Map Company started the project on January 23rd of last year. Crews flew on 19 days and finished on February 25th. To ensure accuracy and uniformity of the maps, the crews always fly at an altitude of 19,000 feet and at speeds between 120 knots and 150 knots. They fly only between 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. so that the sun is at the same angle.

When you compare the new imagery to the last geographic mapping, some differences are obvious. You can see forests that have been cleared for pastures and pastures where farmers have planted trees. The biggest difference in the quality of the images is the resolution. In the previous images, you can see a vehicle on a highway. In the new ones, you can tell whether the vehicle is a car or a pickup.

The most obvious need for these updated maps, of course, is in emergencies when a speedy response by law-enforcement agencies and rescue crews may mean the difference between survival and death. That could have been the case last week when Madison County Deputy Lola Mitchell answered a 9-1-1 call from a panicked couple whose two-year-old son was suffering a seizure.

They were in their car, stopped along a highway, and the only landmark was a building with the name “Osage” painted on the side. Otherwise, the couple from Florida had no idea where they were.

For just a moment, the dispatchers had no idea either. The only Osage they knew about was a community in Carroll County to the north. But the 9-1-1 computer triangulated the cell phone pings and moved the dispatchers’ newly updated map to that location.

Without the updated photography, the family might have waited an hour for deputies to find them. As it turned out, they were just outside of Huntsville, as deputies found them in less than five minutes.

Their son, by the way, was okay.

I am grateful for the work Director Johnson and his team have done for the state of Arkansas.