UH Hilo geographers complete pilot project to digitize county’s public access files

The purpose of the project is to digitize paper files and link them to an interactive map interface so that county planners can now click on a few lines on a map on screen and access relevant files instead of having to physically pull and pore over physical paper documents.

Shawna stands in a room with shelves and shelves of traditional file folders.
UH Hilo geography student intern Shawna Blackford, who worked on a pilot project designed to help modernize the County of Hawai‘i public access program, stands in a file room at the Department of Planning in Hilo on Nov. 19, 2020. Courtesy photo Dept. of Geography, UH Hilo.

By Susan Enright

Geographers at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo recently completed a pilot project with the County of Hawai‘i Department of Planning to help modernize the county’s public access program. The purpose of the project was to digitize a pilot geospatial database of shoreline public access locations and associated permitting documents. The pilot was limited to the South Kona district but includes a feasibility analysis for extending the project to an island-wide scale.

Helping with the work were UH Hilo geographical data experts and a number of UH Hilo students and recent graduates of the geography program.

Ryan Perroy
Ryan Perroy

Ryan Perroy, an associate professor of geography who founded and heads the UH Hilo Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization (SDAV) research laboratory, says the work features a partnership between UH Hilo and the county on a project that benefits the local community and gives university students experience in the real world.

“This project highlights the ability of UH Hilo to contribute to local governance by using our expertise in geospatial technology to improve an existing antiquated system for accessing information,” says Perroy. “In this case, files and permits associated with public access issues.”

The pilot project’s purpose was to digitize paper files and link them to an interactive map interface, so that county planners can now click on a few lines on a map on screen and access relevant files instead of having to physically pull and pore over physical paper documents.

“So this means some major time savings that will allow them to better and more quickly serve the public when there are queries about public access,” Perroy says.

Public access project

The project will help the county fulfill its mandate to give the general public access to specific areas for activities related to valued cultural and natural resources. An updated and more comprehensive public access inventory management system will better enable the Department of Planning to execute its public access mandates in the areas of planning, permit vetting, implementation, and enforcement. This is especially important for the issuance of land-use permits for developments such as subdivisions and certain developments within the Special Management Area.

Perroy is principal investigator with a team of geospatial research specialists; UH Hilo alumni Shawna Blackford and Eszter Collier from the lab are critical contributors. This first phase was done in coordination with two county land-use planners, Kamuela Plunkett and Rob Leasure. Plunkett earned his master of arts in heritage management in 2018 from UH Hilo.

In the pilot project, Perroy and his research team collected data to expand the public access geodatabase and document repository into an island-wide tool. This will lead to creating new public access geospatial lines, associated digital documents and georeferenced permit maps, and incorporating the new data into the geographic information system or GIS geodatabase created during the pilot project.

Practically speaking, this ultimately means making more comprehensive data easily available to planning department staff, making the database system easy to update and access, making performance summaries readily available with documents to substantiate a given case, and equipping more staff to answer simple inquiries from the public.

Focusing first on the district of South Kona, the number of permits and public access lines vary substantially between districts. To facilitate potentially expanding the pilot project on a district-by-district basis, the research team is also planning ahead to eventually include the districts of Hamakua, North Hilo, South Hilo, Ka‘u, North Kohala, South Kohala, North Kona, and Puna. Each district will present its own unique set of circumstance and challenges.

UH Hilo Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization Lab

The work is being done through the UH Hilo Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization Lab. Researchers and student scholars at the lab apply geospatial technology to problems of local significance. Further, the lab is set up to share that technology and the gained knowledge with the larger island community through education and outreach activities.

This has proved immensely important in the community’s response to environmental problems such as lava flows and Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death. Perroy, who specializes in geographic information systems, remote sensing and photogrammetry, small unmanned aerial systems, structure from motion analysis, and soil analysis, won a $70,000 prize in a competition co-sponsored by the National Park Service in 2019 for his innovative strategy using drones and remote sensing devices to detect the fungus decimating Hawaiian forests.

Along with drones, also called unmanned aerial systems or UAS, Perroy and his research teams use LiDAR (a survey method that measures distance to a target by illuminating the target with laser light and measuring the reflected light with a sensor) and hyperspectral imaging (which captures the spectrum for each pixel in the image of a scene) to support ongoing research and educational projects.

Overall, the results of this type of work generally render difficult and complex data into easily accessible and easily understood information at the click of a mouse, often integrating visual tools such as maps and drone footage with data such as spatial measurements and exact locations. This technology can help a government or environmental agency run smoother and troubleshoot faster, keep the public educated in a timely manner, and help everyone make informed decisions.

The research team

Perroy says the county project shows the value of the UH Hilo Certificate in Planning, which requires students to complete an internship (GEOG 496). In addition to Collier, who earned a master of science in conservation biology and environmental science in 2019 from UH Hilo, and Blackford, who graduated from UH Hilo in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in geography, also working on the project was Annalise Stolzer (geography, 2019) and Cecily Thornton (environmental science, 2021). After graduation, Perroy hired Blackford to help the team finish up the project as an SDAV lab employee.

Perroy received his doctor of philosophy in geography from the University of California Santa Barbara and has an undergraduate degree in physics from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in remote sensing, geospatial science, field methods, and climate change. His research interests are varied but generally involve environmental impacts and climate change using high spatial and temporal resolution mapping of phenomena of environmental concern.


Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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