As snow pounded the east coast of the United States this weekend, government entities rushed to do their part in helping citizens cope with the effects of the storm. And amid all those efforts were several jurisdictions that turned to a tool becoming more common in state and local government: maps.
“Unfortunately a lot of the best technology comes out of disasters or major events,” said Christopher Thomas, director of government markets for the geographic information systems (GIS) company Esri.
Among the mapping applications were internal dashboards, which government agencies used to coordinate snow plows and other crews and public-facing informational maps. Thomas said he sees increasing interest in use of GIS at all levels of government. In fact, he said, that's one of the biggest shifts in the field -- in the past, it used to be cities like Chicago and Los Angeles that paid attention to the latest trends in GIS.
Now, increasingly, Thomas sees small-population cities and towns exploring ways to use maps -- places like Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and Manassas, Va.
“It’s reaching all sizes and all types of government,” Thomas said, adding that there are several reasons for that. One is that the technology has become much faster, making it possible to create interactive mapping applications that give users information in real time or near-real time.
“It’s become a tool to express what’s going on in a city or county or state,” he said.
The other reason is the open data movement. As government data collection expands, and as more of that data becomes publicly available, more people are looking to maps as a means of expressing the information.
And depending on the type of application, a map can be useful for both the government and its constituents. Many maps help government servants operate more efficiently and save money, while others will answer residents' questions so they don't have to call a government worker for the answer.
“It used to be that mapping was an internal view," Thomas said. "Now it’s an internal view, it’s gov-to-gov, it’s gov-to-academic, it’s gov-to-citizen and it’s gov-to-entrepreneur.”
Here are seven examples of state and local governments using maps to help themselves and the people they serve.
As Winter Storm Jonas was busy dropping nearly 30 inches of snow on the nation's capital, officials in D.C. were working to clear it. And thanks to a mapping application they launched, citizens could see exactly how the city was going about that business.
The District of Columbia's snow map lets users enter an address, and then shows what snow plows did near that address within a given range of days. The map also shows where the city received 311 requests for snow removal and gives users a chance to look at recent photos from road cameras showing driving conditions.
In Iowa, snow is big deal year in and year out. Des Moines, for instance, sees an average of more than 35 inches of the stuff in an average season, and the state Department of Transportation spends a lot of time and money clearing it off the roads. So it's no surprise that Iowa's snow plow-tracking map predates Winter Storm Jonas.
It also collects a lot of data about snow and its removal operations. Last year, in an effort to aid motorists battling the weather, the department took that data and put it on a map.
The Iowa DOT's "Track-a-Plow" map lets users see where plows are in near real time, look at photos taken from the dashboards of those vehicles, and see stills from traffic cameras that let them know the condition of the road before they get in the car. It's all set on a map that offers lane closure information, color-coded road condition estimates for different segments of highway and weather radar in the background.
And if that user is curious to know exactly what the state does to clear the roads, they can also take a look at the DOT's brand new "Winter Cost Calculator" map, which lets them see how much money the state has spent clearing individual sections of road.
Throughout the winter, weather monitoring experts warned the public time and again that an El Niño system was brewing in the Pacific Ocean that looked to be one of the largest, if not the largest, ever. That would mean torrents of rain for a parched state that's seen mudslides and flooding during storms in the past.
So to prepare its residents, the city of Los Angeles published a map in January that lets users see both decision-informing trends and the location of resources. Using the application, one can toggle layers that let them know what the weather is doing around the city, where traffic is backed up, where the power is out, where they can find sand bags to prevent flood damage and more.
The app is nimble, too. It's built straight into Google's mapping platform, which city officials say allows for people to easily get directions to resources on their smartphones. The map is fed with real-time data and can be updated with new layers.
Not all lungs are made equally. Some people can live in a smoggy area with relative ease; for others, medical problems like asthma can make air pollution a looming danger.
So, faced with a legislative mandate to identify disadvantaged communities, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment decided that it wouldn't just examine smog levels -- it would also take a look at the prevalence of at-risk people across the state.
The result is a series of three maps, the first two examining both factors and the third combining them. That allows the state and its residents to see the places where air pollution is the biggest problem for people it poses a greater risk to.
The map, which offers detail at the census tract level, shows that the state's worst problems are in its low-lying, agriculture-heavy central valley and in its largest city, Los Angeles.
The city of Manassas, Va., relied on an outdated paper map and a long-time, well-versed staffer to answer questions about municipal curbside pickup services until they launched this map in 2014. The map allows users to enter their address, and then gives them easy-to-read information about when to put out various things on their curb for pickup.
That's useful because the city's fall leaf collection schedule changes every year. So the map not only acts as a benefit to residents who want information, but to city staff who don't have to deal with as many calls.
The map also shows users the locations of resources they can use and gives them city phone numbers in case they still have questions, and displays it all in a popup pane at the bottom of the map.
But Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia stand out as examples of maps that take the idea one step further -- because each one offers a staggering amount of choices for users.
Chicago's new OpenGrid map, just launched in January, is a versatile map that lets users search for certain data like food inspection reports, street closures, potholes and more. That's enough to answer a lot of questions, but what adds even more utility is the map's various narrowing tools. Users can narrow searches to a zip code, or they can draw a shape on the map and only see results within that shape. They can perform sub-searches within results and they can choose how they'd like to see the data displayed.
Philadelphia's platform makes use of buttons, icons and categories to help users sift through the spatially-enabled data available to them. Options include future lane closures, bicycle paths, flu shots, city resources, parks and more.
Boston's platform is open for users to submit their own maps. And submit they have. The city portal offers everything from maps of bus stops to traffic data pulled from the Waze app.
A 311 service functions as a means of bringing problems to city staff's attention. But the data itself only goes so far -- it needs interpretation.
Houston's 311 service request map helps users easily analyze the data so as to spot trends. The tool offers lots of ways to narrow data down, and can isolate many different kinds of requests so users can see whether one problem is reported more often in certain areas.
For the last several years, the city of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., has been designing all sorts of maps through its Rancho Enterprise Geographic Information Systems (REGIS) project. Many of them have served specific city purposes, such as tracking code enforcement violations and offering police a command system tool for special events.
The utilitarian foundation of REGIS extends to its public-facing applications as well. One example is INsideRancho, a map built with economic development efforts in mind. The map lets users search and browse available buildings to suit business needs, narrowing results by square footage, zoning and building type. Users can also find businesses by name or address, and look at property exteriors via an embedded connection with Google Street View.
Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.