Geographic information systems (GIS) have come a long way since the early days of grainy satellite photos and rough approximations of terrain they captured. Today, GIS platforms factor into a vast cross-section of government services and represent the foundation for major initiatives like location-based next-generation 911 systems.
And Georgia intends to make significant use of the technology. In August 2015, state leaders doubled down on their commitment to geospatial efforts across the territory with the creation of the Georgia Geospatial Information Office. Susan Miller was appointed to lead the undertaking as the Geospatial Information Officer (GIO).
Her charge would be to unify and coordinate GIS-based initiatives across jurisdictions. Though the state was an early adopter of the technology in the 1970s, budgeting issues in the 2000s stalled the more extensive programs and inadvertently created silos among state agencies, which were left to pursue their own projects without coordination, cooperation or guidance.
The result was work duplications and wasted time and money.
“Those kinds of patterns were apparent to the leadership across the state and they wanted to combat that by building a state geographic information systems office,” Miller said during the Georgia Digital Government Summit held in Atlanta on Sept. 29. “Obviously this waste that is happening is not on purpose, it’s just because of a lack of coordination, and we are getting ready to turn that around.”
Now, a little more than a year into the role, Miller said cultivating partnerships at all levels of government is a primary objective of her agency. In addition to consolidating the purchasing power of agencies and local stakeholders, Miller hopes to build lasting partnerships and data sharing arrangements, as well as push ahead with laying the GIS data foundation for NextGen911 and the 2020 Census.
And that's not all officials are doing with GIS. At the summit, representatives from various areas of the public and private sectors discussed use cases for GIS and the state’s renewed commitment to moving forward in the space.
GIS is proving invaluable in the environmental and risk-assessment arenas, said Acting Floodplain Manager Haydn Blaize, adding that the accuracy of tools like lidar, or Light Detection and Ranging, allows for more precise measurements of flood-prone landscapes and carries substantial implications for public safety and flood insurance.
“It makes a big difference," said Blaize, who works with the Georgia Flood Map Program, "because one foot could mean you are either in a flood plain or you are not."
In addition to ongoing mapping and assessment initiatives, Blaize said efforts to align the state’s flood program with the larger Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program are also underway. As of Oct. 1, he said a new infusion of FEMA funding was allocated for lidar data gathering. He also said the state plans to invest several million dollars in mapping high-priority watersheds across the state's 159 counties.
“We do our studies not based on a county or political boundary; we base it on watershed," he explained. "So we plan to invest a further $3 million in the next three years in collecting lidar data …”
The fruits of some of the state’s flood plain work is presented publicly through the Georgia Flood M.A.P. portal, where constituents can find information about detailed flood risks posed to their areas and addresses.
For the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), GIS represents a way to prioritize the workload associated with maintaining 18,000 state-owned centerline miles across seven geographic districts.
According to GDOT Data Administrator Paul Tanner, geospatial datasets have allowed for a better perspective of the roadway system's ever-changing needs. Coupled with the annual average daily traffic counts and other pertinent datasets, transportation officials are able to categorize the maintenance needed on a four-point spectrum that ranges from low to high using GIS information.
To maintain an up-to-date model of the maintenance needed throughout the territory, the department must update its model more often than originally anticipated.
“We thought we were going to update our state route prioritization network every four years," Tanner said. "Well, we realized about a year-and-a-half after our first iteration that that was not quick enough with all of our different transportation needs that we have throughout the state, so we’re updating the criteria every couple of years."
The position of the certain roadways on the GDOT rating spectrum directly impacts the allocation of funding. By the department’s statistics, the 14 percent of state-owned roadways, largely interstates, support roughly 61 percent of state travel.
For utility provider Georgia Power, GIS offers an opportunity to build on the state’s business footprint and grow its own revenues. Through the use of a suite of geospatially enabled tools, Jennifer Zeller, who works with the utility company’s research and engineering division, said her team is able to provide valuable intelligence to prospective clients.
In addition to offering mock site plans and engineering expertise to multinational manufacturers, like automaker Kia, Zeller said the Georgia Power team also provides costs like earthworks, or the leveling of terrain for building, and environmental and utility considerations based on GIS data.
Through a partnership with the Georgia departments of Transportation and Revenue, the utility providers can leverage its parcel database to show incoming companies the most ideal parcels based on criteria such as available workforce and proximity to ports.