GIS has proven increasingly useful in government activities in recent years. It is becoming less the domain of technicians and specialists and more a general-purpose tool, accessible over the Internet from desktops and even handheld devices, according to GIS vendors. Not surprisingly, most GIS vendors agree the single biggest push today is to provide Internet access to GIS data.

There appears to be a growing move toward intergovernmental cooperation, especially since Sept. 11. Local, county and regional agencies are more willing to share data for such things as disaster planning.

As one vendor noted, mapping is the GUI (graphic user interface) of homeland security. It allows users to visualize data in a manner that is familiar and well understood, and thus provides an easy point of entry for organizing and manipulating data into useful information. There is growing recognition that spatial information is motivating local governments to remove barriers that prevent wider adoption of GIS technologies.

GIS for Non-Specialists

Increasingly, government agencies want direct access to GIS data and applications without having to rely on an outside department. Shreveport, La., is using GIS data to track city-owned property, according to Ian Carmichael, manager of sales and marketing of Municipal Software. "Employees access the data, create their own applications, and keep track of maintenance and development without relying on a GIS department," Carmichael said. "The task is simplified because they can see what projects are under way at any given time, by just clicking on a map.

"Our applications development software allows them to retain ownership of all their mapping data," he said. "They don't have to give it up to a third party to manage for them."

A side benefit is that the open and flexible nature of the development tools allows city employees to work within the constraints of legacy systems. "If they had to throw out their data and start from scratch, it would be expensive and disruptive," Carmichael said. "This way, they can phase in their mapping system with what they have and upgrade as time and funds permit."

Mobile Mapping

Mobile mapping is becoming a reality as laptop computers and personal digital assistants are used to collect field data, according to Alissa Bails, GIS division manager of R.A. Smith & Associates. "One of our clients is using mobile mapping techniques to inspect conditions of manholes," Bails said. "They make a visual inspection to determine missing steps, leaking or other things that may require maintenance, then make their maintenance report on the spot, and it is integrated with GIS using mobile mapping techniques."

Bails claims that the on-site reports reduce errors from incorrect interpretation of handwriting because inspectors are using handheld devices or ruggedized laptops to input the data. "It saves time and money and eliminates paperwork," said Bails. "The cost savings add up when you consider that mobile mapping also enhances data quality."

The GIS Puzzle

Andy Ramm, senior manager of GIS Products of Autodesk, reports that his company is seeing consolidation of mapping, civil engineering and infrastructure management in local government agencies and consulting engineering organizations. "The pieces of the GIS puzzle are being joined more closely together," Ramm said.

As an example, he cites the city of Toronto, which is using Autodesk products to make a digital base map for roadway design, utility services and other civil engineering applications. The Civil Engineering Department then publishes that information directly to the Web. "They are managing an entire infrastructure, so what we're seeing is end-to-end amalgamation of data," Ramm said. "It starts with engineering accuracy inside a true mapping application and the data flows seamlessly throughout the entire process."

Ramm's company surveyed about 800 civil engineering firms and asked them what they saw as their biggest