A Rising Star

GIS is becoming more critical to state and local governments. Here are some of the latest ways it's being employed around the country.

by / May 1, 2002
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 opportunity. According to Ramm, most said the biggest business opportunity on the horizon is in mapping and GIS. "It reinforces the trends we've been seeing," Ramm contends. "A key consideration is that the data has to stay in a format that can maintain engineering accuracy throughout the process and remain in a format that can then be published."

Think Like Businesses

"One of the main trends we are seeing, is that local and state governments are starting to think more like businesses," said Sabby Nayar, marketing manager of Energy and Government Sectors at MapInfo. "Increasingly, we are seeing our municipal clients using GIS applications to make life easier for their constituents. They want to provide answers for people who need answers, and they are working to be user-friendly, more efficient, and more cost-effective. GIS helps do that as a component of other systems. Since about 80 percent of local government data is location based, it makes a great deal of sense to work with GIS data."

As an example of government's emerging business focus, Nayar refers to a site finder application for the state of New York. "Any business looking for a place to locate can go to a map, click on a site and ask questions about size, highway access, distance from exit and so on," Nayar explained. Map information also includes aerial or satellite imagery, so the user can see topography, buildings and surroundings. The application has been designed so anyone can use it, just by clicking with an industry-standard browser. "The beauty of it is that you don't have to be a GIS specialist to use it," Nayar said. "You can see what's available and pick your site from your office, using your desktop computer."

Simplifying, Standardizing, Sharing

"GIS technology is not as widely used as it might be," said John Antenucci, president and CEO of PlanGraphics. "There is a growing trend to enable access to GIS data repositories via the Internet, using industry-standard browsers."

Oregon has a virtual warehouse of GIS data, which PlanGraphics is helping to convert into a "virtually unified" databank for the Department of Health Services. "An individual can find where any health clinic in the state is located, and how best to get there, using a desktop computer and an industry-standard browser," Antenucci said. "Multiple databases will be queried, but the user won't have to know what comes from what. They'll just have data online for quick answers."

The push to simplify and move to standard browsers is expected to benefit many thousands of users with routine requests for information.

Sense of Innovation

There is a vigorous and healthy sense of innovation in the industry as GIS finds its way into an increasing number of applications -- from property tax issues to land-use planning to emergency services and disaster planning. The migration of GIS technology into the mainstream is creating new opportunities for government agencies to streamline their operations, while providing better access to services for constituents. At the same time, broader use of GIS data by non-specialists is offering new opportunities for companies to develop user-friendly, standardized GIS products that respond to the growth of the marketplace.