Finding the Way Together

State and local agencies are finding GIS data sharing easier than ever.

by / June 4, 2002
Sharing data across traditional boundaries of city, county and state agencies has become one of the hottest trends in GIS. The Internet made data sharing easier; Sept. 11 made the need for it painfully obvious. Now, the federal government is stepping in and making data sharing more desirable, and, perhaps, more affordable than ever before.

"We have long known that integration of GIS data at the municipal and county level was a good idea," said James Dodge, a senior consultant for government liaison with SD-I. "We've all known that large-scale emergency efforts could benefit tremendously from shared GIS data, whether we are looking at manmade or natural disasters. We now have the federal government seeming to be more willing to assist with these integration efforts to heighten homeland security."

Most states lack an integrated emergency management and GIS infrastructure. Many communities have automated systems, but they often cannot communicate with each other. The result is isolated islands of emergency response incapable of supporting coordinated action or bringing to bear the full range of management decision-making tools that are essential to effective and sustained responses.

Two current examples of data-sharing efforts serve to highlight some of the primary issues confronted by communities and vendors. One is in Will County, Ill., where SD-I is assisting in a countywide GIS needs analysis and implementation plan encompassing 24 townships and 35 municipalities. The other is in Jefferson County, Ala., where Intergraph is helping integrate a variety of technologies, improve interagency coordination, and provide decision-makers with an understanding of complex issues at a glance to improve emergency response. These projects provide insights into the projected benefits of shared systems and some of the processes involved in implementing them.

Planning for Rapid Growth

Will County is the fastest growing county in Illinois. It is taking the first steps in expanding its existing GIS to an enterprise-wide system capable of efficiently managing its rapidly growing geographic data. "In addition to expanding the capabilities of GIS within the county, we are looking to develop a data-sharing and a cost-sharing program between the county and its municipalities, park districts, fire protection districts, townships and assessors," said Terri Ann Wintermute, county board member and chairwoman of the Land Use Committee. "The goal is to maximize the county's and municipalities' investment in GIS and provide our citizens with increased customer service."

Working with SD-I, a Chicago-based information-technology consulting firm, Will County is developing and documenting hardware, software and network requirements to support a countywide GIS.

"We are looking to build a two-way exchange of data between the county and its municipalities," said SD-I's Dodge. "Will County's municipalities won't have to start from zero in building their GIS systems and data. This project will provide municipalities an expanded pool of accessible geographic data to use in serving their constituents. In addition, it will provide a cost-effective means to maintain this data."

In the second phase of this project, SD-I will produce an implementation plan, providing step-by-step strategies on how to accomplish the county's goals and objectives as identified in the needs assessment. The timeline, budget, system requirements and GIS software recommendations covered by the plan will play a major role in implementing the countywide enterprise GIS solution.

Among the major issues to be analyzed and addressed are ways of maximizing Will County's return on technology investment in GIS and how to meet the needs of reliability, performance and interoperability among many different agencies.

Improving Interagency Communication
Jefferson County, Ala., clearly illustrates the importance of being able to share data among local agencies. At the heart of the Birmingham metropolitan area, the county includes 34 municipalities and has a population of more than 700,000. It has 28 police departments and 61 fire departments. County officials recognize that these departments need to coordinate closely, determine who has responsibility for what, share data about threats, and quickly dispatch resources in a well-planned manner. Over the past several years, many of the county agencies have invested in GIS systems to do just that.

In 1997, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department implemented an Intergraph computer-aided dispatch system that provides enhanced 911 capabilities, fastest route, incident history and a map-based user interface for locating events and tracking responders as they move to the scene. Through radio and alphanumeric pager interfaces, the system can send service calls via radio to its more than 500 officers and provide first-call notification to volunteer fire departments throughout the county. Recently, the system has been expanded to provide that same information to more than 165 patrol cars.

Similar systems have been installed for the cities of Birmingham and Homewood and neighboring Shelby County. All three systems include interfaces to records-management systems to allow access to police and jail records. The Homewood system is also integrated with the Jefferson County mug shot system. These various agencies are exploring ways of sharing resources and common maps, allowing additional integration into the Birmingham metropolitan area. It will require comprehensive integration, because there are 16 independent 911 systems in Jefferson County.

The situation becomes even more complicated at the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency (EMA), which uses GIS tools to forecast flooding, monitor traffic, track HAZMAT transportation and conduct 3-D plume analyses for chemical spills. A lack of interoperability means data often must be re-entered for each application.

"At the time of an emergency, we don't need to be working four or five systems," said Allen Kniphfer, operations officer of the Jefferson County EMA. "I need to push a button that gives me everything I need to make a decision, and get a complete picture without entering more data."

"Keeping the many agencies and authorities in the county informed of the status of emergencies is key to helping them fulfill their missions," said Jefferson County Commissioner Mary Buckelew. "Integrating the many automated systems will help improve interagency communications and we are looking at a number of options to accomplish this as quickly as possible."

Jefferson and other counties may get help with integrated emergency response through several ongoing initiatives. Under one scenario, the state command and control elements would be able to view GIS data and coordinate with local fire, police, medics and other responders, while a Web-based "911 lite" would provide GIS data and functionality to small communities and rural areas. This solution would preserve the authority of local forces to respond to incidents, while supporting options for escalating crisis support and coordination with local agencies at the state level.