Many parents can relate to the demands of driving kids back and forth across town for recreational sports. However, that's less of a problem for parents in Cary, N.C. Players in leagues for ages 6 to 10 consistently attend practices near their homes, thanks to a GIS application created by Leith Britt, GIS analyst for the Cary Technology Services Department.
Before 2003, the Cary Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department (PRCR) assigned kids to sports teams without regard to location. Teams usually had rotating practice sites so players could take turns practicing near their homes. But parent complaints about long drives to practices escalated as Cary's population grew and traffic thickened. The town is currently home to 130,000 residents.
Britt programmed GIS layers over a map of the town using ESRI's ArcGIS Server and Pitney Bowes' MapInfo Professional, identifying clusters of kids living near each other that could form teams. The application assigned those teams to nearby practice locations. Cary doesn't use GIS to assign teams for ages beyond 10 because competitive tryouts become critical to placement at that point. Britt said the PRCR hadn't measured attendance patterns since implementing the project, but the agency frequently receives anecdotal reports of growing player attendance from coaches.
"It's all about using technology to better create the leagues in order for parents to spend less time on the road and less money on gas, and for the kids to be able to play with their buddies," Britt said.
Britt established team boundary lines with a ZIP code GIS layer showing where clusters of players existed on the town's map. The PRCR then drew three sections: west, north and south. A separate GIS layer routes returning players to teams with their teammates within each section from the previous year. New players fill the remaining openings.
"Sometimes we have players along the edge of these district lines, and we need to borrow a player in the north or west district. If we do have a player right along the edge who is unassigned, we can take them from the other side of that line and just put them with the team that would be in the west or the north just to finish completing the teams," said Ted Jeffcoate, coordinator of athletic programs for the PCPR.
When it's time to begin this process, Britt receives an Excel spreadsheet of all players and coaches enlisted in the league. He feeds the spreadsheet into the GIS application, enabling renderings of the various spreadsheet details as GIS layers. Assigning coaches is the first task; a GIS layer shows where each coach lives. After assigning coaches to neighboring practice facilities, Britt runs a report on players requesting to be on the same team as another player or certain coach. He then enters a query on how many girls entered the league and ensures every girl is on a team with at least one other girl.
"Ideally we would get two females on every team, but that may not occur, so one team could end up with none, and one may end up with three," Britt said.
Then Britt applies a general layer of players over the map, quickly assigning them to location-appropriate teams.
"We have enough kids on teams that we've been able to accommodate them with a facility relatively close to their home in nearly every case," Britt explained. "We've had folks who were residents in nearby cities, and they were several miles away from any facility. There are also kids who are returning for a second year who may have moved in the off-season, and they still go on the team they were on before."
Jeffcoate said the GIS assigning process didn't change any of the PRCR staff's procedures. The agency continues to receive
player registrations online and through its phone interactive voice-recognition system. They direct that information to an Excel spreadsheet, which goes to Britt. Once the teams are assigned, the GIS tool populates a new Excel spreadsheet with the assigned teams, which Britt returns to the PRCR.
"They're able to pull up the Excel spreadsheet and e-mail it out to their coaches so they have a roster," Britt said.
More players attend practice since Cary implemented the GIS project, according to Walker Reagan, a PRCR basketball coach.
"Last year, with my young guys on this geographic distribution, we were having 90 percent attendance at practices. Before the technology, you might have gotten seven out of 10 kids who showed up on a regular basis," Reagan said.
He routinely gets glowing feedback from parents about the location-based assigning process.
"It has facilitated carpooling. We see a lot more players coming in groups," Reagan said.
Previously parents with multiple children in extracurricular activities struggled to get the kids to and from those activities on time. Parents frequently asked Reagan to stay late or drive their kids home after practice.
"I've got kids on my basketball team who are taking music lessons, dance lessons and drama lessons. Many are involved in church programs. These kids are booked almost five nights a week," Reagan said, adding that he stopped receiving requests for after-practice rides once the GIS program went live.
Reagan did have concerns before Cary implemented the GIS project. Up to that point, the PRCR assigned kids to teams by holding tryouts to ensure each team had an equal distribution of strong, medium and weak players.
"They'd bring kids out to dribble, do layups, try to take a couple jump shots. We'd get them to jump to see how high they could jump. We'd weigh them, and then the coaches picked in order," Reagan said.
That kept overzealous coaches from scouring the community to recruit the most talented tykes.
"You didn't want all the good guys to be on one team and the weaker players to be on another team," Reagan said. "It just wouldn't be fun. The good guys wouldn't have anybody to compete against, and the other guys would keep getting the tar beat out of them."
To Reagan's surprise, that didn't happen when tryouts were eliminated.
"It hasn't made any difference in terms of competition," Reagan said. The change also removed some of the pressure coaches felt to judge talent accurately at tryouts.
"If I was a coach in the placement and rated a player wrong and got stuck with that player, it was my fault. Now the decision is on Cary Parks and Recreation. If I end up with a bad team, it's not my fault," Reagan said.
He said the PRCR is considering using GIS assigning for kids in upper-age leagues whose parents aren't concerned with competition.
"Maybe you're more concerned with having something local your kid can be involved in and still have fun and get exercise, and winning and losing is not that big a deal," Reagan said. "You realize he's not going to be a superstar on his high school basketball team, and you're willing to let him just get out there and play. Maybe distribution will work out fine for you."
Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.