Early applications of geographic information systems were for land and environmental assessment, and in some regions its reputation remains linked to environmental matters such as managing and monitoring vast tracks of land. But that is the old picture of GIS. Today's systems are used in countless applications that address specific needs in countries throughout the world. GIS now permeates government operations in transportation, health, housing, justice and public safety, even fiscal management.
The popularity of desktop computing enabled more ubiquitous uses of GIS and eventually made the systems faster and easier to access, according to ESRI state and local government solutions manager Chris Thomas. Around the globe, the technology was adapted to regional uses that help to fuel everyday government activities. However, 9-11 catapulted GIS to new heights in the United States as mapping and imaging systems were used as emergency management and assessment tools in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
Bill Gentes, executive director of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), said New York City used GIS to create thousands of maps, which were used throughout the response and clean up.
"Maps went from being forgotten to being one of the most important things," he said. "Its amazing what they were mapping -- rubble piles, hot spots, gas leaks, lidar for heat sensing, measuring shifting piles of rubble -- everything, every facet of the emergency used maps and GIS." (Lidar is light detection and ranging technology that operates on the same general principle as radar.)
A Household Tool
It is still the routine use of GIS tools that support government operations. In Portsmouth, England, the City Council depends on GIS to monitor asset management, community facilities, average birth weights, crime patterns, emergency planning and employment demographics."
Portsmouth's highway management application has proven particularly useful in providing wide-ranging data from disparate sources, according to Jac Cartwright, with the Portsmouth City Council's IT department. "The tools have enabled our city desk to deal with calls on a whole range of issues such as street lighting, abandoned vehicles and missed refuse collections -- normally the domain of individual specialists," he explained. "We also have plans for future Web delivery of much more information about highway works, traffic conditions and local events."
With a GIS model of the highway system and associated assets, users are able to see data that is integrated from several sources. For example, they can look at the number of accidents in a particular location and at the same time, see that location's road conditions, street lighting or historical data. This flexible management system has been so successful that Portsmouth has formed a consortium with other city councils to share the applications. "Portsmouth pioneered the approach and basic information tools but needed more resources to develop the concept further," Cartwright said. "A small but growing cooperative of like-minded authorities have contributed to a communal pot and financed development."
In Berlin, Germany, the Sanitation Department uses GIS to manage the pick-up of 500,000 garbage bins and the clean-up of 12,500 miles of streets and sidewalks in addition to managing winter services over 344 square miles. The GIS maps allow department staff to go from an overview of sections of the city to exact locations and individual objects. At the same time, information specific to that site, such as clean-up plans, can be accessed.
Gothenberg City, a community of 450 in Sweden, has put GIS to work in dozens of management arenas, including one that examines new home developments to determine how many children will be needing schooling and which classrooms those youngsters will attend. The city was an early adopter of GIS and, since 1991, has built some of its own applications. Consequently, mapping and associated data is used in most departments, from traffic to health, education to culture. One city official said Gothenberg is a leader in GIS because it has consistently focused on manageable projects, eventually leading to citywide adoption. In addition, the city's elected officials actively supported the strategic development of GIS, providing financial and political support.
Although the technology is being used in even the most remote parts of the world, applications will depend upon multiple factors including a country's economic and political history. In developing nations, GIS can help define what the landscape of a country looks like now and what it may become. ESRI's Thomas said Thailand is using GIS as a tool for urban planning. In Latin America, particularly in Columbia, GIS is focused on crime analysis and public safety. And, the Israeli police use GIS in the public safety and defense arena.
Japan recently launched an aggressive e-government campaign that is using GIS data for management and planning. The island-nation is tracking development to maintain its natural and historical beauty as populations migrate from urban centers, potentially changing the traditional character of the land.
But, one of the most daunting efforts at mapping a country whose character is radically changing is taking place in Eastern Europe. The former Soviet Union was a palette of state-owned land with meaningless or nonexistent boundaries. Scrambling to create economic opportunities, Russia looked to private ownership of land as a resource. "Now they realize that one way to leverage money is to sell property and then tax it," said Kevin Daugherty, special projects manager for ESRI, who spent the last decade working with the Russian government. "Land reform in the former Soviet Union is one of the biggest things going for economic growth. GIS is at the core of that effort."
In the former Soviet Union, there had been no businesses for land or aerial photography or surveying, "You need the infrastructure as well as the technology to even begin to construct a parcel of land," Daugherty said. Early projects included some failed procurements as Russians learned about the world marketplace. The changes also required new legislation and political buy-in -- still a challenge in Russia as local jurisdictions continue to distrust the federal government.
Today, Russia is buying GIS for other uses, such as crime analysis and police work, utility and forestry management, and emergency management. Daugherty said the Russian Central Bank uses GIS to analyze the flow of money and tax generation.
Creating New Opportunities
GIS applications are key to development for many emerging nations, helping facilitate changes that might otherwise take centuries, according to URISA's Gentes. "Land records in the old Soviet Union and Latin America are often sketchy and confused," he said. "GIS is allowing them to go from 16th century, archaic land deeds to precise-to-the-inch recording of actual boundaries and land management issues."
Gentes, who is also the mayor of Round Lake, Ill., observed the power of GIS in an emerging economy during 9-11 when URISA members were at an annual conference in Jamaica. Stranded there during the air travel ban, he investigated and was impressed by the country's use of GIS.
"The prime minister has given a lot of ownership to the minister of the interior, who has a complete shop that manages GIS throughout the entire country," Gentes said. "They have a very sophisticated operation. The political leadership saw the value and they realized what GIS could do for them."
Gentes said he had a similar experience in his own Illinois village and now insists that all decisions are made with the aid of a GIS map.
Political buy-in and executive support is critical to getting value from GIS. "Educating leaders on the value of GIS, can help them see why a project is worthwhile," he said. "I see the value inherently, and not just because I am the executive director of URISA but because I am the mayor of a village."
As demand for GIS has increased over the past decade, the industry itself has changed, according to Bart Hoogenraad, global marketing director for Intergraph. "GIS is moving from being a stand-alone application that is used for a particular job, to integrating into the organization work flow," he observed. " It is now part of the total process within an organization."
Hoogenraad added that GIS is no longer a separate discipline but is now mainstream IT.
According to URISA's Gentes, the technology even impacts countries that do not have it. "The World Health Organization is a huge user of GIS and they have a sophisticated model that predicts droughts in West and South Africa by predicting how much rain there is in the Himalayas," he said. "That way they can get food supplies to places where famine is anticipated. In a model like that, what is the savings in human suffering? And, I guarantee you those models affect countries that don't even have GIS."