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,