Plymouth Talk

A new Web site uses GIS technology to communicate a wide variety of data and information to officials and residents of Plymouth, England.

by / December 4, 2003
Steeped in history and located in one of the most scenically dazzling areas along the western British coast, Plymouth, England seems to offer nothing short of an idyllic lifestyle.

But pristine harbors and tourist spots such as the Plymouth Steps -- from which the Mayflower launched its historic 1620 journey to America -- are only a small portion of overall life in modern-day Plymouth.

"Plymouth as a city is recognized as having an excellent quality of life," said Maria Penn, project manager for the Plymouth Informed project. "However, it does have its problems."

The town, considered the cultural center of England's South West, also includes some of the most deprived neighborhoods in the county, according to Penn, and suffers from social and economic inequalities.

The Right Resource
Constantly struggling to meet needs fostered by such inequalities, the Plymouth City Council recently launched the Plymouth Informed Web site to provide a central resource for publicly available information.

"Our council officers were constantly sourcing information from various organizations to put in justifications for grants to improve deprived areas of the city, which was very time-consuming," said Penn.

After realizing much of the same information was needed by a plethora of individuals and groups, officials decided to stop wasting time and duplicating efforts.

Others in the Department of Development knew community groups and residents' organizations could also use an easily accessible public information repository to facilitate local action plans targeting Plymouth's neediest areas.

Members of Plymouth 2020 -- a strategic partnership that includes the City Council, police, health services and community safety -- quickly took to the idea and agreed to let it flourish under their umbrella organization.

But with so many potential users, including many who would have little technical expertise or data-deciphering acumen, officials had to decide how best to serve up such a bounty of detailed information.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, why not simply offer pictures in place of words?

"The majority of data utilized has a spatial reference," explained Penn. "Given this was the case, GIS provided a very useful tool for visual display of data and [is] excellent for spatial analysis."

A Contextual Understanding
Web-based visualization and analysis systems, such as Plymouth's GIS, can provide end-users with information comprehensible in a way a hodgepodge of numbers and statistics is not.

Anyone visiting the Plymouth Informed Web site since it went live on Nov. 5, can click on a city map to begin searching for data regarding the entire city, or subdivisions on ward or even neighborhood level. Another click of the mouse yields an overlay of information concerning everything from crime, education and health, to employment, housing and population.

The GIS base provides users with a better understanding of data in the context of other factors, said Penn.

As an example, Penn noted that geographic clusters of multiple deprivations, such a high unemployment and poor health care, are visually conspicuous when information is organized and displayed geographically.

"The highly visible impact enables our staff to make better decisions on how to tackle these issues and work together with other partner organizations to resolve them," explained Penn.

The basis of Plymouth Informed is Intergraph (UK) Ltd.'s GeoMedia WebMap. The software provides real-time links to GIS data warehouses and the ability to query a database and see information on a map. Clicking on a given feature allows users to see selected data behind that map.

On a city map, users can zoom in on a specific area and view statistical reports for that specific area. The Intergraph system also allows users to export data as a text file for use within their own systems or documents.

Intergraph officials said their GeoMedia WebMap application provides cost-effective growth flexibility, which is especially appealing to the rapidly changing requirements -- and financial constraints -- faced by government entities.

Relevant Information
Nearly two years in development, Plymouth Informed also helps the Plymouth City Council deliver its e-government strategy. The site provides the Plymouth 2020 strategic partners and public with accurate, up-to-date information concerning a range of key city services, and provides links to other data, including local surveys and neighborhood newsletters.

Perhaps the most important aspect of displaying information in a GIS format is the system's overall user-friendliness.

"People tend to be much more interested in data presented on maps as it seems to bring data to life," said Robert Nelder, public health information specialist for Plymouth's Health Development Unit of the Plymouth Primary Care Trust. "Perhaps more importantly, people immediately look for the area they live in."

Nelder admitted many residents might simply log onto Plymouth Informed to look at aerial photographs of their houses, but added, "If that gets them to use the system then it's no bad thing."

As for Plymouth's public health unit, Nelder said his team plans to use the site in a variety of ways.

"It might be used by the director of public health to look at health status and service provision across the city," explained Nelder. "One of the administrators might look at the services provided by a specific dental practice in a particular part of the city. I anticipate everyone within the team will use the system in one way or another."

The site also puts officials on the accountability line by supplying residents with an easy way to monitor the efficiency of public service delivery.

"Initially Plymouth Informed was developed to tackle social and economic inequalities within the city," said Penn. "However, the potential of the site far exceeds this."

Nelder agrees.

"The site has been developed with both the public and partners in mind," he said. "As far as information gathering and dissemination is concerned, it should make our working lives a lot easier."

Geographically displayed data is not, as the officials behind Plymouth Informed well know, the answer to all the city's -- or any city's -- communication and information dissemination issues.

Though such a site provides well funded government agencies and underfunded, understaffed community groups equal access to needed decision-making information and criteria, that data is still open to individual interpretation.

"We'll never be able to stop people putting two and two together and making five when we make data available in this way," Nelder said. "But Plymouth Informed will help create a more level playing field."

When it comes to meeting the needs of a large and diverse population, beginning on a level playing field is perhaps the most anyone can hope for.

Kris Middaugh Staff Writer