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

Kris Middaugh  |  Staff Writer