Nuthin But Maps

The layers of information in existence at the city and county level of government are agencies to relinquish control of data to GIS utilities.

by / October 30, 2000
By Bill McGarigle

The layers of information in existence at the city and county level of government are agencies to relinquish control of data to GIS utilities.

Considering the decade-long tenure of GIS in the back room, the typecasting of this technology as a specialized engineering tool is understandable. It is also dated. Interoperability standards, integrated databases and recent advances in technology have changed that image. Today there is an increasing awareness that GIS is an enormously versatile tool with potential applications and benefits for
nearly every branch of local and state government, from policy making to surveying. This is especially true of GIS as an enterprise utility.

In an enterprise GIS with a standardized base map and synchronized address database, data layers from many departments can be called up to show geographic relationships and developing patterns, enabling policy
makers to have a far better understanding of how different issues interrelate and to "see" how decisions affecting one part of the equation can affect others. GIS software can be used to play out planning scenarios, virtually fly over, under or through areas in 3D and in color to see the short and long-term effects of decisions. A centralized system can promote data sharing among agencies and departments, eliminate duplication, lower operating costs and increase
efficiency. It can contribute to better policing and saving lives, and it can promote greater transparency in the decision-making processes of local government and serve as a catalyst for profitable partnerships with the public sector - the list is inexhaustible.

Maximizing GIS benefits across local government on this scale is possible only through an enterprise-wide system, a GIS utility, in which agencies and departments use a common base map, have a single, synchronized address database and share selected data across the enterprise. San Diego, Philadelphia and New York City have systems at varying stages of expansion or development. Each offers perspectives on the benefits of a GIS utility and what it takes to get one started in local government.

San Diego
Having worked with the technology since the 1980s, San Diego was one of the first city-county jurisdictions to develop an integrated GIS utility. Today they have a GIS utility that is regional in scope and an agency, SanGIS (the San Diego Geographic Information Source), which is responsible for data maintenance and warehousing, keeping the software and hardware current and available to all city and county departments.

The organization maintains a regional database with about 200 different layers of information and has a data-sharing agreement with the San Diego Area of Governments and land-base subscriptions with 16 private and public sector agencies. SanGIS is also the agent through which public and private sector entities purchase enterprise maps and data
developed by member agencies. The city developed its first shared base map by digitizing maps acquired through a partnership with San Diego Gas & Electric. SanGIS (formerly the Regional Urban Information System) increased the accuracy of the base map by geocoding and synchronizing
the address databases used by the various agencies. Orthophoto capability was added later. SanGIS now has an interactive map section on their Web site .

According to Dianah Neff, San Diego deputy city manager and chief information officer, enterprise GIS has been highly valuable in policy-making decisions. "We are using the GIS to assist in updating the citys general plan," said Neff. "For example, when the staff meets with neighborhood groups to discuss potential growth issues, we use various map layers to show how the existing capacity for water, sewer and roads lines up with projected new housing and urban-growth patterns. Also, when the city council is looking at planning and zoning issues, we are able to bring up all the map layers and data relevant to those areas and display them."

Neff pointed out some of the more difficult obstacles involved in the developing system - getting agreement on naming attributes and sorting out maintenance responsibilities for the various data layers. "Developing a library for symbols and definitions is a major stumbling
block whenever you are trying to do regional projects," Neff explained. "Take addresses, for example ? will street be ST, STR or spelled out? Left to their own devices, each department, let alone each agency, would have a different set. Also, who was going to support the various
data layers, keep them up to date [and] handle purchases and special requests for information? This is why we formed the nonprofit organization ? to coordinate all those issues. They have since been resolved; whoever creates a layer is responsible for maintaining it, while maintenance of the countys land base, data warehousing and data sales are handled by SanGIS."

Getting funding and support from policy makers was another issue, Neff said. "There needs to be support from the top in forming an enterprise system. That argument helped sell the regional idea, and was the basis on which it started back in the 80s. Neff pointed out that a portion of the funding today comes from the sale of maps and related products and from participating agencies and departments, based on usage. "I dont think you would find a single department that does not agree they are getting tremendous value for what they pay for this GIS."

Like San Diego, Philadelphia is a seamless city-county entity and is in the process of expanding its enterprise GIS. According to City Councilman Brian ONeill, the system has enormous untapped potential. "I think were just scratching the surface in using it to make better decisions, save money, be more efficient and provide better services." He pointed out several areas in social work, housing and policing that could benefit from an expanded, centralized GIS system. Social workers in the field with palmtops could access client cases and manuals with instructions on whom to call, how to handle situations [and] protocols to be used. The police could vector in on chop shops, not only by tracking where cars are being stolen but where they are being found or abandoned."

Potential benefits could be gained from partnerships with utilities, developers, surveyors and construction and engineering companies. Packaged properly, maps and information have considerable commercial value. "The one thing we can do in this area is model the way the private sector does it. Were not there yet," ONeill said.

ONeill agrees that an enterprise GIS had to have support from the top. "The staff dealing with information systems has to build pay-back scenarios: People at the top want to know what theyre getting for their investment, whether the benefits are social, efficiency or financial. There have to be objectives for which technology becomes the most effective means of reaching them. Before policy makers will buy into GIS, they have to see whats in it for them. Thats where the payback comes in ? its got to be laid out for them."

Other obstacles were the familiar turf issues and budget concerns. "Some departments act as islands," ONeill said. "Thats just the way they work. Sharing data is not something they normally do. So its difficult - but not impossible - to get everyone on the same page: one asset management system [and] one set of base data that everyone plugs into, even if they have a separate area of their own. But you have to offer incentives; you have to show that with everyone in, everyone benefits. What were trying to do is set up an executive committee of different department heads so we can meet and make common decisions based on discussion. If we can accomplish that, well get buy-in from all the different departments and move forward at a much faster pace. Not everyones into it yet."

ONeill pointed out that department heads can be threatened by savings. "If they save 20 percent by using this GIS system, next years budget may that much less. Somehow we have to show them that its to their benefit to save money, whether we do it through direct bonuses or by giving back part of their savings to do what theyve been unable to do
before. Its a risk; it means going outside the box, but thats something we have to encourage."

New York
Alan Leidner, GIS Director for New York City, attributes advances thus far to liaisons formed with city agencies and offices, including the mayors, and with state and federal governments and private utilities. "Were not building a GIS utility, piecemeal," Leidner said. "We first enrolled the policy-makers in the value of this technology so they
could support the technical people with the funding to implement GIS correctly. We got all the different agencies involved and let them know that they all have a say in this. As a result, we have a lot of momentum; advocates all over town and agencies [are] identifying useful applications - more that a dozen in the first year.

"We found ways of getting GIS before the chief executive from the beginning," Leidner said. "Since GIS is a natural for public-safety planning and law enforcement, one of the first applications was in crowd control for a Garth Brooks concert in Central Park. The city needed to know what the ground looked like, how many people the area would accommodate and where to place security operations, Red Cross stations and so forth. The combination of GIS and aerial photography made it possible to see what was going to happen and where. So GIS was used by the mayors office from day one. That helped to sell it to others. They in turn supported the overall vision and investment in it. This is basic GIS 101. Its how you get started."

The citys base mapping project grew out of an effort by the Department of Environmental Protection to accurately map the citys water and sewer infrastructure. Today, development of the map and the GIS utility are under the direction of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. The department has already digitized and vectorized up to 60 map layers ? some digital, some paper ? of property, street center-line, water main and sewer maps. The base map itself will integrate with digital orthophotography, planimetrics and elevations. An agreement with Con Edison will eventually see the entire electrical
infrastructure of New York City and the telecommunications
infrastructure that Con Ed controls registered to the base map, along with the transportation systems, the parks and their facilities. The department is also looking at ways of getting other utilities onboard.

Remaining Obstacles
Leidner pointed to lack of base-map standardization as a major source of inefficiency. "There must be five to seven underground utilities and city agencies involved in underground infrastructure, and theyre all on different maps with everyone creating and maintaining them to
different standards," he said. "Someone does a job, and a month later somebody else is in there ripping it up to put in their thing. That happens constantly, even within the same agency or organization. One part doesnt know what the other is doing. A centralized GIS with a standardized base map and synched address database will cut out a lot of that.

"It will also help public safety agencies respond faster and more accurately in times of emergencies. That translates into lives saved. After that you get into cost-benefit analysis and the more traditional efficiencies that a computerized operation provides. In capital design and planning, the ability to have all capital projects on the same map ? not only this years but the next 10 years projects as well ? enables you to immediately see where there are conflicts, opportunities and synergies, and how you can better integrate and coordinate the work. If two or three major companies or organizations going into the
same place within three years of each other can do their work all together; construction efficiencies could save millions."

"New York City and the private sector spend $5 to $10 billion a year on infrastructure. If we could increase our efficiency by one percent, via a standardized mapping application, we could save up to $50 million a year. Even 0.1 percent would be $5 million - that would pay for the
base map in one year. These are the arguments Ive used in New York for justifying an enterprise GIS, in terms of dollars and cents." According to Leidner, the citywide GIS has been funded and is now in the implementation phase. Vendors and contractors have been selected to do the aerial photography on a maintenance basis, and the department is in the process of registering additional data layers to the base map. The department expects to have a major-league GIS utility within a year.

In terms of federal funding, Leidner believes Washington could do more to assist local governments in developing centralized GIS systems. "Cities and counties are turning out hundreds of millions of dollars in maps, addresses and other spatial information, and the feds are a major beneficiary of all this. Other states and large jurisdictions should work toward putting pressure on the feds to do what they can to coordinate this whole effort. The feds have done interesting things with the FGDC (Federal Geographic Data Committee) and the OGIS (Open
GIS), but they can do more.

"We are a little behind the leading jurisdictions in the country in developing an enterprise GIS, but we are getting there," Leidner said. "We are following the path thats been laid down by the real leaders ? San Diego, Seattle, Philadelphia, Nassau County, New York and others."

Supporting Organizations
One of the main supporters of cities in the effort to develop GIS utilities in local government is Public Technology Inc. PTI is the technology arm of the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties and the International City-County Management Association. Each has several representatives on the PTI board of directors. The organization promotes research and relationships among
local governments and industry, and conducts workshops and training sessions at its annual conference and at association meetings. PTI has also put out a GIS handbook for its member cities.

According to Leidner, the next iteration of the handbook will be more comprehensive, more geared to holding local governments hand; it will provide expertise and examples of contracts, documents and specifications that go into building a GIS utility. "If creating a functional base map is a five-year effort, knowing the basic documents, contracts and specifications could cut that time in half and reduce overall cost by 25 percent," he said.

The GIS forum associated with PTI is Local Leaders for GIS, formed by members of the NLC, ICCMA and NACO. The group focuses on expanding policy-level knowledge and using GIS and related technologies in local government. It fosters dialogue among local government leaders on maximizing GIS benefits across local governments and throughout the
country. The LLGIS Web site provides publications, white papers, documents and other resources for developing an enterprise GIS. Both PTI and LLGIS are lobbying the Federal Government to make things happen.

Bill McGarigle is a writer, specializing in communications and information technology, based in Santa Cruz, Calif.