GIS Web Portal Fuels San Francisco Economic Development

Berkeley based small business combines state-of-the-art GIS and Web programming expertise with a background in city planning

by / July 22, 2003 0
By Aaron Cheesman
Contributing writer

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- Of all the cities shaken up by the economic downturn following the dot-com bust, few have felt the impact like San Francisco. At the height of its technology-driven 90s economy, commercial vacancies were at a slim rate of one percent . By last year, that number had risen to 24 percent. Unemployment was up, tax revenues were down, and the city needed to find ways of attracting new businesses?and retaining existing ones.

Julie Brandt, deputy director of Economic Development for the city of San Francisco, had a great deal of support but a limited budget. "We had a clear mandate to make it easier to do business in San Francisco," said Brandt. Once she met with Anatolio Ubalde of GIS Planning, she immediately recognized that the company's online GIS-based economic development portal would be an invaluable tool. With the support of the entire city staff, implementation started almost immediately.

In 1998, the founders of GIS Planning developed a GIS-based Web application called Zoom Prospector that makes it far easier for businesses to find potential sites in a particular city and analyze their viability. The application is customized for each particular city with an appearance consistent with that city's branding and a display of options based on the available data.

To begin, a business owner wanting a San Francisco location enters search criteria - such as the size of the desired space, possibly focusing on areas that offer federal renewal or other tax incentives, or focusing on a particular neighborhood. This initial search returns a list of candidate sites which can be viewed according to detailed information such as nearby parking, schools, public transit lines, and area traffic counts. The site report (which can be printed or exported to .pdf format for emailing) offers a basic profile of the property, real estate broker contact information and, typically, a street-level photo of the building. From that point, the user can select the demographics tab to obtain extensive information on the age, income, skills, and spending habits of the population within a prescribed area. If those results match the target clientele or workforce, the user can then determine whether existing businesses in the area would offer synergy or competition.

The "Businesses" tab presents the user with the number and names of nearby businesses in varying categories. In the past, gathering such information manually might have taken days. With GIS Planning's application it can be done in minutes?and free of charge to both the businesses performing the search, and the real estate brokers that provide the property data.

According to company founder Anatolio Ubalde, this is a win-win situation for everyone. "Everybody benefits in different ways," explains Ubalde. "The real estate brokers get valuable referrals. Because any broker can provide listings, businesses can be assured that they are finding the most ideal locations. When businesses decide to locate themselves in our clients' cities, that creates new jobs and markets for city residents. And of course, new businesses means new sources of long-term tax revenue for the city."

San Francisco, like many other tech-savvy cities, already had an existing GIS in place with large amounts of data that was readily put to use in the SF Prospector Web page. The company got the go-ahead to begin implementation in mid-2002, shortly after meeting with Julie Brandt.. The Web site was finished that November and was officially launched on New Year's Day of 2003. The entire project cost approximately $50,000.

According to city officials, it is still too early to determine return on investment from the economic development project. Ublade reports that, over two years, the city of Tucson generated $400,000 in saved staff time using ZoomProspector and, in the process, freed workers to perform other necessary tasks. GIS Planning has set up portals for over 30 cities, both large and small, over the past four years.

SF Prospector is powered by GIS software leader ESRI's ArcIMS Geodatabase server. The data typically comes from multiple sources, tapping into a city's census and tax records databases, its existing geographical data and satellite photography, and property data uploaded from all the participating real estate brokerages. Ubalde said cities have no trouble finding real estate brokers who are eager to provide listings for the Web site. San Francisco's has been online for just over six months, and already has 50 brokers providing over 500 property listings.

In order for GIS Planning to maintain a business focus and a lean staff, they stick to implementation and avoid branching into related ventures such as developing new data for clients. "If they want to get aerial photos of their commercial zones, we can refer them to others who will do a great job," says Ubalde, adding that he intends for his company to "do one thing - economic development."