Immersive GIS to Engage Citizens Like Never Before

Transportation, public health, economic development and a school finder among rich geospatial applications now available.

by / August 1, 2008

California state government is gearing up for a renaissance of geospatial information systems--one in which citizens can see and touch the data relevant to critical questions such as where are they going to live and where are their kids going to go to school, while business owners will be able to interact with the data that will guide them in determining whether or not to locate their business in California.

After years of being the near-exclusive domain of highly trained professionals manipulating data with expensive software packages, now consumers can create their own geospatially referenced information thanks to tools such as Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth. Now California state government is on the cusp of creating a raft of immersive geospatial tools that will help residents make smarter decisions about aspects of government that affect their daily lives.

For the last several months, California has been actively laying the ground work for a variety of useful applications that represent spatially data collected by the state. Earlier this month, the state's chief information officer, Teri Takai, announced the members of a GIS task force which is charged with coming up with a strategic plan for the statewide coordination of geospatial data in 90 days. The task force has already met four times and will present its initial recommendations to the governor on August 15th.

Takai has challenged state agencies to go beyond copying what has already been done and use that as a springboard to what the state could do next. "How can we use this information in non-traditional ways, in ways that we never would have thought to use this information to solve the kinds of problems we have in this state?" she asked.

That was the subject of the recent Beyond the Map forum on GIS in Sacramento. This forum included 250 state officials and 20 exhibits of GIS applications. Exhibits included applications by CalTrans, the Office of Statewide Health Planning, the Employment Development Department and a new tool recently unveiled by the state's Secretary of Education, David Long, that allows parents to see schools' performance data represented by region as well as demographic information for the neighborhoods in which the schools are located.

"Coming together in a conference like this to showcase what California has done, to showcase the kinds of things we want to do going forward, is the right thing to do," Takai said.

"GIS will provide California's agencies the ability to engage [the] public like it never has in the past," Eric Swanson, director of Michigan's Center for Geographic Information, observed.

CalTrans, for one, has "found a way to use it as an extremely convincing communications tool," Bart Ney, CalTrans public information officer said in an interview at the forum.

CalTrans has a tool that lets the public see the status of a transportation project and how it will affect their community, Randy Iwasaki, chief deputy director, CalTrans said. "The value of the GIS technology in today's environment is the abilty to show the viewers exactly what their going to get. So in the case of CalTrans we can visually show how the project is going to affect their community, how the project is going and how the project is going to be viewed from different angles. It helps us get the information to the public so they can make an informed decision."

The Employment Development Department is using GIS to give executives looking at moving businesses to California a visual representation of the data they need to see where to locate their operations. "We want to present that in it's total package. Where businesses that are thinking about expanding to California, or businesses that might have left California are wondering whether it's a good time to come back

now. They could see this total picture of where the education is, where the labor force is, where the housing market is, " Dale Jabolonski, the department's chief information officer, said.

Takai wants to dig into the state's data using GIS, not just to put points on a map, but to "use this base of geographic information to actually do the kind of analytic work to actually do the kinds of things that you are doing in your agencies and departments today," she told the audience at the Beyond the Map forum.

That's the intention of the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development. The Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development has a massive collection of data. "In our case, we're trying to understand the entire health care landscape. All this information combined in business intelligence software and geographic information systems allows us to distribute [it] back to the public and understand what's really going on in that healthcare landscape for better decision making, " Mike Burns, GIS architect for the Office of Statewide Planning and Development, said of his agencies efforts to leverage geospatial information.

And perhaps the newest tool to provide Californians with geospatially referenced data is the new SchoolFinder Web site launched earlier this month. The site allows parents to easily find and compare schools side-by-side on data such as graduation rates and Academic Performance Index scores, available student support services, advanced placement courses and neighborhood demographic information in one place.

Takai remarked that this site is a logical evolution of the use of GIS and bringing information to residents over the Internet. "It's interesting that we're used to using the Web for things like buying consumer products, but we've never thought to use the Web as a way of getting to education information that perhaps has not been available to us before. "

"The state is very interested in being able to provide the accurate information around the different schools so that a parent can either compare schools within their current district or they can research schools in a district that perhaps they are thinking about moving toward," Takai continued "All of this is just so important in using the technology and using the power of the state and the technology the state provides in helping parents and educators to continually improve the education process in California."