Let's Make a Deal

New Jersey and its counties are finding common ground through GIS.

by / April 16, 2002
Scientists have a saying: "Interesting things happen at the boundaries." When you explore beyond conventional limits you may find linkages and phenomena that were previously unexpected, opening opportunities for exploration and discovery. New Jersey's Office of Information Technology is taking this concept to heart and has initiated a GIS program that looks beyond the traditional boundaries of local government to promote far-reaching benefits for all citizens of the state.

The New Jersey Mapping Assistance Partnership Program (NJMapp) is an innovative collaboration between state and local government. Launched in the fall of 2001, the program is designed to provide a technical infrastructure on which to build, maintain and share spatial data that will support decisions at all levels of government. Each county that agrees to participate in the program will receive GIS training, hardware and software. In return for the state assistance, each participating county will add its data to the New Jersey Geographic Information Network.

"There needs to be tighter collaboration and integration of data across government boundaries from state to local," said Adel Ebeid, New Jersey's chief technology officer. "At the state level, we realize that local agencies have a wealth of spatial information, but sharing that information has always been a challenge. To help policy-makers make better and more informed decisions, we need to tap into some of that information. So we have developed this program to provide incentives to local agencies to collaborate with us and buy into the whole concept."

Creating a Win-Win Scenario
"Spatial data can support a lot of government activities," noted Hank Garie, director of GIS of the Office of Information Technology. "Everything from emergency preparedness, to planning, to environmental protection and much more can benefit from such information. The problem is that we don't have the ability to keep spatial data sets current at the state level."

Most of the accurate spatial data is being acquired and maintained at local levels. The advantage of NJMapp is it allows New Jersey to set up a statewide GIS infrastructure that uses the Internet to keep information current. At the same time, the program will be creating a two-way sharing partnership with local governments.

"I think it provides everyone with a win-win situation," said Garie. "Local agencies benefit by receiving hardware, software and training, and in exchange the state receives a wealth of data. We could not possibly acquire that much valuable data for the same amount that it will cost to fund the local organizations. So we are leveraging our expenses in an advantageous way for everyone."

In New Jersey, the counties are typically gatherers of spatial data. The state would like to use the locally generated information for statewide planning and similar purposes. "We generate some data at the state level that go back to the county; aerial photography or statewide land use patterns that a town or county wouldn't necessarily develop themselves," Garie said. "So in some cases we provide data, but more often counties provide it."

A typical example of data for state use might be data needed to support a particular initiative, like open space, from high-level policy-makers in the governor's office. "The state doesn't have access to the right kind of information for that unless we go to the local agencies," Ebeid said. "When our former governor was trying to preserve a million acres of open space, we found that there were significant barriers to identifying the best locations to recommend. With this new program, we hope to develop information resources and ways of sharing that information that can enable the governor's office to undertake a business initiative based on the most accurate and up-to-date information available. That makes for better and more informed decisions."

Opportunities Through Cooperation
The New Jersey Office of Information Technology serves as the focal point for many technology initiatives across state government. Through NJMapp, spatial data can be collected at the local level efficiently and without redundancy, and then shared over the Web with all state agencies. Instead of constantly reinventing the GIS wheel for each new requirement, data will be available for all to use. "Equally important, we will be operating on a consistent set of data," Ebeid pointed out. "That results in cost-efficient sharing as we dispense data across all 17 cabinet level agencies."

Cost effectiveness was a key element of this program. The hope is that NJMapp will minimize redundancy and lead to leveraging of costs in ways that achieve desired outcomes. "Standardization of spatial data means that we can all be working off a single version of the truth," Garie observed. "It is our hope and intention that this partnership with the counties will allow everyone to abide by a single set of standards. We are certainly striving toward consistency. In addition, the seed funds provided from the state are greatly leveraged because the counties and local governments will go out and acquire more data."

A Vision for the Future
The initial goal was to bring four counties on board in the first year. That goal has been achieved and the participating counties have received equipment and training. The timetable calls for rolling out the total program over a three-year period and that appears to be realistic. The remaining 17 counties seem to be enthusiastic and the next phase, which will bring another five or six counties online, is already under way. The state/county partnership is expanding as hoped.

"What has happened with GIS cooperation at the county level serves as a good model for other partnership, shared arrangements," Garie said.

CTO Ebeid concurred. "By setting up an investment fund where we can disperse shares to counties we continue to facilitate the process of buying into our vision," Ebeid said. "We believe what we have put in place serves as a model for future technology initiatives, such as launching a state portal, for example, or a state infrastructure for disaster recovery plans. We are learning a lot from this process."

Looking down the road three to five years, Ebeid and Garie agree they would like to see truly dynamic databases connected across local and state government and operating with daily updates. The plan is for NJMapp to be at the frontlines for business initiatives, emergency responses and natural or man-made disasters, providing accurate and timely information to citizens in real time and helping to protect their quality of life.

A major part of this effort involves finding ways to get organizations to work together across boundaries. "We don't have technical hurdles," Garie noted, "but we need to find common ground between the state and local agencies -- ways in which state and local governments can see that their best interests are being served and rally around the mechanisms that promote cooperation. We are working hard to have everyone understand that most government is 'place-based' and that GIS can benefit everyone through cooperation and collaboration."