March 26, 2008 By John Cassidy
The majority of governments in the United States have documented successes with GIS. In particular, local and state departments of transportation, public safety, social services, and planning and environmental agencies have long reaped the benefits of GIS with increased efficiency, productivity and better service delivery.
Whether the task at hand involves zoning and permitting, election precinct mapping, emergency management, mass transit or taxation, about 80 percent of the decisions a state, county or municipality makes are location-based.
Given the importance of geography in so many decisions, it would seem governments would be eager to develop a coordinated, collaborative enterprise GIS strategy. For example, such a strategy for states would foster interagency communications and communication with local, county and federal government entities.
Today, most states have established the position of GIS coordinator. Demonstrating an even deeper commitment to the technology, about 10 states have created the position of geographic information officer (GIO) with a specific mission to develop a unified GIS strategy for disparate state agencies. The position evolved because several forward-thinking state CIOs came to recognize GIS as operationally critical given the success of these solutions at the department and agency level. Where this has occurred, you can usually find a success story involving enterprise GIS.
New York recently deployed its Accident Location Information System (ALIS), a statewide enterprise GIS application linking the state's Department of Motor Vehicles, Department of Transportation and Office of Cyber Security and Critical Infrastructure Coordination, with the goal of improving emergency response time by providing police and other emergency services personnel with more accurate location-based data. The system also collaborates with local and county governments to ensure more complete data collection.
Connecticut pioneered coordinated emergency response across all of its public safety agencies - state police, local police, fire departments and enhanced 911 - with a GIS system that slashed emergency response times and maintains a 99 percent accuracy level of addresses and geometry, ensuring no time is wasted searching for an address.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's destruction, Louisiana developed a statewide GIS disaster management program that is a model of collaborative success. It tracks people displaced by the hurricane and effectively delivers essential services to areas without electricity or running water. That system morphed from a GIS social services application that tracks and detects food stamp fraud.
Across the country, state transportation departments routinely work with counterparts in public safety, deploying collaborative GIS solutions to identify and prioritize road safety, maintenance and construction issues. In addition, many of these GIS solutions interact with federal agencies to procure highway funds and other federal resources, as well as work with local and municipal agencies to expedite transportation projects.
Success at All Levels
Similar successes also resonate from local municipalities to the largest federal agencies. For example, Kissimmee, Fla., a city of about 50,000 people, employs two full-time GIS staffers to oversee adoption of the technology across city agencies. The result: prevention of duplicated effort, better identification of cross-department requirements, speedier resolution of issues such as inspections and permitting, and a budget committee that is reassured by the city's efforts to expedite services judiciously and effectively.
In Washington, D.C., the Federal Emergency Management Agency created enterprise-level GIS solutions that collaborate with state agencies to better mobilize resources in emergency situations. The U.S. Census Bureau, a leader in GIS, publishes its GIS-based Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing database that identifies the type, location and names of streets, rivers, rail beds and other geographic features. This data is shared among private-sector users as well as local, state and other federal agencies for daily decision-making.
However, many of these GIS solutions, and this includes many at the state level, are point-to-point oriented. They address specific issues, but do not necessarily take the big picture into account. We are just at the beginning of this technology's potential to dramatically improve the way state and federal governments deliver programs and services. State CIOs today are in a strong position to implement revolutionary statewide GIS strategies.
Aiding the CIO is the fact that the technology and data powering GIS has never been more accessible and available. Accurate mapping data from commercial vendors, satellite imagery, cartographical, topographic and demographic data, powerful integrators like Google and Microsoft are packaging this data and making it more user friendly. Widespread adoption of location-based applications by businesses and the general public is fueling the ability to develop enterprise-level GIS solutions cheaply and efficiently.
CIO as Visionary
We have established several assumptions: The first is the ready availability of highly accurate GIS data and the technology to power it. Next, GIS today is well entrenched in many government agencies and departments. The degree of penetration varies, from basic GPS applications to sophisticated interagency and enterprisewide solutions, such as New York's ALIS.
The age of seamless, enterprise GIS is upon us. But like all technology investments, it is a process of evolution driven by need and financial resources, and one that requires a great deal of thought, logic and planning on the CIO's part.
The untapped uses of GIS stretch the imagination. It holds promise for great financial rewards while simultaneously contributing to the betterment of society as a whole. Business processes can be streamlined while services are delivered with new levels of effectiveness and efficiency.
Health-care delivery provides a simple example of the power of collaborative GIS to better serve the public. In this hypothetical scenario, the federal government grants each state a limited number of flu shots to those in need. How does the state determine the locations and quantities of distribution to effectively reach the target population?
Combining GIS-based census data, such as age and income levels with state health-care statistics can help identify concentrated populations of those in need - many of whom are likely to be the elderly who live on a fixed income and rely on public transportation. GPS data can be used to analyze transportation requirements and help determine the location and availability of health-care professionals and facilities. The result is optimal placement of distribution points that are cost-effective and reach the target population.
A Logical Approach
The benefits are obvious; the goals are clear. Health-care delivery, transportation, environmental management, planning and development, parks and recreation, water resources, public utilities, emergency services, law enforcement - all depend on one another to best serve the public interest. How does the CIO approach the challenge of creating a singular, collaborative GIS strategy across disparate state agencies and departments? Here are a number of common, but critical, success factors:
The success of a GIS application is more likely when it's considered a mission-critical IT system and an organization is built specifically to support that system. It's crucial to build a strategic plan to adopt GIS enterprisewide.
Create a full-time GIS leadership position with a GIO who has adequate staff to build and enhance the enterprise GIS.
Identify project leaders who have the necessary management and organizational skills to accomplish specific tasks, and motivate people on an interagency basis to overcome the resistance to change.
Develop communication channels to identify and prioritize GIS application development and spread word of their success.
Set reasonable goals that produce deliverables over short time frames, so quick results can be readily seen, used and appreciated.
Governments have reported success when new business processes are in place prior to implementing new GIS solutions. Ensure each party involved signs off on re-engineered business processes so the new technology gets used and isn't put aside in favor of the way things have always been done.
Implement strong project management processes to control project execution. Manage change, meet quality control guidelines, and avoid cost overruns and staff burnout.
Implementing a far-reaching enterprise GIS strategy is no different than other large-scale application implementations. The pitfalls are the same, but in this case, the rewards far outweigh the risks. With the federal deficit and many competing international priorities vying for the federal government's attention, states face the prospect of increasing self-reliance and ever-tightening budgets.
The pieces of the GIS puzzle are in place: data, technology and experience, with many state agencies and departments already deploying GIS at some level. Taking this technology to the next level - a level where it can have even more of an impact on the challenges people face every day - is within the grasp of the visionary, forward-thinking CIO.
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