For decades, GIS has been an indispensable tool in many state and local government agencies, and now that it’s being more widely adopted, governments are finding new, unexpected uses. Even with reduced budgets, leaders are discovering that an investment in GIS is not just a means to reach short-term project goals and reap budgetary benefits, it also can be a stepping stone toward the future of public-sector technology infrastructure.

Emerging technologies like cloud computing and next-generation 911 will be most readily utilized by those who have thoroughly prepared their GIS. And other technologies teetering on the horizon, like real-time sensor data integration, will also require a well equipped GIS. A reservoir of GIS data will be crucial for governments that don’t want to be crushed by the incoming technology waves.

Perhaps what’s most important, experts say, is the need to educate officials on how they think of data. Foremost, GIS shouldn’t be thought of as a mapping tool. Rather, it’s the starting point for a data-sharing platform that can flatten government silos and bring information to life.

New Uses For an Old Tool

There has been a move over the last seven or eight years toward [data] centralization, said Jeff Vining, vice president of research at IT research company Gartner. What was once a cumbersome tool, used only occasionally by a handful of agencies, is now being used in a more sophisticated way and shared across most agencies, Vining said.

“It’s a recognition that GIS is an enterprisewide application. In my opinion, having a GIS data clearinghouse, that’s kind of the holy grail or objective,” he said.

Christian Carlson, director of state and local government for GIS vendor Esri, agreed that a well established GIS will ready cities for new technology, particularly cloud computing. Still, despite the widespread use, most cities have a long way to go, Carlson said. “For a lot of people, GIS is simply a technology that’s used to map their infrastructure. GIS is really about the analytical capability of the technology. Maps have become the context to manage the entire workflow,” Carlson said.

Developing a Service Model

GIS has helped flatten government silos, said Phillip Leclair, acting CIO of Pasadena, Calif. And it’s absolutely necessary for leaders to invest in GIS efforts to prepare for the future, he said. If Leclair and others are right, there will be a shift toward reinvestment in data warehousing — with GIS and other enterprisewide applications being used as service platforms.

For instance, rather than requesting a data set from someone in another department who may not want to part with the information the new model will be similar to Google Earth, where the information is waiting to be accessed by the person who needs it.

Leclair has dubbed GIS “the poor man’s data warehouse” because while GIS isn’t a replacement for a full-fledged enterprisewide data warehouse, it’s the logical solution for data storage while the services model is being developed.

“Departments are willing to put their information into GIS where they may feel uncomfortable handing over their data for another project,” Leclair said. Political obstacles vary by municipality, but proprietary data is sometimes a source of income that department heads may be unwilling to give up. This obstacle can reinforce existing silos, so governments must focus on the benefits of data sharing to overcome these issues, Leclair said.

Agencies like public safety and transportation have used GIS for a long time to store data, so the benefits may be more obvious to them. But it’s crucial, Leclair said, for all department heads to understand that placing their data in a centrally accessible location doesn’t weaken their own agency’s usefulness, but rather illuminates the value of the work it does and makes everyone’s job easier.

Pasadena uses GIS for projects like tracking trees, analyzing tobacco sales, mapping public art, enabling an emergency notification service, mapping crime statistics and analyzing parking meter efficiency. Sometimes data layers were entered with specific projects in mind, but once the data becomes available, it often finds new uses.

Centralization of data naturally leads to unexpected uses, Leclair said. “The promise is that we are offering new capabilities that we hadn’t thought of before,” he said.

New York has the same story, said Bill Johnson, assistant deputy director and CIO for the New York State Office of Cyber Security and Critical Infrastructure Coordination. New York’s data layers find a lot of unexpected uses, he said. “That’s part of what the game is with GIS. You’re bringing together information that in a database environment normally isn’t relatable,” Johnson said.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com