Unplanned Savings

New York currently is engaged in a broadband mapping program, and one of the requirements mandated by the federal government is to determine broadband availability at schools, hospitals and police stations. Because the state had already created GIS data layers for those institutions, it was easy to quickly get the information it needed and move on with the program, Johnson said.

There’s never enough money, especially recently, Johnson said. But that limitation isn’t necessarily a bad thing where GIS is concerned. “The silver lining for when the resources are tight is to see collaboration between agencies. These lean budget times force people to come together,” he said.

Once the data starts coming together, cost savings for a city can start popping up everywhere, said Dennis Vlasich, IT director of Fontana, Calif. “Every city has its own idea of what IT should be about. We spend more of our resources on GIS than the typical city,” Vlasich said. But the investment has paid off in a quantifiable way as GIS has helped Fontana generate hundreds of thousands of dollars across many projects, he said.

Fontana put cameras underground to monitor sewage connections, and with the help of GIS, discovered that many residences weren’t being billed for sewage service. “It was kind of gross, but that ended up adding more than $200,000 in yearly income,” Vlasich said. In addition to direct cost savings, the large amount of data gathered in the city’s GIS has made it easier to fill data requests from other departments.

“Part of my responsibility is to make sure the other departments see the value in GIS. It’s not just a map and pictures; it’s the data behind it,” Vlasich said. He recommended hiring a programmer who understands GIS and knows how to get the most out of it. In Fontana, that’s Joe Field, the GIS administrator.

GIS is a driving force of Fontana’s development and many of the city’s new programs, Field said. He insisted on hiring a technician whose sole job was to handle the massive amount of data needed to fuel the city’s GIS and keep it up to date. “Getting the data is not something you can go and buy off the shelf,” Field said. There are a lot of advantages to getting that large mass of data collected, but it’s not easy and it’s not cheap, he added.

A Federated GIS Approach

Collecting data for GIS is costly, but cost avoidance and cost savings are some of the ultimate benefits of consolidating data. Twyla McDermott, corporate strategic technology planning manager for Charlotte, N.C., said GIS has been of incalculable value to the city.

“There’s also an intangible benefit, and that is infusing spatial awareness in decision-making. Doing that early in the process provides an outcome far richer than if we make the map after the decision is made,” McDermott said.

“Our GIS efforts are now morphing into a more federated GIS approach,” McDermott said. The future of government infrastructure is serving up data as a service so that it’s available instantly and easily, she said. “A department will be able to go to a portal and very quickly mash up a GIS solution. I think our business units want to be autonomous. Business units are driven by their autonomy,” she said.

There’s nothing wrong with simply making the data available rather than using a service-based approach, McDermott said, but a service-based approach is better for the same reasons people would rather use Google than drive to library and smooth-talk the librarian into loaning out a rare book. “We’re trying to take the politics out of GIS,” McDermott said.

As Charlotte prepares to host next year’s Democratic National Convention, the city is looking for ways to use its GIS. Most recently Charlotte teamed with Esri to create Virtual Charlotte, a public-facing, Google Maps-style website that makes use of the city’s GIS to provide data to both field workers and citizens.

One reason Virtual Charlotte is great is because it creates standardization, said Charlotte CIO Jeff Stovall. People take services like Google Earth for granted, he said, but before Virtual Charlotte was available, field workers approached problems in different ways and with varying success. A service like Virtual Charlotte provides people with a lot of data in an intuitive, standardized interface.

“It has almost democratized the use of GIS data. People have a notion about GIS and what it can do that is not up to date,” Stovall said, adding that getting people to change the way they think of GIS is an important challenge.

Colin Wood is a writer based in Sacramento, Calif.

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.