Charting a New Course for GIS

City and county executives discuss the potential for GIS in local government.

by / August 1, 2001
At the annual conference of Public Technology Inc. (PTI) in Atlanta last spring, Government Technology Editor Wayne Hanson moderated a roundtable discussion of local government officials. A portion of the roundtable - concerning workforce issues - ran in the May issue of Visions. Here is a continuation of that roundtable, discussing GIS in local government.

  • Javier Gonzales, commissioner, Santa Fe County, N.M., and president-elect of the National Association of Counties (NACo)

  • James Ley, Sarasota County, Fla., administrator, and chair of the PTI Urban Consortium Steering Committee (UCSC)

  • Karen Anderson, mayor of Minnetonka, Minn., and first vice president of the National League of Cities (NLC)

  • Costis Toregas, president of Public Technology Inc.
  • Bruce Romer, chief administrative officer, Montgomery County, Md., and president of the International City/County Management Association

  • Gordon Anderson, assistant city manager, Santa Monica, Calif., and small communities representative to UCSC

  • Randy Johnson, commissioner, Hennepin County, Minn., former NACo president

  • Alan Beals, Alan Beals & Co., Savanna, Ga., former executive director of the NLC.

  • Wayne Hanson: What are some of the obstacles preventing wide adoption of GIS?

    Randy Johnson: Money is always an obstacle in local government. And elected officials' degree of comfort with technology, including GIS, is often directly related to how old they are. If you are over 50, you are probably not into it very much. And if you are under 30, you don't think twice about it. There are a lot of exceptions to that. But as elected officials start to be more in that technologically proficient age group, we will see them [become] much more comfortable with [technology].

    Interoperability is a big problem. The whole concept is collect it once and share it and [don't] collect it over and over again. We've had some success in our region with a Metro GIS Council, which works with our seven-county area with 200 jurisdictions. A lot of it is just agreeing on standards.

    Hanson: Is there any hope for an open-GIS movement where standards will merge so GIS will work everywhere, like HTML?

    Johnson: The Open GIS Consortium has made great progress. They set out certain standards. The GeoData Alliance, around Secretary [Bruce] Babbit's personal interest in GIS, may or may not be on the right course on how to collect this, but at least it's a start to try to do something and draw attention to it.

    Bruce Romer: There is a management challenge that we can't miss. We need to challenge ourselves as managers to understand what the internal capabilities of our organizations really are. We need to be sure that we have at least one PC in our own office that has the software that can take what's in the database and interpret it for the decision-making in which we're engaging. Sometimes it resides in the technological reaches of our organization and we shouldn't be letting that happen. If that's the case, management is failing to take advantage of a key resource that could be used for good decision-making and may be passed on to the elected officials for their policy guidance.

    Costis Toregas: GIS has for a long time labored as an end, and is now becoming more of a means to an end. The second problem is how we develop GIS systems. Most GIS developments are long-term efforts where you pay up front and you go away for a year and something happens a year later. That development cycle takes too long. If elected officials don't see immediate results, it leads to fragmentation and dissipation of energy in GIS development. There are some membership organizations with PTI that have attempted something very different - an evolutionary development, where you take a small part of a city or a county, develop a robust GIS application, start showing some of the benefits, and then continue to develop it geographically instead of trying to do it all at once. You see immediate results. If you do a GIS for a neighborhood on a demo basis, you can have results the next week. So you develop it in an evolutionary and a practical method rather than the "whole hog" method, which takes too long. Those problems - have been the two major disappointments that have stopped GIS from being the growth industry it can be in local governments.

    Johnson: The way we built our system was build it right, build it from the ground up, countywide, and put substantial amounts of money in it for a number of years. Several colleagues each year would try to find that extra $300,000 to $400,000 that I had tucked away in the budget, and pull it out for human services, rather than [spend it] on those techie nerds and their maps. It wasn't until we had one of our first demos that the commissioners - saw these were very nifty applications. And even though they had been working hard to find where I'd squirreled the money away, next election cycle, they were taking credit for their advanced work in software development.

    James Ley: I've been involved in GIS since 1981, but it took seven or eight years before we realized that it was an organizational problem, a management problem, not a technology problem. And we fairly successfully moved it along, by creating a management model. But still, it didn't work well enough, because it hadn't been integrated into an overall enterprise-wide strategic plan for technology. When I left Clark County [Nevada] and [moved] to Sarasota County we began to identify our key organizational initiatives. We created communities of interest in the users, and they drove the project, not the technologists. The technologists became the ambassadors for the project, the advocate for resources, the project manager for helping set priorities, more a facilitator overall, of the users. Once that happened, it fired up and began to take hold. But that was a 20-year lesson.

    Johnson: I was only half joking when I said that redistricting after the census would do more than anything to [get support for GIS from elected officials]. The fact that somebody else on your board might have that capability - "Why are they drawing the map that way around my house, and I can't do that?" - I think that's going to drive a lot of interest in GIS.

    Karen Anderson: GIS points out the disparity between large and small cities. Small cities, in most cases, don't have the capability to get a system like that. There's a need for partnerships among entities and adjoining cities' countywide areas. In Minnesota we have a good example in our northern metropolitan area. Seven cities along [Interstate 35 West] started working together on transportation issues and saw they needed to do a better job of cooperating rather than competing to bring in new commercial development and industry. They put together a joint GIS. Those seven cities range in size from 2,000 in Circle Pines to nearly 50,000 in Blaine. And they are sharing the GIS data; they're making good decisions based on it. And there's no way Circle Pines would have ever had their own GIS, they just couldn't do that with a city of 2,000. We need to point out examples like this and encourage more cities to do that.

    Gordon Anderson: A lot of people don't understand how sophisticated [GIS] is. We were talking about privacy issues. Santa Monica has been involved with GIS for years, and we just started adding aerial photos to our GIS. Some of our residents have gone online, and because of the clarity of the photos they've been able to zoom in and see who is in whose backyard. So now we have First Amendment issues that our City Attorney's Office is trying to filter through, simply because of how far you can take the GIS.

    Toregas: The citizens, the residents, the users of governmental information should be able to use GIS effectively on the Web. In San Carlos, [California], they can find out the impact of a development and visualize it in XY coordinates ending up in three-dimensional figures. The same thing is happening in San Diego. That's an intriguing development that wasn't there five years ago, we weren't thinking at all about how you use geography to present data to a public that may have no idea what they're looking for but know exactly where it is that they want to look. GIS by its very nature is integrative. It forces departments to talk to one another. Climb up the ladder a little and GIS can link city and county data with state and federal data. If the federal government spends money collecting data maybe they could spend it more wisely by giving it to a county to collect the data at far greater resolution and in a way that can integrate up for state and federal needs. So the whole intergovernmental system of crazy and disparate development can be brought to a more reasonable conclusion if we begin to look at GIS as the integration force. We have a group, called the Local Leaders in GIS [that is] pushing NLC, ICMA and NACo to develop a far wider appreciation of GIS. Javier [Gonzolez] mentioned NACo's interest in GIS issues, NLC is beginning to look at it, ICMA has developed a special task force on GIS. It's really beginning to work now.

    Romer: Any of us that have that capability [need] to make sure that we are challenging ourselves, that we are putting it out there, on our Web sites, on the Internet and on the intranet so that our own departments know what's out there. One of the best things we did was put it on the intranet with some instructions to departments, telling them "you need to start using it." It can be overlooked, and especially in smaller communities, it should be shared as early as possible.
    Wayne Hanson Senior Executive Editor, Center For Digital Government