May 2, 2006 By David Raths
The Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology's Civic Footprint project uses mapping software to help voters understand who their local, state and federal representatives are.
On the Web site civicfootprint.org, voters can plug in their address and a map displays their house with overlapping district boundaries for state representatives and senators, members of Congress, county boards and other offices.
"Some of this information is already available, either online or in paper form, but it's scattered and poorly utilized," said Ben Helphand, director of the project. "We decided to use our mapping capabilities to bring it all together."
Illinois has more units of government than any other state, Helphand added, and when you register to vote in Chicago, you get a voter information card with eight units of government, but it's just a list of a number of districts.
"With the map, you can see the different districts, how they overlap and if they're gerrymandered," he said.
Although the project is still in its first year, Helphand said the effort has received praise from government agencies and board of election officials. He noted that a few years ago, after his organization put legislative bill-tracking information online, the state eventually unveiled its own bill-tracking service, so government agencies may mimic the Civic Footprint as well.
The next phase of the project, he said, will add data sets such as politicians' voting information and campaign finance data personalized for the user. Another possibility is to capture expertise on civic engagement by creating a guide using wiki technology.
"Users can offer advice on topics such as how best to interact with your alderman or how to make community policing work for you," Helphand said.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, entrepreneurs often use mapping, GPS and the Internet to work on traffic congestion, parking and public transportation in conjunction with local transportation agencies.
A company called NextBus Inc. offers transit users updated schedules and real-time online maps. NextBus uses satellite technology to track vehicles on their routes. Each vehicle is fitted with a satellite tracking system, and modeling software takes into account the actual position of the buses, their intended stops and the typical traffic patterns. NextBus' constantly updated estimates are overlaid on route maps, and the predictions are posted on the Web and to wireless devices and PDAs.
Combining database and mapping technology, Acme Innovation Inc.'s SmartParking technology allows wireless and Internet users to view a map of real-time availability of parking spaces on private lots in San Francisco from their cars, homes or offices. They can then reserve parking spaces through its ParkingCarma phone reservation system or via the Internet.
Although local governments are important partners in providing data, it makes sense that they are not taking the lead in developing advanced mapping applications.
Professor Dennis Culhane, co-director of the Cartographic Modeling Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said that in many communities, the local GIS division in government is consumed with data standards and keeping the parcel map layers up to date.
"That is a huge job, and they are struggling to catch up with demand," Culhane said. "They often don't have the time or resources for the fun, creative stuff."
Culhane's lab has created a Neighborhood Information System (NIS), a Web-based property and social indicator information system that uses mapping software to support city agencies and community-based organizations throughout Philadelphia.
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