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GIS Powers Innovative Action Among State and Local Governments

For state and local government agencies across the U.S., GIS technology has the power to inform decision-making, impact funding and improve the constituent experience through various applications.

An aerial image of a road surrounded by trees with red dots marking some threes and yellow lines dividing the image into sections.
GIS is used in the mapping of dead trees in Utah woodlands as identified by the Utah Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands using technology.
In recent years, governments have found geographic information systems (GIS) can do more than once thought. Today, it is being used in a wide array of applications, from fighting food insecurity to mitigating extreme heat.


In Houston, Texas, GIS technology has played a significant role in disaster response. After Hurricane Harvey, the technology was an essential tool in obtaining the necessary funding to get Houstonians back into their homes, according to Arturo Tovar, GIS supervisor for the city’s Housing and Community Development Department (HCD). Tovar came to the city in November 2017, just months after Harvey’s August 2017 landfall.

When the city received $1.2 billion for recovery from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, one of the requirements was that an environmental report be completed for the entire city. To achieve this, the officials turned to GIS.

The process was completed in two phases or tiers, the first being citywide and the second being site-specific. The first tier was developed in less than a year, and Tovar credits the work of the HCD GIS team in ensuring the city received the funding necessary for recovery efforts. It also helped the city make decisions about which populations would be served first in response efforts.

“GIS was a key factor within the department and in the process to get Houstonians back to their homes,” he said, underlining its power to expedite the process and assist Houstonians in getting reimbursed for what they paid for damages.
Image shows map of Houston with varying shades of blue and red to represent 2017 Hurricane Harvey IA, NFIP and SBA data organized by zip code.
The image shows data related to Houstonians’ requests for financial assistance program to identify areas in which need is greatest.
Because of this work, Tovar said the city will be better prepared for the next disaster.

The Harvey response highlighted the value of GIS as a tool and integrated it into other processes. From better reporting of HCD’s work to expanding awareness of and access to affordable housing to other urban planning work, Tovar said, GIS work is in high demand for various applications — even among other city teams.


In the state of Kansas, GIS tech has played a similar role in helping the state obtain funding necessary to serve constituents, but in this case, the work relates to water management.

The Kansas Water Office (KWO) is a small state agency that was established in 1981 with its main role being to create and implement the Kansas Water Plan, a document with hundreds of pages of information.

The plan is funded by the State Water Plan Fund, but it is very complex and requires the KWO to advocate for funding for various projects. These relate to a wide range of initiatives, from addressing harmful algal blooms and invasive species to irrigation to flooding.

“Anything that touches water at a state level in Kansas, the State Water Plan Fund helps implement,” said Katie Goff, KWO GIS coordinator.

KWO created a hub using ArcGIS Insights to replace the spreadsheets it previously used to track spending and needs. This took the static PDFs, sheets and maps and made the information interactive and user-friendly.
The image shows a screenshot of the Kansas State Water Plan Fund hub, a platform that encompasses a wide range of information related to the fund through charts and graphs, including a breakdown of funding allocations by agency and program.
The Kansas State Water Plan Fund hub is a platform that encompasses a wide range of information related to the fund through charts and graphs, including a breakdown of funding allocations by agency and program.
And according to Goff, the tool helps the agency communicate its work and funding needs in front of the Legislature. With the information organized in one place, KWO was able to prove to the Legislature the existing need — resulting in an additional $35 million in funding for next year. And, after the additional funding is used, Goff said the tool will help show the impact of that additional funding and the projects it supported.

Although the hub is primarily used by state agencies whose work involves the State Water Plan Fund, such as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Environment, Goff has found that it has also proven impactful at the regional level, as it can be used to point to how specific programs or initiatives are impacting specific regions or counties. As counties invest money into the Fund, they want to see a return on their investment, which the GIS hub enables.

While other state agencies contribute data to this tool through KWO, Goff said the next step for the state will involve exploring ways to automate the process of gathering data from agency partners.


For some government entities, GIS tech enables greater environmental insights for planning that can help them better manage wildfires and related assets.

For the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), GIS tech has proven helpful in wildfire response, explained Aaron Ott, chief of the Office of Data Services and Technology within Caltrans. The applications of GIS in this space are primarily for vulnerability assessments and asset management.

Where much of this work was once done with a pen and notepad, GIS technology now pairs with UAS photogrammetry and lidar technology to acquire data about assets. For example, if pavement is damaged on a bridge, Caltrans can make data-driven decisions to prioritize response efforts or make the public aware of road closures.

This was helpful in response efforts following the Camp Fire. These technologies paired together painted a picture for the Caltrans team to both assess, and deploy, efforts to address damage along the agency’s corridors.
Image shows a GIS map displaying Camp Fire Section 35. The aerial map shows red dots along the road.
Image shows Camp Fire Section 35: an image of a GIS map that was used to report hazard tree removal to the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency on the Camp Fire.
Image courtesy of Caltrans.
And while he said the Camp Fire was a major catalyst for change in business operations and planning strategies, as of this season, Ott feels confident in the system that has been in place over the past several years.

Caltrans collaborates with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, and Ott said the department is currently working to develop improved methods of data sharing to make important data available to those who need it.

The Utah Department of Natural Resources, meanwhile, uses GIS tech for mitigation efforts within the department’s Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands (FFSL).

Gabriel Svobodny, senior GIS analyst with FFSL, explained that ArcGIS is used to understand the potential risk areas to the environment. Notably, the state applies AI technology to help with vegetation mapping. For wildfire prevention, this technology can help staff identify dead trees, as clusters of dead trees can be an indicator of increased wildfire risk.
Image displays aerial view of the mapping of dead trees in Utah woodlands as identified by the Utah Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands using technology. Certain trees are red. A slider halfway through the photo shows how these are marked red with tech.
Image displays mapping of dead trees in Utah woodlands as identified by the Utah Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands using technology.
This is not the only application for Utah. The state also uses GIS to identify and map the presence of invasive wetland plants, which can have negative environmental impacts on things like bird habitat. These things can be hard to track, but UAS technology paired with GIS and AI can simplify the process.

Svobodny explained that while there are pre-trained AI models available for specific applications, he trained the AI from scratch to identify invasive tamarisk vegetation based on the color it displays in images — he noted that the barrier to entry for AI is not as high as one might think.

After certain invasive species have been identified and mapped, the department can use that information to prioritize decisions related to response work on the ground.

And while he acknowledged that this kind of technology has been used for a long time, the use has been ramping up recently, a trend he expects to continue as it not only provides a more accurate picture of vegetation, but it also helps to save time for staff.

“I think, essentially, this is the future of vegetation mapping; you need some combination of remote sensing, artificial intelligence and ground survey,” he stated.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.