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Washington GIS Office Powers Location-Based Projects in Smaller Agencies

Housed in the Office of the Chief Information Officer, centrally-located geospatial expertise is fueling GIS projects across Washington state.

Washington state’s geospatial office has racked up a couple of impressive wins in recent weeks, demonstrating how a collaborative, interagency approach to GIS can yield big dividends across government.

The state’s efforts reflect, in small scale, a larger evolution playing out across the nation, as state agencies look to implement new and creative uses of geospatial data.

“There are a lot of small agencies that don’t always have as much GIS technology or an adequate staff to support those services within their own agencies. This office can help them to utilize valuable data and tools,” said Joanne Markert, who 11 months ago took the job as Washington State GIS Coordinator in the Office of the Chief Information Officer.

Markert’s office helped drive two recent projects, one related to traffic safety and another in support of the state’s Board of Accountancy. The diverse nature of these projects highlights the expanding breadth of GIS-driven services across smaller state agencies.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC) is leveraging GIS in support of its biannual statewide survey to estimate the percentage of drivers wearing seat belts.

The survey calls for the agency to place spotters roadside to tally seat belt usage, with detailed regulations spelling out where the counters may be placed. “They needed to have a random sampling within certain geographic parameters, and we used GIS to identify those segments. We added information from DoT about daily vehicle miles traveled, and that helped us calculate which segments were eligible for the evaluation,” Markert said.

“That is something that is very geographically based in terms of both the problem and the solution,” she said. As a smaller agency, WTSC didn’t have the geospatial resources to do the needed mapping, but Markert’s office was able to fill the gap.

It’s a role the GIS team has taken on for other small agencies, including, for example, the Board of Accountancy. In that case, agency officials wanted to ramp up the usefulness of their website by linking their statewide database of certified public accountants (CPAs) to a searchable map.

“We helped them take those simple tabular searches and add a geographic context to them. Now you can look at a map and zoom in to ask: Is there a firm near me? Or if you want to set up an accounting firm, you can search the map and look for places where there may be gaps in coverage,” Markert said.

This is the kind of project where having a statewide GIS official can yield benefits. “It’s a pretty straightforward process but because they don’t have GIS in-house, it wasn’t something they could do. Those are the kinds of opportunities we look for: Small agencies where we can really leverage our GIS resources,” she said.

On a national level there are strong indications of a similar trend unfolding.

The National States Geographic Information Council, for instance, is advocating on behalf of a number of initiatives that would potentially benefit smaller agencies.

The council is looking at natural resource management as a prime example. Typically not the biggest or best-funded state agency, natural resources could benefit from the use of GIS for planning and permitting, wildlife management, water usage and other geographically-based initiatives.

In addition to bolstering the efforts of smaller agencies, state GIS officers also are looking to leverage geospatial resources across multiple agencies, to effectively get bigger bang for the state GIS buck.

One example comes from Georgia, where the GIS office recently announced it would make high-resolution (six-inch) aerial imagery available to all state government employees. Through a collaboration with Google, the Department of Community Affairs and the Governor’s Office, GIS officials are providing the imagery free in an initiative they say will enhance economic development, infrastructure management, transportation planning, public works, public safety, tax assessment and emergency management.

Such interagency efforts are at the core of the state GIS enterprise. In addition to delivering shared resources, Markert also works to ensure GIS data utilizes common standards, so that it can be readily shared across government. “When any one agency is developing data, we work to make sure there is a standard way of being able to portray that information,” she said.

Looking ahead

Today’s state-level GIS trends focus on interoperability and support for smaller agencies. Coming next: GIS for budgeting.

In Washington state, the Department of Ecology is using geospatial data to map where grant money is spent. “They want to see how they are spending money across the state and how it compares to population. They want to know if they are spending money in the highest priority watersheds, if they are actually fixing the problem,” Markert said.

Fish & Wildlife is pursuing a similar course, tapping GIS data to see where citizens utilize department services and possibly repositioning assets to better align with usage patterns.

“This is a relatively new idea in GIS, using geospatial data to evaluate how we are using our resources and to consider whether we could do things better or different,” Markert said. “When you think about GIS people don’t usually talk about money, but it can be a really useful tool in helping people to make those connections.”

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.
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