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GIS: An Established Technology Finds New Purpose

Examining the new ways that GIS – now a legacy technology – can make city services more interactive while making them more efficient.

Editor's note: The Digital Communities Special Report, which appears twice a year in Government Technology magazine, offers in-depth coverage for local government leaders and technology professionals. View all sections of the special report.

It was a mild winter for most parts of the country. But don’t tell that to residents in the Washington, D.C., region, which got clobbered by a 30-inch snowstorm in January. As government workers sent plows out into the streets, residents were able to do something rather unique: enter their address on the city’s website and find out when the snowplows would be nearby. The map also showed where the city received 311 requests for snow removal and gave users a chance to look at recent photos from road cameras showing driving conditions.

The secret sauce behind this application and others like it is location-based data, digital maps and software known as a geographic information system. GIS has been one of the longest running success stories in government technology. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, GIS was a godsend to city operations, helping plot development plans, track road and sewer repairs, and manage natural resources and other assets.

But with the rise of the Internet and now open data and mobile technology, GIS has been transformed from a technology to aid internal government operations into one that supports a new generation of customer services. Traditionally, only the biggest cities with the biggest IT budgets could afford GIS and have been the leaders in terms of new location-based services that use the wealth of geo-coded data in public-sector servers.

However, GIS has become cheaper and faster, opening up opportunities for smaller jurisdictions, while providing new options for cloud-based solutions that can be accessed by smartphones and tablets in real time. Open data has also helped expand the way the public can access and use geographic information. A key reason GIS has become so embedded in local government is that, by some estimates, nearly 80 percent of all city information is address-based, making the technology extremely useful. GIS has gone from being a niche system favored by a select few city departments to one that’s used by everyone, including management, said Richard Leadbeater, government industry solutions manager at Esri, a GIS software firm.

The result? A growing number of interactive public services have emerged in cities. Besides weather-based apps for snow-filled streets (Los Angeles has developed a map to help residents navigate the city during downpours from the most recent El Niño), there are maps for pinpointing where and when the worst outbreaks of smog are occurring, and apps that tell residents when their trash and recycling will be picked up based on address information.

Chicago recently launched a map that lets users search for certain data like food inspection reports, street closures and potholes. Users can narrow searches by ZIP code, or use a tool to select areas on a map they want information on.

Cities have always used GIS to plan development. But now, some have opened up their GIS assets so that the public can use location data to help new businesses get started or expand existing ones. One example is a mapping tool created by Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., that lets users search and browse available buildings for business needs. They can narrow choices based on square footage, zoning and building type. Users can also find businesses by name or address, and look at property exteriors via an embedded connection with Google Street View.

GIS is still a powerful tool for internal operations, but now it can incorporate some of the latest tech trends. For example, in Huntington Beach, Calif., the police department has started to monitor real-time social media activity using software for analyzing location data from social media. The police can monitor live social media activity, target key words like “gun” or “fight,” and then identify where trouble might start. The same technology can be used to monitor social media activity in specific locations. Other cities have developed similar ways to link location to social media activity to spot trends or issues it might have to deal with.

Cities have also turned to GIS to passively engage citizens in terms of improving services and infrastructure. Boston developed Street Bump, an app that residents can install on their smartphones. The app records vibrations as the user travels over city streets and sends geo-tagged information back to the city that would indicate the location of a pothole or other street surface issue.

For digital cities, collecting location information about everything from potholes to pollution hot spots or rat infestations has become standard operating procedure. And GIS makes that happen. At the same time, when location data is analyzed by asking the right questions, it provides public officials and policymakers with insights for better decision-making. The wealth of geo-data has really empowered cities, and when used strategically, it can help cities make better decisions while reducing costs.

If there’s a concern with GIS, it’s around privacy. Cities need to have proper policies in place if they want to leverage the power of location without violating citizens’ privacy. GIS also has a lingering reputation as a hard technology to use, according to Esri’s Leadbeater. But when done correctly — and city governments have had years of experience learning how to use GIS — it’s a powerful platform for improving how cities can work, both internally and externally.

Go back to the Digital Communities Special Report.