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GIS: City IT Leaders Discuss Geospatial Data's Growing Role

City CIOs are showing what GIS can really do, where data management is headed and how to get there.

by / June 28, 2011
Tom McKeith

For decades, GIS has been an indispensable tool in many state and local government agencies, and now that it’s being more widely adopted, governments are finding new, unexpected uses. Even with reduced budgets, leaders are discovering that an investment in GIS is not just a means to reach short-term project goals and reap budgetary benefits, it also can be a stepping stone toward the future of public-sector technology infrastructure.

Emerging technologies like cloud computing and next-generation 911 will be most readily utilized by those who have thoroughly prepared their GIS. And other technologies teetering on the horizon, like real-time sensor data integration, will also require a well equipped GIS. A reservoir of GIS data will be crucial for governments that don’t want to be crushed by the incoming technology waves.

Perhaps what’s most important, experts say, is the need to educate officials on how they think of data. Foremost, GIS shouldn’t be thought of as a mapping tool. Rather, it’s the starting point for a data-sharing platform that can flatten government silos and bring information to life.

New Uses For an Old Tool

There has been a move over the last seven or eight years toward [data] centralization, said Jeff Vining, vice president of research at IT research company Gartner. What was once a cumbersome tool, used only occasionally by a handful of agencies, is now being used in a more sophisticated way and shared across most agencies, Vining said.

“It’s a recognition that GIS is an enterprisewide application. In my opinion, having a GIS data clearinghouse, that’s kind of the holy grail or objective,” he said.

Christian Carlson, director of state and local government for GIS vendor Esri, agreed that a well established GIS will ready cities for new technology, particularly cloud computing. Still, despite the widespread use, most cities have a long way to go, Carlson said. “For a lot of people, GIS is simply a technology that’s used to map their infrastructure. GIS is really about the analytical capability of the technology. Maps have become the context to manage the entire workflow,” Carlson said.

Developing a Service Model

GIS has helped flatten government silos, said Phillip Leclair, acting CIO of Pasadena, Calif. And it’s absolutely necessary for leaders to invest in GIS efforts to prepare for the future, he said. If Leclair and others are right, there will be a shift toward reinvestment in data warehousing — with GIS and other enterprisewide applications being used as service platforms.

For instance, rather than requesting a data set from someone in another department who may not want to part with the information the new model will be similar to Google Earth, where the information is waiting to be accessed by the person who needs it.

Leclair has dubbed GIS “the poor man’s data warehouse” because while GIS isn’t a replacement for a full-fledged enterprisewide data warehouse, it’s the logical solution for data storage while the services model is being developed.

“Departments are willing to put their information into GIS where they may feel uncomfortable handing over their data for another project,” Leclair said. Political obstacles vary by municipality, but proprietary data is sometimes a source of income that department heads may be unwilling to give up. This obstacle can reinforce existing silos, so governments must focus on the benefits of data sharing to overcome these issues, Leclair said.

Agencies like public safety and transportation have used GIS for a long time to store data, so the benefits may be more obvious to them. But it’s crucial, Leclair said, for all department heads to understand that placing their data in a centrally accessible location doesn’t weaken their own agency’s usefulness, but rather illuminates the value of the work it does and makes everyone’s job easier.

Pasadena uses GIS for projects like tracking trees, analyzing tobacco sales, mapping public art, enabling an emergency notification service, mapping crime statistics and analyzing parking meter efficiency. Sometimes data layers were entered with specific projects in mind, but once the data becomes available, it often finds new uses.

Centralization of data naturally leads to unexpected uses, Leclair said. “The promise is that we are offering new capabilities that we hadn’t thought of before,” he said.

New York has the same story, said Bill Johnson, assistant deputy director and CIO for the New York State Office of Cyber Security and Critical Infrastructure Coordination. New York’s data layers find a lot of unexpected uses, he said. “That’s part of what the game is with GIS. You’re bringing together information that in a database environment normally isn’t relatable,” Johnson said.

Unplanned Savings

New York currently is engaged in a broadband mapping program, and one of the requirements mandated by the federal government is to determine broadband availability at schools, hospitals and police stations. Because the state had already created GIS data layers for those institutions, it was easy to quickly get the information it needed and move on with the program, Johnson said.

There’s never enough money, especially recently, Johnson said. But that limitation isn’t necessarily a bad thing where GIS is concerned. “The silver lining for when the resources are tight is to see collaboration between agencies. These lean budget times force people to come together,” he said.

Once the data starts coming together, cost savings for a city can start popping up everywhere, said Dennis Vlasich, IT director of Fontana, Calif. “Every city has its own idea of what IT should be about. We spend more of our resources on GIS than the typical city,” Vlasich said. But the investment has paid off in a quantifiable way as GIS has helped Fontana generate hundreds of thousands of dollars across many projects, he said.

Fontana put cameras underground to monitor sewage connections, and with the help of GIS, discovered that many residences weren’t being billed for sewage service. “It was kind of gross, but that ended up adding more than $200,000 in yearly income,” Vlasich said. In addition to direct cost savings, the large amount of data gathered in the city’s GIS has made it easier to fill data requests from other departments.

“Part of my responsibility is to make sure the other departments see the value in GIS. It’s not just a map and pictures; it’s the data behind it,” Vlasich said. He recommended hiring a programmer who understands GIS and knows how to get the most out of it. In Fontana, that’s Joe Field, the GIS administrator.

GIS is a driving force of Fontana’s development and many of the city’s new programs, Field said. He insisted on hiring a technician whose sole job was to handle the massive amount of data needed to fuel the city’s GIS and keep it up to date. “Getting the data is not something you can go and buy off the shelf,” Field said. There are a lot of advantages to getting that large mass of data collected, but it’s not easy and it’s not cheap, he added.

A Federated GIS Approach

Collecting data for GIS is costly, but cost avoidance and cost savings are some of the ultimate benefits of consolidating data. Twyla McDermott, corporate strategic technology planning manager for Charlotte, N.C., said GIS has been of incalculable value to the city.

“There’s also an intangible benefit, and that is infusing spatial awareness in decision-making. Doing that early in the process provides an outcome far richer than if we make the map after the decision is made,” McDermott said.

“Our GIS efforts are now morphing into a more federated GIS approach,” McDermott said. The future of government infrastructure is serving up data as a service so that it’s available instantly and easily, she said. “A department will be able to go to a portal and very quickly mash up a GIS solution. I think our business units want to be autonomous. Business units are driven by their autonomy,” she said.

There’s nothing wrong with simply making the data available rather than using a service-based approach, McDermott said, but a service-based approach is better for the same reasons people would rather use Google than drive to library and smooth-talk the librarian into loaning out a rare book. “We’re trying to take the politics out of GIS,” McDermott said.

As Charlotte prepares to host next year’s Democratic National Convention, the city is looking for ways to use its GIS. Most recently Charlotte teamed with Esri to create Virtual Charlotte, a public-facing, Google Maps-style website that makes use of the city’s GIS to provide data to both field workers and citizens.

One reason Virtual Charlotte is great is because it creates standardization, said Charlotte CIO Jeff Stovall. People take services like Google Earth for granted, he said, but before Virtual Charlotte was available, field workers approached problems in different ways and with varying success. A service like Virtual Charlotte provides people with a lot of data in an intuitive, standardized interface.

“It has almost democratized the use of GIS data. People have a notion about GIS and what it can do that is not up to date,” Stovall said, adding that getting people to change the way they think of GIS is an important challenge.

Colin Wood is a writer based in Sacramento, Calif.

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Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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