Why Use GIS?

GISWhy Use GIS?

By Ian Isaacs, Esri regional manager

When floods in Colorado caused massive damage throughout the state in September 2013, geographic information systems (GIS) and web maps integrated current data, providing a comprehensive view of the constantly evolving situation to government officials and the public. 

An interactive public information map posted by Esri, a GIS software company, showed observed flooding, flood warnings, and precipitation and collected citizens’ observations that had been shared on Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube. Other government agencies generated interactive web maps that shared information on flooded areas, closed roads, and shelters for evacuees. The City of Longmont created a story map that documented the flooding of the St. Vrain River and Left Hand Creek.

These maps are examples of how GIS has gone from a technology that is nice to have to one that is essential, especially for small- to medium-size jurisdictions dealing with increasing demands and depleted resources. 

Established but Evolving
What is GIS? It is an information system for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying geographically referenced data. 

With GIS, data can be viewed, understood, interrogated, interpreted, and visualized on a map in ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and trends that would not be apparent otherwise. GIS technology can be integrated into any enterprise information system framework and works with common business tools such as Microsoft Excel and IBM Cognos.

GIS is nothing new to many jurisdictions. Beginning in the 1990s, it was implemented in departments such as planning and health. Initially, it often was acquired for a specific project; later, the use of GIS expanded to improve many processes in a department. The benefits of GIS — cost savings and increased efficiency, better decision-making, improved communication, and better record keeping — encouraged the spread of its use across organizations. Public works, planning, land records, facilities management, utilities, transportation, water, wastewater, health and human services, elections, environmental management, economic development, and public safety are just a few of the disciplines in municipal government that use GIS. 

Since its initial adoption, GIS technology has evolved from a desktop application to a web-centric platform. While supporting the work of GIS professionals on desktop machines, the web platform makes the benefits of this work available throughout the organization through maps and apps that are stored and accessed from a cloud-based system. This web-centric approach also makes the most current imagery, traffic, and weather data available for use with a jurisdiction’s local data. 

Doing More with Less
Even as municipal governments recover from the recent recession, they must deal with tighter budgets and fewer staff members. The need to deliver services in an efficient and cost-effective manner is greater than ever. 

Residents expect services from their municipal government, whether a small town or a big city. Small to medium-sized municipalities provide these services with far fewer resources than their bigger counterparts. Many jurisdictions are turning to technology, specifically GIS, to better deliver services to citizens. Governments have expanded the used of GIS to improve not just the way a government works, but the way it works for citizens. 

For decades, the entire water system for Princeton, Ill., was documented in a small, carefully guarded sketchbook known as “the Bible.” To respond to emergencies as well as perform routine maintenance, city staff needed access to that information. They also needed a current inventory of the water system infrastructure to support field workers. 

However, the city, with a population of just under 8,000, did not have extensive staffing to meet these goals. With the help of a consultant, the original pages were scanned and that information was incorporated into a GIS. The 4,600 photographs documenting the system’s components were added and geocoded, and this information moved to a cloud-based GIS. Now the information contained in the original documents not only has been backed up and updated with the current inventory, but is accessible directly by crews in the field responding to system issues. 

Seeing the Big Picture
Interactive web maps provide information in context. They also make the results of GIS analysis available to policy makers without requiring that they become proficient with GIS technology. 

Operation dashboards fed by GIS that are automatically updated use maps and charts to monitor, track, and report events. Incorporating live feeds allows the most current data to be visualized and comprehended by knowledge workers and executives. 

Government That Works for Citizens
People are now more connected to each other through the web and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. They have come to expect that they can use those same tools to connect to businesses and, increasingly, government. This has been part of a change in the relationship between government and the governed in recent years. Increasingly, citizens lack both the time and inclination to travel to government — they want and expect government to be available and responsive to them. 

GIS has helped governments meet these new demands. A Florida city of just 16,000 residents incorporates GIS in a portal that makes its permitting process convenient and transparent to citizens. When the City of Marco issues a new building permit, citizens receive a tweet with information on the permit, with a link to a copy of the permit, and a map of the permit location, as well as other information in the Citizen Access Portal. A real-time database, the portal keeps track of permit and inspection data, relating proposed activity to the existing built environment and landscape. 

Web maps are also an effective tool for communicating government operations and programs. For example, mapping capital improvement projects lets citizens know where, when, and how money is being spent on these projects. Direct access to this information promotes transparency and accountability, which in turn builds confidence in government. 

In effect, GIS also has added many more eyes to government oversight by enlisting the help of citizens. With smartphone-based, map-centric apps, municipal governments can tap into the power of crowdsourcing by enabling citizens to report problems such as potholes, graffiti, and other concerns. The GPS capabilities in smartphones furnish location information to the app. Citizens fill out the app’s simple form describing the problem and can upload photos of it. Once reported, an incident can be monitored, letting the responding citizen and others track the resolution of that problem. This encourages government responsiveness and demonstrates accountability.

More Than Just Mapping
With the migration of GIS to the web, governments can use GIS-generated maps, apps, and data to improve business processes and inform decision-making. This helps keep communities both safe and sustainable. The advantages of using a geographic framework are not limited to large cities and counties — they are equally available to smaller municipal governments. Web-centric GIS helps small to medium-sized municipal governments be responsive, transparent, and accountable. It encourages citizens to stay informed and engaged with their government.

This article first appeared in the February 2014 issue of Colorado Municipalities. This and other back issues can be viewed online by members who are logged into the site.