Philadelphia takes GIS to the city limits

IT consolidation fuels project to bring GIS tools to a variety of services

Whether they help first responders answer emergency calls or health services officials allocate resources, geographic information system tools have proven their worth in giving government the information it needs to make better choices. The problem is that many agencies and departments still don’t have the GIS tools they need.

Philadelphia has launched a major effort to rectify that.

“We have now consolidated IT across the city. That will be official on July 1,” said James Querry, the city's director of enterprise GIS. “So we now have a single department of technology for the entire city and GIS is included in that.”

That means his team can look at GIS implementations — and the lack thereof — citywide and decide where to best use resources, Querry said. 

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Querry said there’s a lot of opportunity to spread GIS tools to departments that haven't taken advantage of them. “The have-nots — through either lack of coordination or resources, or a combination — have not really been embracing the technology as much as some of the other departments,” he said. “This gives us the ability to now bring them into the fold and give them the opportunity to also expand their involvement, their use of the technology.”

One of the first departments on the list is health care services. “We’re working with the Department of Human Services now,” he said. “For example, we’re talking about building an iPhone application that would help caseworkers go in and document evidence of child abuse and to be able to coordinate that data back to the central office.” 

Philadelphia has already embraced many GIS technologies. Emergency services uses GIS applications for routing, the police employ GIS for crime mapping and analysis, and the streets department employs a variety of tools for traffic light maintenance and pothole repair.

However, the recent moves are designed to extend the capabilities into less obvious but still important uses and increase the effects of all efforts through centralized coordination. 

Querry credited two recent actions as significantly helping the effort. First, the city has mandated that officials from each department meet regularly — at least once a month — with the GIS team to assess how their department could make better use of data and mapping. 

“It was through that process, which has been going on for over a year and a half now, that it was discovered by the new administration that some of the departments were very strong in GIS, some were kind of middle-of-the-road, and some were very weak,” Querry said. “Through that and the requirement that they all come up to a certain level, there has been more or less a mandate for them to develop a bit further.”

Another key step in the process was negotiating an enterprise license with the city’s primary GIS software provider, ESRI.  “Now we have unfettered access to all of their software,” Querry said. “This really helps those departments for whom acquisition of software is a problem.”

At the same time, Querry’s team is working to bring lagging departments up to speed with GIS, and he is eager to move into the cutting edge of the technology. 

“We have a pilot going on now where we have a fully textured exterior 3-D model of Center City Philadelphia — how it connects to the underground infrastructure for pedestrians and transit,” he said.

Querry also is eager to reach out to GIS managers in other large cities. “For some time now, we have been proposing to get together a group of large-city GIS managers that would be looking at things that we all have in common — challenges, opportunities and that kind of thing,” he said.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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