How GIS can make you a better citizen

The payback for public-sourced mobile geographic information

The rise of location-aware smart phones has made it oh-so convenient to find almost anything — a movie theater, restaurant or gas station — all with turn-by-turn directions leading us to our destination.

Now government agencies and volunteer groups are beginning to port the power of full-fledged GIS — geographical information systems — to cell phones, turning these ultra-portable devices into two-way mobile sensors that can receive and deliver critical information during crises.

For example, in Corpus Christi, Texas, people are tapping a commercial online service that allows them to use their smart phones to geographically pinpoint, document and report potholes and other civic problems directly to 911 and other city’s service offices.

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At least from a consumer’s point of view, maps and mobile phones are natural partners, especially now that cell phones have the processing power and bandwidth necessary to make over-the-air delivery of maps to such devices.

“Over the past year, use of maps on these mobile devices — specifically smart phones — has increased 46 percent,” said David Cardella of ESRI, a leading GIS software company. 

Cardella, ESRI’s lead product manager for mobile technology, said the phones are also capable of delivering professional-level GIS, which is why ESRI launched a smart-phone application and a software development kit (SDK) earlier this year. The app allows users to browse in ArcGIS Online map galleries, and it can be used to access and query data in your organization’s GIS services. 

What’s more, applications can support data collection in the field, a critical capability for many government uses.

“We’re seeing enterprises now taking these devices and implementing them within their organizations,” Cardella said. That’s because not only are smart phones ultraportable, they’re relatively cheap.  “They can break five or six devices and still pay less than a rugged laptop,” Cardella said. “These devices, to organizations, are almost becoming disposable."

Still, smart phones are not likely to completely replace bulkier devices for GIS, at least in the near future. Cardella said a dedicated portable GIS device can pin down data points to within 10 centimeters, while a cell phone could be off by as much as five meters.  “Enterprises that are going out and mapping their assets need that high-accuracy GPS,” Cardella said.  “But for organizations that already have their assets mapped and who just need to go out and update the status of them, cell phone accuracy is fine.”


Moreover, agencies don’t necessarily need to do their own application development to take advantage of new cell phone GIS capabilities. Firms such as CitySourced are appearing to help bridge the technologies.  

CitySourced, based in Los Angeles, offers a platform that allows cities to collect location-sensitive data from users. For example, reports of potholes or damaged signage might be routed to the public works department, while reports of vandalism can be directed to the police department.
“Our system leverages the camera and the GPS in the mobile phone,” said Kurt Daradics, CitySourced’s director of business development.  “You can snap a photo and select a report list — vandalism, broken street light, water main break, trash — and CitySourced takes the report and sends it where it needs to go.”

The cell phone application, built with ESRI’s SDK, is available for free download, although it is only fully functional when it is integrated with the customer relationship management systems of subscribing cities.

Daradics said the advantage for users is easy reporting of problems without having to find the right place to file a report and waiting on hold. For cities, the biggest advantage is cost savings.  “If somebody walks in and does an over-the-counter service request, it’s about a $9 transaction,” Daradics said. “If they do a phone call, it’s about $5 a transaction. If it’s e-mail, it’s about $3. The premise that we’re working on is that our channel is pretty much self-serve and automated end-to-end so that we can get the transaction cost to less than $1.”

So far, the response of cities subscribing to the service has been positive.

“It is a method for citizens to report problems they may see in their daily lives. It gets things into our work processes very, very quickly,” said Michael Armstrong, CIO of Corpus Christi's city government.

“When they submit a service request to us we get three things: a picture, text, if they want to include that, and the geographic coordinates of where the problem is. That is very, very valuable to us. It comes in through our CRM system into our call center. The call center representatives move it into one of our three work-management systems.”

Corpus Christi launched the service in August 2010. “Right now, we’re getting over 50 calls a month,” Armstrong said. “And usage has been steadily upward since last August. We’re very happy with it.”

Just as important, users get feedback automatically when action is taken on their report, Armstrong said. The project is only the beginning, Armstrong said. He’d like to see similar systems developed to support crowdsourced damage assessment from hurricanes or other natural disasters.

Like Corpus Christi, the city of Redlands, Calif., has turned to CitySourced for pulling in user-submitted reports from the field.  Redlands 311 is a cell phone application that the public can use to submit reports on public infrastructure. 

In addition, the Redlands Police App allows people to submit reports on nonemergency situations — loud parties, vandalism, narcotics activity — directly to the police department. Philip Mielke, GIS supervisor at Redlands, said the applications “have taken off like wildfire.” In the two and half months that Redlands 311 has been in operation, it has received about 500 reports.

In addition to giving staff members a better sense of where the problems are, Mielke said the system ensures that the limited resources imposed by tight budgets are being used in the right places. 

“Already for the pothole layers, it's been a big part of our decision making process,” Mielke said.  He said the data from pothole reports is put through a layer analysis that includes population, proximity to schools and medical facilities, and other factors.  Planners can then more effectively prioritize repairs. Volunteer geographic information “helps us make the big decisions,” Mielke said.

Civic GIS boom

The civic GIS boom is not limited to user-sourced data; newer applications are being developed that enable city government workers to roam the public square to take geocoded data readings and file field reports.

For its part, Corpus Christi has set up a 147-square-mile meshed Wi-Fi network that is used by its mobile workforce for doing GIS updates from the field. 

“We use it for running our work management and asset management applications just as if they were in the office,” Armstrong said.  “We also have a project using BlackBerrys that will allow crew supervisors to obtain new orders or close out existing work orders from wherever they happen to be. Those applications are location-sensitive.”

“Mobile communication is going to be more important than desktop communication and probably more quickly than we think it will,” Armstrong said. “Being able to provide information in real time to folks in the field is a no-brainer.”

Redlands’ Mielke agrees. Redlands has been setting up similar applications for its police department, thanks to a recent grant from the National Institute of Justice that paid for iPhones for the department and funded development of a crime mapping application. Officers can use their iPhones to query crime maps and databases to get, Mielke says, “a really good contextual picture of where they are.” 

Officers can also use the phones to take geocoded and time-stamped photographs that may be used in evidence. 

Finally, officers can use a reverse-lookup feature. For example, that might be handy if officers are searching a residential area for a suspect and need to contact home owners. In such as case, they can call ahead, Mielke said, “as opposed to showing up in the backyard with a flashlight.”

“What I like about it specifically is to be able to get to the scale of what matters for the officers,” Mielke said. “Things like home addresses of arrestees, warrants, home addresses of sex and narcotics registrants. To make them all available on the map and it all geocoded so officers can go about their day little bit safer and hopefully a little bit more efficiently.”

Crisis management

Although city and state governments often seem to take the lead in establishing new technologies, when it comes to ultra-portable GIS and crowdsourcing of data, volunteer and international organizations are pushing the envelope. The most dramatic applications are in crisis management.

“We are working for connectivity between technology volunteers and official response systems,” said Heather Blanchard, co-founder and executive director of CrisisCommons, one of the highest profile groups providing volunteer geographic information (VGI) services to government agencies during disasters.

Formed in 2009, the nonprofit group met its first test when an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010. Since then, the group has helped coordinate responses to the Chile and Japan earthquakes and to floods in Thailand, Nashville and Pakistan. 

The CrisisCommons staff will receive information — some of it geocoded and some of it not — from its network of volunteers in areas of emergencies and map the data, providing information to people and to relief agencies and disaster managers.

“Our aim is to take unstructured information and be able to create a sense of what is happening,” Blanchard said. “A lot of it is trend analysis. During Haiti, existing communities, such as OpenStreetMap, were hugely invaluable. OpenStreetMap had an existing base of volunteers. They had imagery that was available to them. We were able to take that imagery, process it and put it back out to the public.” Blanchard said United Nations staff members in Haiti relied heavily on that data to coordinate their efforts.

Jen Ziemke, co-founder of the nonprofit Crisis Mappers and a professor of international relations at John Carroll University, said the problems in Haiti were especially difficult because the technologies were so new. “Nothing like this in been done before,” she says. “We were trying to train people on the fly.”

The maps there were not very good, Ziemke said.  “The Google maps were blank in certain areas,” she says. “It looked almost as if no one lived there.” Gradually, with the help of Crisis Mappers’ network of volunteers, the blanks were filled in using open-source programs, including OpenStreetMap.

“People swarmed, realizing that we had to have better situational awareness about what was actually happening in Port-au-Prince and Haiti,” Ziemke said. “OpenStreetMaps very quickly became the best single source for roads in alleys and all kinds of different things in Port-au-Prince.”

Ziemke said their efforts have been well received by government agencies.  “There's quite a bit of buzz, it seems to me,” she said, noting that when the crisis in Libya began recently, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs asked for their assistance. The result is a Libya crisis map that's available in a public and a private version. The latter “is accessible to the U.N. staff on the ground and it is really the best source of information that they have about Libya,” Ziemke said. The public version of the map is redacted and is updated with a 24-hour delay.

Future caveats

Blanchard is aware that some government agencies may be skeptical about the quality of volunteered data, even if it is from networks of users who receive training from nongovernment organizations. Unfortunately, “during the first day of a crisis, that's the only information you have. If you're going to wait for information, it is too late,” she said. 

Blanchard said in situations where governments are leery of volunteered data, they should at least be taking advantage of new technologies to expand their own networks of data collectors. “If local governments really want valid information, they could be sourcing their own crowds. Every government gives a lot of its employees cell phones,” she noted. “They don't actually use those phones as sensors. [But] there could be a whole layer of affiliated responders who could be providing a valid layer of information.  We really want to see that.”

Although he is encouraged by developments in VGI, Michael Goodchild, professor of geography at the University of California at Santa Barbara, warns about future problems that will need to be overcome.

First, most domestic VGI efforts use underlying government-collected geographic data, he said. Although most government-collected geographic data is placed in the public domain, since the 2001 terrorist attacks, much of the best data is being held “behind the national security firewall.” 

“Over the past 10 years, there has been a real shift from domestic mapping in the hands of the U.S. Geological Survey outside the national security firewall to domestic mapping in the hands of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency,” Goodchild said. “That has really changed the landscape dramatically.”

Another unresolved problem is how to maintain public geographic databases after the initial data collection and between any major crises. “The interest of volunteers tends to fall off,” Goodchild said. “So there's an interesting question as to who updates. You can see this with OpenStreetMaps, for example. It has always been a problem of cartography.”

Finally, Goodchild warns that as public geographic efforts gain in profile, they can become targets.  “After a while the thing becomes permanent enough that it attracts malicious misuse,” he said. “We've seen that with Wikimapia. Some people play games with it.” 


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