Decision mapping: GIS steps up

Decision mapping: GIS steps up

When Daniel Nau discovered geographic information systems a decade ago, he was skeptical. Faced with personnel reductions and budget cuts, however -- and a town full of snowy streets that still needed plowing every winter -- he had no choice but to give it a chance.

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“To be honest, it was kind of forced on us,” said Nau, director of the Highway and Solid Waste Management Departments for Framingham, Mass. “We had to revamp our entire [snow removal] system, and we didn’t really know what to do. So we went to our GIS folks.”

Nau didn’t even know what GIS was, but the town’s resident expert helped him devise a system of “snow management zones” -- approximately 60 predefined plowing routes designed for maximum efficiency based on the town’s geography and available resources. Now he’s a believer. Combined with GPS tracking that shows where snowplows have already been, the system has cut employee overtime, reduced salt and fuel consumption and increased productivity.

“During last year’s extraordinary winter, we in the Boston area got seven feet of snow in 21 days,” Nau said. “If we didn’t have maps to make us more efficient and productive with the time we had to clear the roads, we probably would have lost roads and been unable to achieve our goals.”

And it's not just snow removal.  If a government service involves a time and place, GIS likely plays a part.

At the federal level, for example, the National Park Service uses GIS to manage the habitats of endangered plants and animals. Bighorn sheep like to graze on slopes between 27 and 85 degrees that are 3.2 kilometers from water in areas of open vegetation; park managers can use GIS to map all these variables to determine whether their park has enough suitable habitat.

In Utah, meanwhile, the Department of Natural Resources’ Watershed Restoration Initiative uses GIS to publicly map its projects for streamlined planning and partner coordination. The Department of Public Safety created “crash maps” that document motor vehicle collisions for use by law enforcement in traffic safety education and enforcement; and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, whose Urban Economic Development Map promotes the state as a business destination by mapping commercial infrastructure such as broadband, utilities and transportation. 

“There’s something special about a map and the ability to visualize and share information to inform decisions,” Bert Granberg, director of Utah’s Automated Geographic Reference Center, said. “Our approach is trying to use our resources the best we can to produce the most beneficial outcome from this technology.

Another state leveraging GIS in big ways is Maryland, whose MD iMAP website features more than 80 interactive maps and dashboards. Geographic Information Officer Barney Krucoff said his most prolific customers include the Department of Emergency Management, whose “OSPREY” system provides real-time situational awareness during storms and other emergencies by mapping events such as floods, road closures, shelters and power outages; and the Department of Transportation, which works with the Department of Budget and Management to produce a Capital Budget Map that shows where taxpayer money is being spent on items such as bridges, roads, schools and parks.

In Austin, Texas, even the city’s fire department and special events office use GIS, according to Austin GIS Manager Ross Clark. The former uses it to streamline hydrant maintenance, and the latter to more efficiently document and enforce permit violations during the city’s annual South by Southwest festivals.

“When people look at maps they understand problems better, and when they understand problems better they make better decisions about where to deploy their resources,” Clark said.

Mapping success

For Chris Thomas, the power of GIS lies not in a single application, but rather in a suite of capabilities that give governments a holistic view of the communities they serve. It’s the ability to see from the air instead of the ground.

“Take a city like Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.,” said Thomas, director of government markets for GIS software company Esri. “The city manager there pulls out his iPad every single morning and opens an executive dashboard to make decisions in real time based on [geospatial] information in areas like public safety, public works and law enforcement. He reads the local newspaper to see whether the city has been mentioned, then he turns to his iPad and begins looking at how to adjust.”

In smart communities like Rancho Cucamonga city managers routinely leverage data to make life better for the people who live and work in them.

It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t happen overnight, admitted Thomas, who said IT departments must take an integrated approach to GIS to exploit it fully. “You used to have a GIS strategy and an IT strategy,” he said. “They shouldn’t be separate anymore.”

About the Author

Matt Alderton is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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