Location, location, location: 3 keys to government service delivery

Location, location, location: 3 keys to government service delivery

Modern-day Chattanooga, Tenn., looks nothing like Victorian-era London. The former is lined with rocky ridges, buzzing with modern conveniences and kissed by the scent of fried chicken and fresh-baked MoonPies. The latter was dense and damp, crowded with rodents and horses, stained with soot and awash with the sticky smell of sewage. Despite their stark differences, however, new Chattanooga and old London have at least two things in common: public health crises and geographic information systems.

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“GIS is how it was determined that cholera spread through the sewage and drinking systems in London, and not the air,” said John Bilderback of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department in Hamilton County, Tenn., recalling the infamous 1854 cholera outbreak that killed 616 Londoners in less than three weeks. “They literally plotted the outbreak on a map as it was happening and were able to trace it all the way back to its source, then address the issue. In many ways, that was the foundation of public health, and GIS was responsible for it.”

One hundred and fifty years later, in 2004, Mayor Claude Ramsey declared that Hamilton County had its own public health emergency: obesity. In response, he established Step ONE (Optimize Nutrition and Exercise), a countywide initiative to promote physical fitness and healthy eating.

The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department repeatedly leveraged GIS to identify and address community needs in pursuit of Step ONE’s goals. In 2012, for example, it launched the Chattanooga Mobile Market, a mobile grocery store that brings healthy foods to local food deserts. And in 2014 it lobbied the Hamilton County Department of Education to adopt a “shared use” policy that opened elementary school playgrounds for community use outside of school hours and created opportunities for recreation and exercise in neighborhoods lacking public parks. In both instances, mapping populations and resources helped local government develop targeted solutions serving citizens in need.

“GIS is a visual tool that helps you see where your resources are and aren’t compared to where your people are,” said Bilderback, the health department’s Step ONE program manager. “It’s the job of our decision makers to triage needs in a way that provides a fair distribution of resources across the community, and GIS has helped us do that.”

GIS can help public agencies at all levels of government solve problems the way it has in Hamilton County -- and in London a century prior. First, however, government IT and GIS departments must understand the full range of possibilities and the strategies that can bring them to bear.

A fundamental shift

Although GIS has been in government for decades, advances in computing power and mobility have made an old technology new again.

“GIS has become an integral part of what government does because government by its very nature is focused on location," said Todd Sander, vice president of research and executive director of the Center for Digital Government. Government services are targeted to specific places, “and the ability to capture and integrate that has really taken off as a result of other technology changes.”

Sander also noted a fundamental shift in the nature of public-sector GIS.  It “initially was focused on things the government cared about, like outlying political boundaries, public facilities and infrastructure," he said. "Now it’s becoming tied much more directly to service delivery.”

Those communities increasingly are demanding location services, according to Mitch Bradley, vice president of sales programs at government software company Accela. “Thanks to apps like Uber, we as consumers have gotten used to being able to quickly see a map and interpret information from it,” he said. “The public is now expecting that capability from government, too.”

Internally and externally, the demand for GIS is clear. And so is the opportunity, according to Bert Granberg, director of Utah’s Automated Geographic Reference Center (AGRC), which manages GIS on behalf of the state. Not all government information can be mapped, he admitted. Where it can, however, geospatial information offers increased transparency, efficiency, accountability and productivity -- all of which create value for citizens and communities.

“GIS isn’t always the right tool for the job,” Granberg said, "but there are a lot of places where there is significant payoff if you make it the foundation for your business process."

About the Author

Matt Alderton is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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