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GIS helps government chart a forward course

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Government agencies are using geographic information system (GIS) solutions in combination with other applications to consolidate information and help reduce stovepiping. Those solutions have proven to be highly effective at visualizing information to make data-driven decisions. Awareness of GIS capabilities in general has been heightened by the proliferation of consumer-oriented mapping applications, such as Google Maps, which are often used in mashups to present real estate listings or other information that has a geographic component. The use of GIS technology in government ranges from natural resource management to homeland security.

The GIS program in Oregon has been nearly a decade in the making. From a clearinghouse of information accumulated for many small GIS projects, the program has grown into a coordinated enterprise effort that benefits government agencies throughout the state. One of the most recent initiatives is a system for tracking the stimulus funds (see KMWorld, July/August 2009). That effort was greatly facilitated by the existing GIS infrastructure, which includes databases for managing geospatial information, a user interface, analytical tools and one or more delivery platforms including desktop, laptop or mobile devices.

Part of the motivation for developing the GIS program was the recognition of the central role that geographic data plays in both public and private business activities. The Oregon GIS Web site notes that at least 80 percent of information collected and managed by government is geographic, containing information either about a location or about an event at a particular location. Nevertheless, to some degree, the broad approach to GIS went against the prevailing mindset of government tasking.

"The structure of government is based on silos," says Cy Smith, statewide GIS coordinator in Oregon. "Money is pushed down silos to do a task. We wanted to create a formalized structure to connect the silos for particular business processes."

One of the first steps in developing the program was to establish a data framework. "Many agencies require the same data, and we did not want to develop it over and over," continues Smith. "We defined 14 themes, such as roads, elevation and surface water, which each contain specified data sets." The themes represented the information most frequently required by government agencies.

In addition, stewards were sought to have primary responsibility for each data set. In some cases, there is a clear connection between the data and steward, such as road data provided by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). In others, a group’s responsibility is extended to serve the common good. For example, ODOT does not use addresses, relying instead on mileposts as its point of reference, but it was the most logical agency to maintain the addresses.

"The other participants are motivated to get the data to ODOT," Smith explains, "because it’s in their interest to have the information centrally available."

The state selected ESRI as its GIS platform. ESRI’s ArcGIS is a desktop GIS application that many state and local agencies use to maintain base mapping layers such as roads, addresses and water features, and business-specific map data layers such as surplus land, vacant facilities and pavement conditions. ArcGIS Server is the GIS application server that enables integration of data from numerous agencies and different systems, including enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. Many of Oregon’s major agencies use ArcGIS Server to host their own business-specific map data layers, which can then be shared with other agencies or public-facing applications.

The technology enables the fusion of business-specific layers into asingle reporting and analytics tier using just the underlying geospatial data to integrate the systems.

"Data layers can be drawn from any system and then brought into the map," says Rob McDougald, account manager at ESRI. "An enterprise-scope GIS deployment like Oregon’s growing system is a very effective way to provide information across many government agencies and to the public."

An enterprise approach to GIS technology, spatial data management and GIS-based Web analytics services provides greatly enhanced data integration and fewer layers of bureaucracy. For example, each of Oregon’s 36 counties maintains its own data for identifying land parcels. Standards were developed to enable the Department of Revenue to roll up counties’ data into a statewide parcel map. A team of just four individuals in the GIS office coordinates the data, which feeds directly into the public-facing Web site. Without that site, many government agencies, private citizens and businesses would have to make separate arrangements for use of the information.

Processes that might otherwise be difficult to complete are facilitated by the use of GIS. For example, land use permits may be evaluated at the city, county, state and federal levels. "Landowners who want to develop property need to apply for a permit and make sure the property is not within an area that has a high-value soil, forest or wetland," says Smith. "The map overlays contain quantitative information that provides these analyses at a glance."

Data contained in the GIS databases is used in environmental impact statements for road building and other development. "The Watershed Enhancement Board and the Department of Fish & Wildlife have an ongoing program to eliminate fish passage barriers, so they are removing culverts that interfere with migration of salmon and other fish," Smith says. "The state has a much easier time managing this project because the database contains the locations of over 30,000 culverts."

The GIS data also helps the state meet federal mandates for reporting how many road miles are maintained by city, county and state entities. "These figures are important because they determine federal funding of roads, and digital maps are much more accurate than the previous paper maps for such reporting," Smith explains.

Meanwhile, work continues on refining the stimulus tracking system. "Our next generation of the tracking tool will allow us to drill down to the project level and aggregate by county," Smith adds. "This ability will provide a more detailed and transparent picture of our stimulus funding."

Mapping and preventing crime

The Memphis Police Department (MPD) is using predictive analytics in conjunction with GIS technology to analyze crime patterns and deploy its resources more efficiently, thereby reducing crime rates. The Blue CRUSH (Crime Reduction Utilizing Statistical History) program, first begun as a pilot in 2005 and trademarked by the Memphis Police Department, identifies and graphically displays "hot spots" that indicate the location of crimes. By analyzing other associated data such as time of day and scheduled public events, Blue CRUSH is able to predict likely problem areas, which allows the MPD to proactively assign resources to mitigate risk. Blue CRUSH also provides crime data directly to residents, to keep them informed and improve public safety.

The MPD partnered with the University of Memphis to develop Blue CRUSH as a way to improve the quality of life for citizens impacted by street crime. The university was already using predictive analytics technology from SPSS (to be acquired by IBM) for other applications, so the police department opted to use it as the analytics tool in Blue CRUSH. Previously, the MPD had used CrimeView, an extension to Desktop ArcGIS developed by the Omega Group, but wanted the greater flexibility in reporting that was offered through SPSS Predictive Analytics software. The University of Memphis also developed street files and an address locator program for use with ArcGIS to provide more precise geographical information than was available through other GIS databases.

The goal of Blue CRUSH was to employ an integrated, sustained and efficient approach to reducing crime, according to Christopher Vaden, intel/analyst officer at the MPD. Fifty people in the department were trained to use Blue CRUSH, providing a solid base of individuals who can respond to inquiries.

"The patterns for property crimes such as burglary and theft from motor vehicles tend to follow certain days and hours throughout the seasons," Vaden says.

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