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Government: GIS provides a road map

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GIS technology

ArcGIS provides geographic reference data from which geographic analysis and maps are generated. It is the tool that imports the data, performs the analyses and draws the maps, providing the geospatial visualization. “ArcGIS provides the geographic base data,” says Richard Leadbeater, global solutions manager at Esri. “Users can then augment the map with their own data, which can come from sensors, complex databases or even simple Excel spreadsheets.” Esri also provides some information from large databases such as the census and natural resources data.

A key benefit of GIS is its ability to integrate many types of data through a unifying map. For example, income, education and health statistics can be integrated into a single visualization that helps show potential causal relationships and patterns in data that would be difficult to present in non-spatial visualizations from a database.

As more uses for GIS developed, an extensive ecosystem of supporting technologies also emerged. For example, once a map was developed, many organizations wanted to publish the maps to their websites. Pro-West & Associates, a company that provides geospatial solutions and services, developed an application called LINKNXG, which allows organizations to display, query and print information from map data. “LINKNXG is an interactive application used by local government agencies for zoning, permitting, natural resources management, parcel mapping and other land records purposes,” says Annette Theroux, CEO of Pro-West. LINKNXG is being used in Cass County, N.D., to facilitate presentation of GIS data and integrated databases on its website.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has historically been a heavy user of GIS. “There are still over 3,000 Superfund sites in the United States,” says Rod Erickson, federal business developer for Pro-West. “After factories vacate an area, the EPA samples the area and decides what uses would be safe and what mitigation actions need to be taken.” The geospatial data and environmental impact information is represented through maps that reflect various assessments of the sites.

Customer service

In one area, industry overtook government and that was in the use of GIS to provide insights about customers. “Esri purchases aggregate data that shows purchasing habits to provide a ‘lifestyle’ profile,” Leadbeater explains. “Large retailers, for example, can look at datathat reflects where people live, income levels, where they go to restaurants, do they drive foreign cars and how they commute. They can then select the ideal location for a new store.”

Government is now starting to use GIS technology in an interactive way to foster greater citizen involvement and demonstrate transparency. One issue that has received a lot of attention lately is redistricting of legislative boundaries and voting precincts. After the last U.S. census, Utah used interactive maps in the redistricting process that follows each U.S. census. Utah has provided an online tool based on the Esri Redistricting solution that citizens can use to develop and present their own redistricting plans. They can create groups so they can collaborate before presenting a plan. Since the 2010 census, proposed maps for redistricting have been created for congressional, legislative and school board districts. 

About a thousand users registered to propose redistricting plans; 323 plans were submitted, of which 271 met the criteria for completeness. One plan for school redistricting developed by a citizen was adopted with only minor changes. The process was helpful to both government officials and citizens. It provided a two-way exchange of information, with legislators receiving constructive suggestions from their constituents, and the citizens becoming much more aware of the complex nature of redistricting.

As with any evolving field, the availability of well-trained professionals is something of a constraint. Users often have to learn GIS on the job and carry out those responsibilities in parallel with other tasks. “The profession has been working hard to create credentials,” says Erickson, “but the requirements are so unique for each application that it is difficult to create a comprehensive standard.” For example, the use of GIS for environmental applications involves different techniques and tools from those used in the legal profession. GIS courses are becoming more widely available in higher education, so a greater base of trained individuals may soon be a reality. 

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