GIS’s Evolving Promise for Local Government

The experiences of one Virginia county demonstrate how the technology can improve decision-making and help guide smart growth.
by | August 12, 2016

Lawrence Stipek

GIS director for Loudoun County, Va.

When Washington Dulles International Airport opened in 1962 in Loudoun County, Va., the county was mostly rural. It was only after local industry expanded to accommodate the needs of this major global travel hub that Loudoun started becoming the dynamic community it is today.

GIS has proven to be a comprehensive tool for managing the county's growth. What started in 1986 to automate and house the county's various maps has evolved into a system that maintains and stores a vast array of up-to-date spatial data that is readily accessible to the public and is integrated with the county's other information systems. Over these past 30 years, we have learned a few best practices in evolving to what we think is a model for smart communities everywhere.

More than serving just a limited capacity, GIS has been the linchpin for multiple applications in Loudoun. By 1986, wide-scale access to geospatial data -- not just photogrammetric basemaps -- was needed. With population growth bringing in new land development, it was crucial to be able to quickly assess factors such as soil, watersheds and floodplains. Shortly after digitizing and automating our mapping system, our GIS model saved Loudoun approximately $700,000 in the site selection of a new landfill, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study. We used GIS to analyze the landfill's proximity to population centers and protect water resources.

Beyond waste-management issues, readily available geospatial data improve decision-making at all levels. GIS data has been accessible to the public via WebLogis, the county's online mapping system, for the past decade. This has been a critical tool for developers who rely on geographic data when applying for building permits in what is one of the nation's fastest-growing counties. Our workflow allows addresses to be assigned and the data to be available online within 24 hours.

Loudoun's GIS technology will continue to empower local government in planning, transportation, public safety and local business growth. This month, a new GIS-enabled computer-aided dispatch system will be installed, providing emergency-response dispatchers with a more robust, real-time system for mapping vehicles and callers, thus cutting response time and mitigating field delays. The county also has recently created an online app that enables the region's farmers to locate the best land to grow hops, supporting our burgeoning beer-brewing industry.

Loudoun County also serves as an example of how smart communities can be a boon to their neighbors. Today, GIS is taught in every county high school. The annual Loudoun GIS Forum provides a low-cost venue for towns, government departments and new users to network and learn new GIS skills, as well as providing scholarships to local high-school students who excel in STEM fields. This year, students from Loudoun County's Dominion High School placed second and third in the Esri International User Conference Map Gallery.

Moving forward, the county is taking the lead in giving citizens useful real-time data. Our app identifying all county-operated bus routes and stops, for example, will be enhanced to track location using the GPS signal from each vehicle.

As apps like that demonstrate, GIS is a technology that has a limitless future for local governments. What will its next 30 years provide for smart communities and the people they serve? Stay tuned.

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