Pairing Up

Mississippi is moving ahead by marrying GIS data to a host of state and local social indicators.
December 2005
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

Days before Hurricane Katrina hit the coast of Mississippi, employees in that state's Department of Human Services were finishing up their training on a new electronic food stamp system. It can track food stamp fraud, and Mississippi had learned about it from neighboring Louisiana. Pairing information such as the location of grocery stores with data on the addresses of food stamp recipients, the program lets investigators detect if, for instance, an unusual number of people are driving a long distance past several food markets to go to one in particular. Such activities would raise a red flag.

After Katrina hit, the system was put to an unexpected use. The Federal Emergency Management Agency declared people in particular counties eligible for certain benefits. When residents from the right ZIP code but the wrong county applied, the system was able to weed them out. But the system also made it possible for Mississippi to find beneficiaries who were eligible but hadn't made claims--and to get them their benefits.

Being able to put location information together with details about food stamp clients helped the department sort people out. "The marriage of these technologies served us really well even though we hadn't planned to use it that way," says Bud Douglas, the department's chief information officer.

Douglas imagines pairing all sorts of other information with interactive maps. So does the Mississippi legislature. More than two years ago, the legislature created a council to look into ways of coordinating GIS statewide. Originally, Mississippi's Remote Sensing/Geographic Information System Coordinating Council was a reaction to overspending and duplication of GIS systems in the state. The legislature wanted it to stop and assigned the Department of Information Technology to develop and maintain a clearinghouse where GIS data could be stored and be available to all levels of government.

The council has city, county and state members on it. The three levels of government recently decided to pool their money to send up an airplane equipped to take aerial photographs that will be turned into data they all can use. Ortho photographs, which is what aerial photographs are called after the distortions due to the curvature of the earth are adjusted, are able to show buildings, bodies of water, sidewalks, manhole covers and other information important to government operations. Different levels of government want different pieces of that data to use for different purposes. But it's still more economical to do one flyover and get all the pictures at once.

In the past, each layer of government--and agencies within them-- built their own GIS databases. There were no standards. Information was scattered everywhere, and departments weren't keen on sharing. "There were counties, cities, state agencies going out for bid to get vendors to fly the same parcel of land," says Craig Orgeron, enterprise architect for Mississippi IT Services. The GIS council essentially has become a coordinating point, taking an inefficient GIS business and adding elements of good management to save taxpayers money.

Meanwhile, Mississippi should be able to make good use of its GIS foresight. The state is hoping to receive billions of federal dollars to repair Katrina's damage. A commission to rebuild the state's Gulf Coast will present a report January 1 on how to move forward. Douglas and others would like the commission to include GIS in the plans to rebuild. Maybe some good can come out of the catastrophe, Douglas says. "The stars are aligned."

Either way, he plans to fund expansions of GIS into divisions besides food stamps. He would like social workers, for instance, to be able to pull up a visual image of a school district so they can see whether a foster child would have to change schools if she were moved to a new foster home. He would like to know the exact locations of the elderly and those in wheelchairs so they can be evacuated quickly in a triage operation the next time a hurricane hits.

Meanwhile, the GIS council has a committee that is working on standardizing addresses for use on maps. That will help with 911 dispatching and rapid response to disasters. Douglas and others hope Mississippi will be a proving ground for location information technologies and will set an example for other states. The state gets tired of its back-of-the-pack reputation around the country. "As a sixth-generation Mississippian," he says, "I would like to see us take the lead in something other than Miss Americas.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |