Linking The Layers

The ability to share GIS data across agency and jurisdictional lines makes service delivery more efficient and effective.
by | December 2006

A Southern California physician was flying back to Loma Linda University Medical Center by helicopter when, on the road below, a six-year-old girl was hit by a car. With no way of knowing that the doctor overhead could have set down in just a few minutes, a 911 dispatcher called for a medical helicopter from Anaheim, 30 minutes away. It wasn't the first time emergency dispatchers there have made unfortunate decisions because they didn't have information about nearby resources and situations.

They have routed ambulances into traffic jams and toward accident scenes, unaware of conditions on the road. They have sent trauma victims to hospitals that were overflowing and couldn't admit any more patients. And a similar blindness about surrounding circumstances has bedeviled other first responders. During the dry season, command center personnel responsible for fighting fires lose precious hours trying to figure out where available personnel in various locations are in relation to the blazes.

Southern California is not unusual, nor are emergency personnel there necessarily doing a poor job. They simply lack what is known as "situational awareness." They have no way of knowing what is currently going on in agencies and facilities that could be of use to them. Similar missteps and delays occur in cities and states all over the country. But some jurisdictions now are knitting together disparate pieces of information by using geographic information systems based on the Web.

More mature and user-friendly GIS technology is easing the way. Whereas GIS used to be solely the province of techies, the newer versions have become easier for mere mortals to use. "It is getting it out of the domain of, you have to know some technical magic to do it," says Gary Powell, manager of GIS and Web development in Phoenix. "You don't need specialized knowledge."

While sharing data among emergency services departments is a top priority in many regions, governments also have found plenty of value in making much of its spatial data available to residents and private- sector businesses. In Phoenix, for example, developers can get detailed and highly usable GIS data on streets, sewers, utilities and more, from an enterprise GIS system. In Denver, the city used GIS data from several agencies to find new, secure voting centers for electronic voting this year.

Of course, geographic information has been developed in thousands of state and local agencies for decades, but it generally focused on narrow needs and was kept within the confines of the agencies. A hydrologist had the stream-capacity information. A transportation official had the traffic-management data. The disadvantages of this approach became apparent when flooding caused water to hit the roads.

It was difficult to merge information from both systems because there simply wasn't a good way of quickly sharing the specific spatial data each department keeps. That task is even harder to implement across levels of governments and jurisdictional borders. One way agencies historically have shared data is by request. They would ask for information and receive it on a CD. It's akin to collecting multiple DVDs from several movie rental outlets in order to sit down and see the whole picture.

In places such as Southern California and the state of Maryland, things are changing. Loma Linda's push toward situational awareness began in the medical community, which received federal funds to assist in its development. The system was piloted in the spring, and a beta version went live in October. The funding and technology aspects were not the biggest challenges. The top obstacle was the politics of getting state, local, public and private entities working in sync, lowering their territorial guard and sharing their information.

Most governments understand the value of adding a spatial component to even the most routine data. Geographic information is being used by agencies ranging from tax and assessors' offices to the workers who hang the holiday decorations on utility poles. "It's one of the most relied upon information sources for managers, employees and the public to help in daily decision making," says David Luhan, Denver's GIS manager. "It's tied into every major system." GIS is not just about creating maps. It's a way of organizing data and using it more effectively, as well as being better able to understand the context by viewing it holistically.

Maryland took a unique approach to introducing GIS capabilities to emergency personnel and first responders, knowing that fire and police generally are trained on the ground, not on technology. "It's the challenge of taking people who are used to responding to an incident with a gun or a hose or a hazmat team and letting them know that a bigger incident requires zooming out to a bigger incident picture," explains Matt Felton, director of the Center for GIS at Towson University, just north of Baltimore.

So the GIS Center took what it calls a "spiral development" approach with its Emergency Management Mapping Application, which it licenses to the state for its use. "We put something out there for them to touch and feel and play with," he says. First up was publicly available data such as traffic, weather and aerial photography. It was well received, he said, and fire and police personnel wanted more.

The center then added hospitals to the picture. Little hospital symbols are scattered around on the map and color-coded. If a hospital puts itself on red or yellow status, indicating it has no beds with monitoring equipment available or the emergency room is full, the color of the icon will change. The icons also indicate if the hospital has specialties in, say, heart or burn treatment.

The information is updated every minute. "We're bringing it all into a common operating picture where emergency responders can see traffic on top of hospitals on top of weather instantly," says Felton. "They can instantly see what's going on to make faster, more informed decisions. And, hopefully, better decisions." When Hurricane Isabel hit Maryland in 2003, for instance, responders were able to quickly identify nursing homes and prisons in flood-prone areas, giving those facilities the needed time to evacuate.

GIS is particularly helpful when a local incident--and all incidents start locally--grows into a national one. Local and federal agencies often use different lingo and have different communication systems. Instead of having to sort out the jargon and the radios as they work together, state, local and federal personnel can look on a computer map and easily determine, as Felton puts it, "good thing here, bad thing there."

They also can hone in on the information that is of particular interest to each of them. Hazmat teams don't care as much about the traffic problems that an overturned tanker truck causes as what water sources are nearby and which watersheds are downstream. The governor wants the overall regional information. EMT personnel want the traffic and hospital status. It's all available under that common operating picture with numerous different map layers, but separate agencies can choose what they need by turning map layers on and off.

Beyond the realm of emergency situations, spatial data also has been helpful to Denver city employees in their day-to-day tasks. Because elections went electronic this year, the city clerk and recorder of elections needed to find new voting sites with secure computer networks. The church basements and fire stations that had served as polling places for decades weren't going to do the trick. When searching for facilities within the city's 169 square miles, site scouts also had to determine whether there was sufficient parking and handicapped accessibility for voters. "How do you get your arms around this?" asks Luhan. "GIS is able to include all these parameters in decision making."

During the month of September alone, there were 3.6 million requests for GIS information by city employees, or about 837,000 per week. They were looking for maps, doing reports and querying information. Denver has an intergovernmental agreement with 14 cities and counties to share data. "A common operating picture irrelevant to jurisdictional boundaries is a good thing," Luhan says. Still, it remains a challenge to educate city managers and employees on GIS and make sure it's set up right and maintained. The Denver region relies on user groups, a steering committee and regular meetings to keep things running smoothly. Those that don't adopt a similar governance structure, Luhan believes, will be "in a world of hurt."

Residents of Denver also can tap into the region's GIS system and create their own maps or have the city help them do so. A businessman hoping to open a new restaurant can find out where other liquor licenses in the area are, where the day care centers are located and find all the other information that's important for choosing a site for a new establishment.

The same is true for developers who want to build a subdivision. They need to factor in geology, water, soils, access to streets, lighting requirements, utilities, zoning and more. GIS is able to make that a relatively simple process. The city encourages builders to submit sanitary, storm water and other plans, digitally. It drastically reduces the review time by getting the plans entered quickly into the GIS-enabled system.

Kansas City has also gone enterprise-wide with GIS. The city centralized GIS functions within the information technology department and now has 13 GIS staff people supporting the system, making it much easier to coordinate GIS with city services. A new online mapping feature allows residents to query addresses and intersections and pull up maps with a lot of city information on them. It might seem redundant when a site such as can also create maps. But, as GIS Manager Dawn Hilderbrand points out, Kansas City's maps do not just go point to point. They supply specific zoning, school district and council district information, with links to permitting and requests for services.

Finally, the ability to combine information on the fly is an important element of GIS. If there was a water-main break on Market Street in Philadelphia and the streets had to be closed between 11th and 13th, the system would draw a circle around the event and find the relevant information to respond effectively. "If your system can communicate with other systems through a geographic switchboard," says Philadelphia's GIS director, Jim Querry, "you can more easily go in and determine who's going to be affected."

Despite its obvious potential, problems with GIS persist. There continue to be challenges with the data and the people harboring it. Governments have to figure out how to manage systems and get departments and agencies on board. It's often difficult to get past the territorial attitudes agencies have about the data they've created, as Kansas City well knows. The city had to struggle with the human aspect of the systems when it went to enterprise GIS, particularly when some departments had to give up the software they had been using. "Obviously there are a lot of changes we're asking departments to make, from being in charge of their own stuff to going to a centralized system," Hilderbrand says. "When you ask people to change, there's always resistance."


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