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Mapping Technology Expands Its Policy Reach

Once used only to manage infrastructure, GIS now deals with all kinds of data.

GIS map of a city
GIS has changed our lives. Geographic information systems can take pages and pages of unfathomable data and translate them into easily understood information: smart-looking maps that can keep both local officials and constituents up-to-date on, say, traffic congestion or power outages. 

So far, most states and localities that have invested in GIS have used the tools to manage infrastructure. But now, there’s a movement afoot to expand the applications. Chris Thomas, who heads up state and local government matters for Esri, a company dedicated to advancing the use of GIS, tells us that today it is moving beyond public works and into urban planning and social issues.

Consider the way Cincinnati is using its GIS technology. To help the fire department understand and optimize emergency vehicle response, an analyst from the city’s Office of Performance and Data Analytics (OPDA) examined fire and EMS calls-for-service data. The analysis factored in call categories, such as medical, fire and overdoses, and response times. The information detailed which fire stations have the highest call volume, which respond to the most calls outside of their assigned response areas and which fire stations rely most heavily on response units from other stations. 

OPDA used this analysis to create a GIS tool that lets the fire department examine trends for emergency calls for service. Based on this knowledge, the department can update the allocation of its resources -- engines and trucks -- and ultimately plan for the best places to relocate fire stations in the future.

In Michigan, Oakland County has put a great deal of creative effort into using GIS to manage its opioid crisis. Back in 2015, the county launched the Prescription Drug Abuse Partnership, and used GIS mapping to expand the program into a visual format that could connect the community to information and data. 

Currently, anyone in the county can access maps showing where opioid treatment centers and therapies are available in Oakland County. There is a population-based graphic showing the places where there are the greatest numbers of opioid-related deaths and one that shows the number of opioid prescriptions written per 10,000 residents by region. There is information about where unused medications can be disposed of so they are not available to unintended parties. “This is a comprehensive approach,” says Kathy Forzley, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. 

Forzley points out that it affords all parties involved in reducing opioid-related deaths easy access to data that would otherwise have been hard to penetrate. If, for example, county leaders discover a place with a high opioid death rate that has few resources for dealing with the problem, they could take action to change that.

Of course, Oakland, like other governments, faces challenges in getting new data from individual agencies quickly. “We don’t have a real-time feed, in many cases,” says Tammi Shepherd, manager of application services in Oakland County. She and county officials are working to fix that.

Perhaps the leading challenge to GIS use nationwide has been a lack of expertise and training. In universities across the country, many of the GIS courses are taught in schools of geography, an infrequently sought-out destination for college students. “We have to get information about GIS in front of our students,” says Anthony G. Robinson, director for online geospatial education at Penn State University. “They’re not coming in from high school with the idea that this is a work path.”

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