GIS Helps Citizens Co-Deliver Public Services

The ability of GIS to empower citizens to actively participate in the delivery of public services is growing.
by , | June 26, 2010 AT 3:00 AM

The New Haven Green was littered with trash. Using a Web application called SeeClickFix, citizens used their mobile cellphone cameras to photograph the problem and send their complaint to city hall. But instead of waiting for the public works department, citizens in the neighborhood became aware of each other's concerns through the community feature of the SeeClickFix site, and decided to clean the park up themselves.

The ability of geographic information systems (GIS) to empower citizens to actively participate in the delivery of public services is growing, especially in local governments, according to a recent IBM Center report by Dr. Sukumar Ganapati. (A helpful video version of the report is also available.)

GIS technology empowers citizens to participate in co-delivery, allowing individuals and small groups to take part in local problem solving, often acting more quickly and effectively than government alone. Not everything can be co-delivered, of course. Many government services take expertise, like building inspections, or authority, like arresting speeders. Still, there are many ways in which citizens can be involved if provided the tools. At the local level, the technology is being used for a variety of functions that are changing the citizen-government relationship.

Using GIS, government serves as a platform for providing and sharing information. Following are several examples of how governments are doing this.

Citizen-volunteered GIS. Web 2.0 services are allowing citizens to become directly engaged in co-producing services. For example, OpenStreetMap is a free map of the world that can be edited by anybody to collaboratively map details in communities for crimes, environmental monitoring, parking or even the use of stimulus monies!

Citizen Engagement via GIS. Of special interest to Professor Ganapati is the potential use of GIS in reaching out to citizens to increase their participation in planning and decision-making. He concludes that, while progress has been slow in this area, there is great potential for government and other groups to use GIS to increase citizen participation. For example, Portland, Ore., used Google Maps to elicit public participation in the planning of the region's High Capacity Transit System, allowing citizens to comment on, and make trade-offs between, different rail line scenarios.

Citizen-oriented transit information. As cities and transit agencies post their real-time data sets on the Web, it becomes possible to create Web applications that reach across jurisdictions and different agencies. Google Transit Trip Planner, for example, helps citizens in communities like Hamptons Roads, Va., better plan their trips on public transportation. This tool helps empower citizens to decide how they get where they want to go.

Citizen relationship management. Agencies have long used 311 systems to provide centralized non-emergency services, such as reporting potholes or accumulated trash. But some cities, like Charlotte, N.C., are integrating these onto online maps so they can be visualized. Boston has a GIS notification system that is integrated with their work-order management system. Non-governmental services, such as SeeClickFix are providing similar services, allowing citizens to report and rate the significance of problems found.

Even the federal government is beginning to see the power of this. For example, the Census Bureau is using GIS mapping of mail-in 2010 census forms to rate each community's participation rate. This has led to local door-to-door campaigns by neighbors to complete their census forms in order to boost response rates.

In addition, GIS applications are being developed by non-governmental software developers in response to the Obama administration's data transparency initiative, Data.Gov. The federal government is encouraging its agencies to post machine-readable data on the Web to allow others to download and re-use it. For example, federally-provided data from the FAA and the National Weather Service are combined to provide travelers real-time information on flights, via

Professor Ganapati observes that three trends are enabling this new approach by government. First, is the new emphasis on transparency of government data, making it available on the Internet in machine-readable form in standardized formats. Second, is the ease of using these data by ordinary citizens without highly specialized tools or training, using, for example, their cellphones. And third, is the increased willingness of government leaders to engage citizens in helping solve public problems, such as Portland's design of its mass transit system.

As technologies such as GIS becomes more ubiquitous in daily life, the ability of ordinary citizens and government employees to work together to contribute insights and solve problems will likely increase.