Jan 31 2022

GIS in State and Local Government: How Geographic Information Systems Aid Agencies

Vector and raster data can help government agencies make better decisions and inform citizens.

A recent report from the National States Geographic Information Council revealed that states are making progress on developing their geospatial data capabilities, even though the creation of a National Spatial Data Infrastructure to share geospatial data between states is still out of reach.

Nevertheless, the profile of geographic information systems has been elevated during the coronavirus pandemic, as agencies have used GIS technology to track virus cases, help administer and track vaccines, and offer citizens a wealth of data about their communities on matters beyond the virus.

Anthony Spicci, executive director of the GIS Certification Institute, tells StateScoop he has seen a growing number of agencies include GIS professional certification requirements for new hires and projects. “It’s good that it’s in the public consciousness now, the whole idea of how we can use geospatial data to move things forward and make things better,” he said.

GIS tools and technologies enable “better decisions at all levels of government, from people working in the field to the executives managing the government,” says Brent Jones, president of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), a nonprofit organization of professionals using GIS in government.

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What Is GIS?

The U.S. Geological Survey defines GIS as “a computer system that analyzes and displays geographically referenced information” and that “uses data that is attached to a unique location.”

Jones, who is also the global manager of cadastre and land records at GIS firm Esri, notes more broadly that GIS is a combination of hardware, software, data and analytical tools used to manage data and merge data sets together for better decision-making.

“There’s all kinds of different ways you can connect data, and what GIS does is it connects data with location,” he says. “So, if you know several data sets’ locations, you can overlay them and extract a lot of analysis from it.”

According to Jones, of all data has a spatial component, which GIS leverages. GIS enables agencies to approach problems from a geographic perspective, leveraging location and data internal and external to the system to make more informed and better decisions.

RELATED: How can state and local agencies enhance their use of data analytics?

Which Technologies Enable GIS for Government?

There are four key technology components that allow government agencies and other organizations to leverage GIS, Jones says.

The first is the enterprise geodatabase, which is basically a database built to manage location. It allows organizations to use location and do spatial analysis and other analysis easily, as opposed to using regular databases with some limited location coordinates, according to Jones.

Cloud technologies have also enabled the growth of GIS in several ways, Jones says. Cloud makes GIS data accessible to everyone. “There’s a living atlas of the world in the petabytes of data, and everyone who uses GIS has access to this data,” including global imagery, environmental data sets and so on.

Data stored in the cloud is another key component. Cloud tools also allow organizations to easily configure applications that leverage that data, Jones says.

“I could show you in a matter of minutes how to build an app with no code, pulling data sets and different things together,” he says. “And it’s very, very easy. The ability to do things like build an app is no longer a programming function. It’s just a capability of the geospatial infrastructure.”

The fourth key technology is application programming interfaces, which enable the configuration of maps and apps against that data infrastructure.

One of the aspects of the evolution of GIS, Jones says, is that this now operates as a configured platform that no longer uses custom code. This helps maintain security standards and saves time.

“You just can’t custom-build systems anymore because it takes too much time to rebuild and rebuild to keep current,” he says. So, you get on a platform with current technology and configure what you need and stay current,” he says, just as smartphone platforms deliver regular software updates.  

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GIS in Government: How Is It Used?

GIS was born in the 1960s, created by Roger Tomlinson, who built the first GIS for managing environmental and natural resource data for the Canadian government. GIS also developed as a result of work at the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics.

Early on, Jones says, it was called ArcInfo, because ARC was a way to depict graphics and info related to the database. “In the early days, it was a database connected to some graphics,” he says. “So, the early uses in government were for parcel mapping and assisting tax assessors as well.”

In the following decades, as computing power increased and graphical user interfaces grew more sophisticated, GIS evolved and matured into commercial products used by both industry and governments.

“It’s evolved into geospatial infrastructure for managing and sharing data,” Jones says. “By sharing with service, it allows the elimination of duplicated data, where you can share your data but still maintain control of it.”

GIS tools are very useful in government for visualizing and analyzing land parcels, which helps public works departments, planning agencies, emergency response teams and others in state and local government, according to Jones. “And then they share and build on this data asset,” he adds.

Brent Jones
There’s all kinds of different ways you can connect data, and what GIS does is it connects data with location,”

Brent Jones President, Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA)

Indeed, Esri has more than a dozen different disciplines for GIS within state and local government, including airports, economic development, elections, emergency call taking and dispatch, emergency management, environmental and natural resources, health and human services, housing and homelessness, land administration and land records, and urban and community planning.

Teams in these areas within government can use GIS to gather data, create digital maps and make more informed planning decisions about where and how to allocate resources based on those maps.

GIS also can be used in citizen-facing applications, Jones says, and as a public engagement tool as well. Agencies can provide maps based on crime data, the locations of resources for citizens, where fires are being spotted and other useful information. It also gives citizens more direct access to government data, mapped in a geospatial manner.

“It aids in transparency and government operations,” Jones says. “It increases efficiencies in the office. If you want to know your tax bill or your neighbor’s taxes compared with yours, you can just do that with the GIS web map. You don’t have to go into the office.”

DIVE DEEPER: How is California using a geospatial data portal?

Vector vs. Raster: What’s the Difference in GIS?

In the GIS world, there are two different kinds of data representations: rasters and vectors. A raster is made up of dots and vectors are lines, Jones says.

“Raster data is made up of pixels (also referred to as grid cells),” the website GIS Geography notes. “They are usually regularly spaced and square but they don’t have to be. Rasters often look pixelated because each pixel has its own value or class.”

Meanwhile, vectors can be three-dimensional or even four-dimensional and used to create structures.

Generally, organizations collect imagery in some kind of raster or lidar format, Jones says, and then use that to produce other data sets or to conduct operations against.

With vectors, Jones says, if an agency, for example, wanted to look at all of the buildings captured in a satellite image, it would need to use some form of GIS artificial intelligence to extract those buildings and then perform analyses against the vectors created from extracting those features.

Jones notes that GIS enables government leaders to see dashboard data at a glance to make quicker decisions. “It allows the easy collection of data, the integration of data, and then analytical tools for quick analysis and detailed analysis,” Jones says.

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