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GIS Keeps Local Governments Going
Budget crises and diminishing resources have become the unpleasant norm for many local governments as they continue to grapple with the economic downturn. Though many said good riddance to 2009, the worst may not be over for cities and counties around the United States. The National League of Cities recently reported that the situation for cities is likely to worsen through 2012.
As governments continue to face great challenges, including increased demands for services, many are finding that GIS technology provides ample ways to make the most of the money and resources they have.
In the field, mobile workers are using logistics tools to more effectively maintain infrastructure and provide timely service to citizens. In the office, fleet and mobile workforce managers use GIS technology to better manage fuel expenses and carbon emissions, as well as minimize overtime.
To bring new revenue into communities, economic development departments are using Web maps and demographic reports to give them the edge when competing for business. These same resources help existing businesses understand their customers and find opportunities for growth.
Understanding and visualizing geographic information are critical to most government operations. GIS shows relationships that are otherwise unnoticed, such as how mortgage fraud negatively impacts property assessments in an area, or mechanisms impacting business growth, such as how far people travel for a particular service. From the largest cities and counties to the smallest, GIS gives governments the tools they need to succeed. The following examples show various ways they are going about it.
Miami—A Hot Spot for Businesses to Boom
Warm days, tropical breezes, and Caribbean and Latin American influences make Miami, Florida, an inviting city. In this unique place, visitors, snowbirds, and a large number of foreign-born residents feel right at home.
To help businesses understand this diverse marketplace, the City of Miami's Division of Economic Initiatives teamed with Esri Business Partner MSF Global Solutions, LLC, to create Miami Sites (www.Miami-Sites.com). This online mapping application gives business leaders around the globe an easy-to-use GIS-based resource with valuable site, market, and demographic information. The effort supports the city's economic gardening initiatives, which aim to grow existing businesses, as well as attract new businesses. Since its launch in fall 2009, the site has become popular across the globe, with 50 percent of its visitors being from outside the United States.
"We have entrepreneurs that are very interested in conducting business in Miami and are very competitive—they want to understand the communities," says Lisa S. Mazique, senior advisor for economic development, City of Miami. "The portal we created is instrumental in providing the information they need."
Creating a customized Web site tailored specifically for the city was a top priority. To do that, MSF Global Solutions used its Site Intelligence tool, ArcGIS Server, and the Esri Business Analyst Online API to build the application and reporting capabilities.
"We wanted to deliver one place where entrepreneurs could find reliable intelligence," explains Mazique. "To make sure that we were adding features and attributes that were important to us, we wanted our own tool, not a cookie-cutter solution. And it had to wrap around a really solid data product."
On Miami Sites, visitors find a detailed map of the area, including up-to-date satellite imagery from ArcGIS Online. Through the dynamic map, they can search the city's database of available commercial properties according to many factors, such as property type, square footage, and price. Other layers of information include zoning, contamination sites, land use, and historic/conservation. The search results are mapped, and visitors can view details, compare locations, and create reports.
The GIS portal also gives stakeholders specific information about consumers in a given location, including income, housing, and market profiles. Detailed demographic and spending reports are accessible through the map or the Community Profile tab.
"It will give you a profile of the kind of individuals that live in a neighborhood and help you match your business to a particular market," Mazique says. "For a business to be successful, it needs to understand the backyard in which it's playing."
Los Angeles Dodges Unneeded Expenses with a Smart Routing Solution
In the predawn hours, crews from the Los Angeles, California, Bureau of Sanitation assemble in staging areas for assignment details prior to their daily deployment for the removal and disposal of recyclables and waste throughout the city's vast 450-square-mile service area with 1.5 million residential and commercial addresses.
In addition to its regularly scheduled pickups, the bureau's Solid Resources Collection Division (SRCD) collects bulky items, white goods (including refrigerators and washing machines), and dead animals. This service is scheduled by appointment for the 60 special-collection drivers who field more than 55,000 pickup requests each month.
Not so long ago, SRCD crews would meet with their supervisors each morning to map out the day's routes for special collections, but increasing service demands recently made it clear that the department needed a more efficient method for route planning.
After evaluating various systems, the department decided to implement a GIS that includes Esri's ArcLogistics for point-to-point routing; RouteSmart software from Esri Business Partner RouteSmart Technologies, Inc., for continuous routing applications; and ArcGIS Desktop and ArcGIS Server for mapping, analysis, and geodatabase management.
Now, when requests for bulk item collections and container service are received, the details are input into the central database and downloaded to PCs at the various dispatch centers. There, supervisors review the pickup requests and generate route maps before each shift. The maps and any last-minute instructions or route changes are then exported to the crews' personal digital assistants (PDAs), which they pick up in the dispatch office before beginning their daily assignments. Because ArcLogistics can automatically create and maintain routing folders in collection day order, it is a big time-saver for SRCD.
The city also uses GIS to create routes for replacing old trash containers. Using GIS to analyze workload and improve productivity of existing staff saves the city $400,000 per year in salaries.
Observes Sal Aguilar, GIS manager at SRCD, "With the automation and optimization of our routing procedures, we have realized a significant cost/time benefit as well as the capability to provide better service to our customers."
Using ArcGIS, Aguilar is also implementing the concept of operational route-based analyses (ORBA) on all (more than 2,500) continuous service routes and neighboring routes to fine-tune the trash pickup balance between them. "We look at the operational parameters of the routes and display them spatially to analyze the relationships between them and determine where improvements can be made," says Aguilar.
Vehicle routing is a dynamic process with parameters that are in constant flux. There is always the potential for unplanned roadway construction, temporary speed limit changes, accidents, congestion, and so on.
"I believe that GIS can play an integral role in any routing operation. The ability to take data that has formerly been looked at in a tabular format and can now be spatially referenced, analyzed, then automatically mapped provides a powerful management tool for operational awareness," concludes Aguilar.
For more information, contact Salvador Aguilar, Jr., environmental engineer associate, City of Los Angeles (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Asheville, North Carolina—Placing a Priority on Economic Development
The City of Asheville is the largest city in western North Carolina and serves as the regional hub for business and other community amenities. Like many cities across the country, Asheville is concerned about increasing investment and attracting new businesses, as well as retaining existing jobs and companies in the region. To do that, the city has created Priority Places, a Web-based GIS tool that promotes economic development by enabling citizens, business owners, investors, and government agencies to identify optimal locations for their activities (gis.ashevillenc.gov/mapasheville/priorityplaces).
Choosing the right location is an important decision that can ultimately determine the success or failure of any new business. To facilitate the long-term economic growth that thriving businesses can provide, several years ago Asheville began looking for an analytic approach to business siting that would leverage the city's wealth of economic development data. The ideal solution would be Web based and easy to use. Further, it would allow individual businesses to select and assign weights to decision factors that they consider important rather than simply adapt their projects to preselected sites. Most importantly, it would generate customized priority maps based on the criteria selected, highlighting those locations that best meet the business owners' requirements.
The city selected Esri Business Partner Avencia Incorporated of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to build the application, leveraging the company's DecisionTree software product, a set of Web-based high-performance geographic planning and prioritization tools that make complex site optimization calculations in less than one second. Leaders in the Office of Economic Development selected the business siting factors that they wanted in the application, including proximity to interstate exits, regional airports, existing utility infrastructure, and state incentive areas.
Priority Places was officially launched in 2008 and provides an interactive user interface that displays each decision factor as a slider bar. The city recently updated the application with the ArcGIS API for Flex, which incorporates a new user interface with the rich, interactive features.
On the site, users choose the importance of each decision factor by moving the appropriate slider bar from the neutral position (0) to a preference value ranging from -5 (avoid proximity) to 5 (prefer proximity). Decision factors can be selected and valued in any combination to provide truly customized site selections. The system then returns a heat map highlighting the areas that best match the specified criteria, and users can zoom in to view additional layers of data that can further enhance their decision-making powers. These layers include railways, flood hazard areas, zoning districts, and city-owned surplus and sale-pending properties. Additional features include geocoding, customized map color palettes, transparency controls, and the ability to create bookmarks of specific map views that can be quickly returned to at a later date.
Priority Places has also been integrated with Esri's Business Analyst Online API, enabling users to produce an array of reports on demographic and economic characteristics, retail expenditures, and housing for areas surrounding each selected location.
For businesses looking to establish themselves in Asheville, Priority Places provides access to information and analysis that might otherwise be out of reach.
For more information about Priority Places, contact Jason Mann, GIS and Application Services manager, City of Asheville (e-mail: JMann@ashevillenc.gov). For more information about DecisionTree, contact Tamara Manik-Perlman, DecisionTree project manager, Avencia (e-mail: email@example.com).
Boulder County, Colorado—Keeping Property Assessments on the Up-and-Up
County assessors strive to deliver independent, fair evaluations of property values. But in 2007, as the housing market began to crash and foreclosures rose, accomplishing that mission grew more difficult. Foreclosures can depress property values and potentially skew valuations. As Boulder County, Colorado, quickly discovered, foreclosures can also artificially inflate property assessments when they are a result of mortgage fraud.
The Boulder County Assessor's Office has become well acquainted with the tactics of mortgage fraud and the effects it has on communities. During its 2009 mass reappraisal, the GIS team and appraisers decided to take a closer look at areas with high numbers of foreclosures to ensure the accuracy of their reports. Initially, the statistics appeared sound, but after conducting GIS analysis, the team began to see a different story unfold, especially in the City of Longmont, a foreclosure hot spot with approximately 650 between July 2006 and June 2008.
The county's appraisers uncovered 15 suspicious sales in Longmont, 5 of which the Colorado Division of Real Estate deemed fraudulent. The big surprise came when subsequent GIS analysis showed that the high sales prices of these properties were improperly affecting the values of homes in communities miles away.
The 15 suspicious properties in Longmont had relatively high sales figures for the neighborhood, but the appraisers noticed something curious—these homes did not have the most desirable characteristics in the neighborhood. In some cases, they were on interior lots in golf course communities or were right next to a busy road. Though they had less desirable features, they sold for more than those with greater appeal.
The regression analysis from the business analytic firm SPSS, Inc., was exported into ArcGIS software and showed that, with the suspicious sales included, 40 percent of properties were falsely inflated for a total of $7.8 million, or falsely deflated for $5.5 million. The net difference was an increase of $2.3 million.
The range of influence of suspicious sales, when included in the mass appraisal process, extended well beyond the neighborhoods in which they occurred. "Realizing how far reaching the implications [would have been] if we had not caught the mortgage fraud was a huge wake-up call," says Danielle Simpson, residential real estate appraiser, Boulder County Assessor's Office. "Seeing that the impact could occur as far as six miles away from the property with fraudulent transactions was something we would not have guessed."
Though the statistics were technically compliant, appraisers were unable to see the full picture without visualizing the information. "Mapping the data with GIS changed the way we looked at our statistics," Simpson adds. "It was really interesting and educational to present data spatially instead of on spreadsheets and have appraisers understand in a whole new way how what happens in one place affects what happens in another."
For more information, contact Brooke Cholvin (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) or Danielle Simpson, residential real estate appraiser, Boulder County Assessor's Office (e-mail: email@example.com).
Cowlitz County, Washington—Sharing the Wealth of GIS, Enterprise Wide
Since GIS is valuable across disciplines, governments are finding creative ways to get the technology into the hands of staff members. Cowlitz County, Washington, for example, found that an enterprise license agreement (ELA) provided the best way to support GIS initiatives across the organization while still meeting budget constraints.
Located in the southwestern corner of Washington State and home to approximately 100,000 residents, the county wanted to advance its existing GIS to improve services and operations. After acquiring an Esri Small Government ELA in July 2008, data management soon moved to a centralized geodatabase, experts across disciplines began contributing authoritative data, and more employees were using GIS.
David Wallis, GISP, chief appraiser, Cowlitz County Assessor's Office, says, "We've moved away from having scattered shapefiles into a world where we have an enterprise geodatabase set up on a server, and we have GIS for the increasing number of users who want to create their own datasets. We have 100 users in the county now instead of 8."
Terry McLaughlin, the Cowlitz County assessor, manages the small GIS department—2 employees, down from 11 in previous years due to budget constraints. The Assessor's Office is responsible for maintaining a county basemap, which had been the primary GIS initiative for some time, though other departments used GIS for activities such as environmental review and permitting.
"Getting the enterprise license agreement has opened a lot of doors," notes McLaughlin. "Though our budget hasn't grown, we can now give more people access to GIS as well as extensions and server GIS."
The county's approach to acquiring and managing data is also changing. Historically, staff members sent data requests to the GIS department, which would then deliver data and maps. With the new model, experts in each department are beginning to use GIS to create their own datasets. "They are working with data more deeply than we ever could because of their expertise. We want that model to flourish," says Wallis.
For more information, contact David Wallis, chief appraiser, Cowlitz County Assessor's Office (e-mail: WallisD@co.cowlitz.wa.us.or). For more information about Esri's enterprise license agreement, visit www.esri.com/ela.
As governments continue to lead and innovate in the midst of the economic crisis, GIS continues to support their efforts with tools that enhance their efforts. To learn more about GIS for local government, visit www.esri.com/localgov.