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Spring 2008
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Techie Teens Use GIS to Increase City Revenues
By Barbara Shields, Esri Marketing Writer

The city of Safford, Arizona, is putting its teenagers to work using geospatial technologies that support programs and earn the city revenue. Youth, who love all things techie, happily use GPS to capture a variety of location data—from utility pole placement to library patrons—and input it into the city's GIS. The information is used to create maps and reports for city managers and analysts, helping them with planning and even resolving asset disputes. Their civic efforts are increasing the city's coffers.

Safford's Summer Youth Program was designed to encourage high school students to explore various occupations such as government jobs and engineering. This past summer the program included 60 participants who performed a variety of tasks throughout the city. From this pool an elite group of six were chosen to work with the city's GIS department and perform selected geocoding tasks. Safford uses Esri's ArcGIS software for a variety of applications from utilities to public works. As a key component of the youth project, GIS was used to process digital data collected by the young people and generate valuable maps for analysis and planning by city employees.

The outcome has been a win-win situation. The youth had an opportunity to work with professionals, learn new skills, and get paid. The city had a low-cost workforce, gained accurate data with metadata attached, and was able to increase revenue dollars from joint use rents.

For example, there had been controversy between a telecommunication firm and the city about ownership of the poles the firm used for its service connections and boxes. The city charges rent for use of these poles, but without accurate data, billing was based on estimated rather than actual information. Revenue returns were much lower than they should have been. Joint use pole attachment rates had not been reviewed since the program's inception, and the city was charging $15 to $18 less than the market rate for attachments. The city's most recent pole inventory was 10 years old and expansion of the system had not been reflected in pole use invoicing. It was clearly time to make a change, but the telecommunications company insisted on a report that included longitude and latitude points to verify the number of poles.

Raymond Brunner, the city's GIS administrator, initiated the revenue generating pole inventory program as a means of justifying additional GIS investments for city operations. The Bureau of Land Management lent the city GPS units and the utility division set up the GIS to author and publish the data. Combined with youthful energy, this was just the recipe for success. "Revenue gained through reconciling pole data with billing offset the costs of Safford growing its GIS capabilities for use in other departments," Brunner said.

Few projects are without skeptics. Up to this point, the city's engineering department had been undecided about the value of GIS to generate reports. The teens' joint use project proved the value of GIS technology. Some city staff were concerned that because these teens were temporary employees they would be ambivalent about data accuracy, but these critics were mistaken. An assignment area for one team would overlap with the assignment area of another and the results of that intersection were compared so the project's manager could validate quality. The results showed few discrepancies. Students looked forward to the daily outdoor work and thrived in a good-natured competition to collect the most accurate data.

"Youth were eager to learn the technology," said Brunner, "It was practically second nature to them. During the training they were zooming ahead of the talk, pushing buttons, and exploring the data. For example, I was explaining a satellite map but some students had already checked it out 20 minutes earlier. Another advantage of using youth was that the labor costs were at a rate that we could afford to allow students to make multiple passes to get the information right. We were able to sweep the system, and if we need to go back and do it again next summer, we can afford to do so."

The outcome is an accurate pole inventory that provides the final count needed for renegotiating use charges and increasing revenues to the company. Moreover, the inventory revealed an additional 200 poles that had not been included in previous invoicing. GIS made it easy to generate a report that verified this data and cleared up claims of pole ownership. The return on investment more than paid for the project, and teens had an invaluable opportunity to explore career possibilities.

In addition to working on the pole inventory project, the youth force gathered geographic speed limit data for a traffic control study. They also went to all buildings within the city limits and inventoried posted house numbers and noted if these met code requirements. That is, if the numbers were too small or not contrasted enough for visibility from the street, they were noted as substandard. The information is helping the city enforce codes that will help police, emergency response, and others identify addresses easier. Teens also worked to improve street centerlines for addressing and bus routing. They collected library patron data to create a library patrons map.

At the end of the summer, the youth gave a presentation to the city council to demonstrate the GIS applications and projects that they had completed.

About the Author

Barbara Shields is a natural sciences journalist at Esri. She is the editor of GIS publications Energy Currents, Environmental Observer, Petroleum GIS Perspectives, and GIS for Agribusiness.

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