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October - December 2004
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A Vision of Better Government Makes a Difference

Jeremy HarrisAlthough Jeremy Harris, the mayor of the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii, received the Making a Difference award at this year's Esri International User Conference, the residents of Honolulu are the real winners. Harris' pioneering work in establishing an enterprisewide GIS has improved the city's processes and practices and is making Honolulu a model sustainable city. In addition to the outstanding leadership he has provided the city, he is also working to help government leaders in the region face the challenges of dealing with unprecedented rates of urbanization.

Harris advocates streamlining operations and improving services in government. Beginning in 1998 with the first reorganization of city government in the history of Honolulu, his commitment to better government has resulted in a balanced budget through seven consecutive years of declining revenues. Major changes to land use planning, facilitated through the use of GIS, have curtailed urban sprawl, preserved open spaces, and retained prime agricultural lands. Harris' adoption of GIS is part of an overall goal of bringing more services to more people with less revenue and fewer staff—a goal that recognizes the realities faced by government leaders.

In accepting the Making a Difference award, Harris noted that civilization is at a critical juncture. "I believe that the actions we take over the next couple of decades will determine the fate of human civilization. We're in what is called the urban era when more than half the world is living in cities. The problem is that we aren't living sustainably in cities," he said.

He went on to observe that this could also be called the Asia-Pacific era because that is where most of the development, consumption, and urbanization are taking place. With a current population of three and one half billion that is expected to mushroom to five billion in the next 20 years, the problems facing leaders in the region are staggering.

To meet the challenges of building cities and providing sustainable infrastructure in an era of unprecedented urbanization, he noted these leaders need the right tools. "The basic tool they need is GIS," he proclaimed. "It is the central nervous system of 21st century urbanization."

In response to this need, he has helped create a program called the Mayors' Asia-Pacific Environmental Summit, which brings together the leaders of Asian and Pacific cities biannually. These leaders form plans for building sustainable cities and commit to a specific plan of action over the ensuing two years that will help reach their developmental goals. The organization assists them in meeting that commitment. Recently, Esri provided software, training, and support to these mayors so they can implement GIS in their cities.

Honolulu demonstrates the value of intelligently implementing GIS. Although Honolulu's land records system was originally paper based and difficult to maintain, implementing GIS required not only changing Honolulu's technology but also gaining user acceptance, justifying the cost, educating executives regarding GIS benefits, and overcoming political obstacles. The result was a GIS that integrates city data and gives urban leaders the tools they need to make informed decisions.

The Honolulu Land Information System benefits 750 users in 19 departments. Improvements in land use planning are helping meet Honolulu's long-term goal of creating a sustainable community. Using satellite imagery with GIS has helped decision makers identify both potential pressures and model alternatives that maintain the scenic views in an area that counts tourism as a major industry.

The data management and analysis capabilities of GIS have benefited many departments. Mobile GIS on handheld devices provides real-time information to workers in the field. The Department of Planning and Permitting's Interactive GIS Maps and Data Web site (, maintained in partnership with the Honolulu Board of Realtors, features parcel and zoning information, a GIS property locator that promotes economic development, and public access to GIS files. The dissemination of this information helps the public participate in the land development process and assists businesses. The 2.7 million visitors to the site each month attest to the need for this type of information.

The analytical capabilities of GIS have also helped improve zoning. New zoning codes are consistent but flexible enough to allow for sustainable development. The results are visible-more inviting streets with adequate setbacks, wide sidewalks, and attractive landscaping. Analysis of the housing inventory by age has helped identify areas with the greatest potential for redevelopment. GIS-based analysis also helps promote the development of new resorts and amenities that benefit the tourist industry.

GIS is also part of Honolulu's emergency planning and homeland security efforts. It is central to Honolulu's Comprehensive Terrorism Response Plan, the environmental monitoring systems, and interagency cooperation strategies.

GIS has been a valuable tool that has helped Honolulu improve the quality of life for its one million residents. Online problem reporting, automated permit tracking, and the Internet Permitting System are some of the applications that provide better service to the public while limiting staff hours. Customer response times have been reduced by 75 percent. Measurable increases in efficiency include the production of more than 1,000 reports and ordinance maps and the elimination of the basemap update backlog accompanied by a 50 percent reduction in drafting positions. This reduction represents a savings of $409,000 in basemap maintenance since 1993. Savings of $2.5 million were also realized in the production of zoning maps between 1993 and 2002.

Improvements in planning have paid off in other ways. The city avoided $5 million in Environmental Protection Agency fines. Increased tax revenues as a result of economic development and the successful defense of tax appeals of more than $200,000 have kept the city funded.

Harris' work and the success of Honolulu's government have been widely recognized with numerous awards. The mayor was named Public Administrator of the Year by the American Society for Public Administration for two consecutive years. The American Institute of Architects made Harris an Honorary Affiliate Member, and he received the Distinguished Leadership award for elected officials from the American Planning Association. The Center for Digital Government ranked Honolulu first among the nation's largest cities in the delivery of services using digital technology. Honolulu was included in Governing magazine's top 10 list of best-administered cities. The city's mass transit system, TheBus, was twice selected as North America's best large transportation system. In addition to these and many other awards, the city's strong bond rating demonstrates Honolulu is fiscally as well as environmentally viable.

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