A City Council Agenda Goes Visual

In Oak Hill, West Virginia, City Business Now Gets Shared Via Story Maps

This is the story of how the manager of a small city in West Virginia came up with a big idea: Use an Esri Story Maps app to convert the city council agenda from a drab document to a lively account of municipal business.

Another main character in the plot line, of course, is the city’s lone GIS employee. He tenaciously works to bring his boss’s idea to fruition each month. Using the Esri Story Map Series app, he creates an itemized, interactive agenda that describes each order of business and provides supplementary maps, photographs, and links to documents such as reports, legal notices, and correspondence.

A story map-based city council agenda
In Oak Hill, West Virginia, the city council replaced its static agenda with an animated story map to guide its monthly meetings.

As many people know, one document guides city council meetings: the tried and true agenda, which lists items up for discussion or a vote. The typical agenda, often available via PDFs posted on city government websites, tends to be written in a bureaucratic style and is usually void of visuals like maps, photographs, or other multimedia.

But that’s no longer true for Oak Hill, West Virginia, a city of 8,500 people that lies just west of the 70,000-acre New River Gorge National River. There, the city council replaced its static presentations with an animated story map to guide its monthly meetings.

Earlier this year, city manager Bill Hannabass spotted an Esri story map for the first time and immediately thought, “Gosh, I could use that for the council presentation. It’s visual.” Currently, seven story maps apps are available at no additional cost to ArcGIS Online account holders like the City of Oak Hill.

Hannabass was shown the story maps app by Esri account manager Daniel Peters from Charlotte, North Carolina, who was in West Virginia to meet with him and other local government officials earlier this year. Having used maps to view assets when he served in the US Army, Hannabass was naturally drawn to their ability to tell a story visually and tell it quickly. He was also impressed that the cloud-based interactive maps from the city’s ArcGIS Online organizational account could be used in the story maps.

Hannabass gave GIS coordinator Marvin Davis the task of turning the monthly city council agenda into a story map. Davis, who earned a master of arts degree in geography from West Virginia University in 2016, selected the Story Map Series app with the side accordion layout to create the agenda. That layout automatically builds a numbered list of items that run down the left side of the story map. Davis just writes a short header and one line of text that describes each agenda item; adds a related map or photo; and then creates a link to any other images, legal documents, notices, or correspondence.

One of the agenda items that Davis worked on for the April city council meeting dealt with structural inspection board recommendations on several buildings around town that needed to be repaired or demolished. Davis mapped the buildings’ locations in the story map and added links to images of those structures, as well as related documents such as demolition orders and bids.

“It makes [the agenda] informative,” Davis said about the story map format. “[Viewers] get the geographic context of that issue and get all the information at their fingertips.”

Oak Hill City Council members and local media outlets receive the story map agendas in a ShareFile packet that Hannabass sends via email prior to meetings. During the city council meetings, Hannabass also goes through each numbered item on the story map agenda, which is displayed on two screens in city hall.

Agenda items often have geographic reference points, so Hannabass said using a story map as an agenda makes it easy for him to answer questions if any come up.

“If there are four dilapidated structures that I have to tear down, and someone asks, ‘What street is that [building] on?’, I can pull up a map,” Hannabass said.

And because photos and legal or other documents can be linked in the story map, those are easy to access and view, too, if necessary. No longer does Hannabass need to display the agenda as a Microsoft Word document or a PowerPoint presentation. Gone are the PDFs and scanned images of maps.

“If [anyone] asks questions, there is a ton of information in [the story maps] I can dig into,” said Hannabass. “You don’t have a ton of boring PDFs to flip through.”

The April city council meeting agenda
One of the agenda items that Davis worked on for the April city council meeting dealt with structural inspection board recommendations on several buildings that needed to be repaired or demolished.

Hannabass said online story maps are an excellent medium for sharing information with a city council, board of directors, or other public or private groups. People are often overwhelmed by reams of paper they receive before a meeting. So he put an end to paper-based agendas in Oak Hill some time ago.

“Our council packets were three to five inches thick,” Hannabass said. “It is crazy to have that much paper work.”

Davis said that Hannabass has been a strong advocate for a municipal GIS, first bringing him on board as GIS coordinator and recently by helping to forge an enterprise license agreement between the city and Esri. That agreement, which began in July, is increasing the number of city employees with access to GIS and beefing up capabilities to do analysis.

“Hannabass has been my biggest champion here,” Davis said.

The city also started sharing the city council story map agendas with the public on its new open data site, making it easier for Oak Hill residents to stay informed about what’s happening in their community. Now, city council members, the media, and residents can study the city council agenda plus all the related documents in one online app before the meetings begin.

“That is transparency that is beyond what is typical,” Hannabass remarked.

Davis said that because there’s often a geographic component to city business, sharing information via a story map agenda makes perfect sense. If viewers want to take a closer look at zoning designations or a proposed new one-way street, for example, they can use the story map to pan around and zoom in on those locations. A PDF or a scanned image of a map restricts their view.

“I am biased,” said Davis, referring to his interest in geography and his job in GIS, “but I think [the story map agenda] offers a more informed view. You are able to look at pertinent documentation and a map.”

Since Esri released the first Esri Story Maps app in 2014, people around the world have built about 640,000 maps. But Oak Hill’s story map designed specifically for city council agendas seems to be a first.

The city’s adoption of the Story Map Series app to produce the agendas impressed Allen Carroll, who leads the Esri Story Maps team and is program manager of storytelling at Esri.

“We’re always thrilled to see fresh and unexpected new uses of Esri Story Maps,” Carroll said. “Oak Hill’s use of our Story Map Series app to present its council agenda is a delightful example of the versatility and power of map-based storytelling.”