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.
As many people know, one document guides city council meetings: the tried and true agenda, which dutifully lists items up for discussion or a vote. The typical agenda, often available via PDFs posted on city government websites, is often written in a bureaucratic style and void of visuals such as maps, photographs, or other multimedia.
But that’s no longer true for Oak Hill, West Virginia, a city of 8,500 people, which lies just west of the 70,000-acre New River Gorge National River. The city council replaced its static presentations with this 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, eight Esri Story Maps apps are available at no additional cost to ArcGIS Online account holders like the City of Oak Hill.
Hannabass was shown the Esri Story Maps app by Daniel Peters, an account manager from Esri’s regional office in 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—”I lived and died by maps”—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 organization 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 Esri 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 April’s 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 and 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 in an 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 using a story map as an agenda makes it easy for Hannabass to answer questions if one comes up. “If there are four dilapidated structures that I have to tear down and someone asks [about a particular building], What street is that one on? I can pull up a map,” he said.
And because photos and legal or other types of 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 Word document or a PowerPoint presentation. Gone also 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.”
Hannabass said online story maps are an excellent medium for sharing information to a city council, board of directors, or another group, whether public or private. People were often overwhelmed by the size of the agenda they received 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 by bringing him on board as GIS coordinator and by recently helping to forge an enterprise license agreement between the city and Esri. That agreement, which goes into effect in July 2018, will provide more city employees with access to GIS and beef up capabilities to do analysis. “Hannabass has been my biggest champion here,” Davis said.
The city also plans to share the city council story map agendas online with the public soon, making it easier for Oak Hill residents to stay informed about what’s happening in their community. Currently, only city council members and the media can study the agenda plus all the related documents in one online app before the meetings begin.
“That is transparency beyond what is typical,” Hannabass said. “It [will even] be more transparent on the website.”
Davis said that there’s often a geographic component to city business, which is why sharing information via a story map agenda makes perfect sense.
If viewers want to take a closer look on a story map, for example, at zoning designations or a proposed one-way street, they can just pan around and zoom in on the geographic locations. A PDF or 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 the release of the first Esri Story Maps app in 2014, people around the world have built more than 580,000 story maps. But Oak Hill’s story map designed specifically for city council agendas seems to be a first.
Oak Hill’s adoption of the Esri 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 uses of Esri Story Maps,” Carroll said. “Oak Hill’s use of our Esri Story Map Series app to present its council agenda is a delightful example of the versatility and power of map-based storytelling.”