In Sarasota, Florida, City Employees Transition to GIS Fieldwork during COVID-19 Pandemic
A parking enforcement officer and city clerk are part of an innovative project in Sarasota, Florida, to keep municipal staff productive while their traditional daily work decreases. The project is expected to drive significant value to the city's geographic information system (GIS) initiative while cutting down on third-party data collection costs.
On Florida's Gulf Coast, the City of Sarasota is home to nearly 60,000 full-time residents and twice that number during the winter season. Five years ago, the city hired IT director Herminio Rodriguez to rebuild the IT department from scratch, complete with an enterprise GIS.
"We want to be able to make data-driven decisions, and GIS is a big component of that," Rodriguez said. "I wouldn't even list what you can do in a GIS. I would just say there are probably very few things you cannot do with GIS. A robust and accurately updated GIS database is the key to making these decisions."
Last year, Rodriguez hired GIS coordinator William Rockwell to rebuild the city's GIS and update its data, taking advantage of an enterprise license agreement (ELA) with Esri. In the past, Sarasota had outsourced its GIS data collection, but the data was never reliable and was now outdated. Rodriguez and Rockwell determined they would need to either update or re-create all of the city's information assets. They estimated the cost to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in outsourced labor over at least five years.
COVID-19 Frees up Some Municipal Staff
As coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) struck Florida, Sarasota began locking down its municipal buildings. One by one, local businesses also discontinued service. City employees were finding their daily workloads decreasing, which left some staff members unoccupied. City manager Tom Barwin sent out a notice to all departments looking for creative ways to keep city workers occupied.
"The city manager was discussing roles in the city," Rodriguez said. "He asked us to think outside the box for what we could do to create new projects."
Rockwell, who had only been with the city for a short period, proposed that workers with free time collect accurate location and attribute data on the city's much-needed assets. This would speed the existing five-year plan to rebuild the GIS, and it would also cut down on six-figure quotes from outsourcing the same work.
Rockwell and Rodriguez ran a funding exercise to determine the cost of such a project. Because the city had an existing ELA with Esri, there were no extra software costs.
"We were happy the city could utilize its full field-to-office ArcGIS platform during the COVID-19 outbreak," said Ben McCrary, a member of Esri's global business development team. "Not only was the city able to expand GIS to people who had never used the software, but it could do so instantly, without any changes to its software budget."
The city also had a box of iPhones from a service provider migration, which could be turned into offline data collection devices. The only cost would be for professional-grade GPS receivers to enhance the iPhones' accuracy.
"The financial commitment was small from the city, but the return was huge," Rodriguez said. "We could start capturing this massive amount of data that we really need. Once we put the whole picture together, the city management really liked it."
One of the first tasks was to prioritize the assets to be collected. Rockwell met with city subject matter experts and decided to focus on asset types that could be collected within the time extent of the project. They prioritized data collection on city streetlights because of the numerous requests for information from outside organizations, such as Florida Power and Light (FPL) and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). They also determined that road signs would be easy to map concurrently, so they added that inventory to the first stage of the campaign. Mapping city trees would be done at a subsequent phase.
"Everyone agreed it would be better to undertake mapping campaigns that could be completed," Rodriguez said. "We decided streetlights would be the first assets we could tackle in order to better answer requests for information."
Meanwhile, trees have historically been an important part of Sarasota's luscious green landscape. Local regulations even dictate rules for residents cutting down or swapping the placement of trees, including on private property.
"Just about every city commission meeting includes some kind of tree initiative," Rodriguez said. "So having an accurate account of our trees is important."
Training City Staff on GPS and GIS While Social Distancing
Rockwell chose Collector for ArcGIS as the data collection app. The app, included in the city's Esri ELA, offers a variety of helpful features. It works in an offline mode, or disconnected environments, allowing staff to use the city's legacy iPhones and simply sync their collected data at the end of each day via Wi-Fi. Collector for ArcGIS also enabled Rockwell to set a three-feet accuracy threshold for asset locations. Fieldworkers could take pictures of assets and at the same time update existing data rather than collect it from scratch.
For GPS receivers, Rockwell contacted the city's existing GPS vendor for a recommendation. The vendor expedited a shipment of 14 Arrow 100 GNSS receivers, manufactured by Esri business partner Eos Positioning Systems. The Arrow 100 connects seamlessly with Collector for ArcGIS on iOS to provide submeter accuracy and performs well even under the dense tree canopy in Sarasota.
Rockwell set up the 14 data collection kits in his living room. Each kit consisted of an iPhone loaded with Collector for ArcGIS, the city's mobile device manager (MDM) software for security, a range pole, and the Eos Arrow 100 GNSS receiver. The next day, Rockwell met five city employees at the City Hall parking lot for the first group training.
Training a Field Crew in the Middle of a Crisis
The employees took great care in standing six feet apart while Rockwell explained the basic concepts of data collection using the high-accuracy Arrow receivers and Collector for ArcGIS app. During the training session, employees took turns collecting sample data so Rockwell could address any initial concerns. Under perfect satellite visibility conditions, accuracy with the Arrow 100 was as good as seven inches, though under moderate canopy density, the team achieved an average of 2.5 feet (or 0.8 meters) accuracy.
Rockwell handed out reflective vests, printed maps, and markers. The printed map series, created in ArcGIS Pro, consisted of 28 full or partial grids of the city. This allowed the newly trained data collection crew, most of them not very familiar with GIS, to easily mark off where they had collected data each day.
"Some of the older-school employees prefer to keep track on paper of what they map each day," Rockwell said. "Once they're done, they text or call me, and I can give them a new quarter-section to take on."
At the end of each day, after the workers have synced their data to ArcGIS Online, Rockwell can assess the team's progress. In the first few days, this allowed him to quickly spot any errors, such as photos not collected with the assets, and take immediate corrective action.
Planning technician Billy Cooney had used Collector for ArcGIS in the past but usually spent his time assisting senior planners, such as by measuring rights-of-way. Now Cooney is committed to spending two days per week doing field data collection.
"I try to help out wherever I can," Cooney said. "It's nice that I have a project that gets me out and walking around, especially now that I'm working from home and socializing less."
A Boost for Employees and Constituents in a Tough Time
The City of Sarasota is now accelerating its planned GIS database improvements and keeping city staff productive during the pandemic.
"We're collecting a lot of high-quality data," Rockwell said. "This same work would have otherwise cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars if we had outsourced it."
To date, seven fieldworkers have collected data on 1,463 of the city's 6,000 streetlights and 2,998 of the city's 16,000 road signs. Then, they will collect data on the city's 35,000 trees. The project has been approved for 30 days, but it may be expanded based on the encouraging initial results and COVID-19 developments that are unfolding daily.
Other departments have also requested data collection, if time allows. For instance, one proposal is to map the city's parking meters, which were previously collected by manually "dropping" locations into a Google map.
"This would be an opportunity to have an inventory of all parking meters with submeter accuracy and bring that into the GIS world," Rockwell said.
Overall, the response to the project has been overwhelmingly positive.
"I'm thrilled the city is supporting this initiative," Rodriguez said. "To be able to take employees doing very, very different jobs and put them in the field—this wouldn't have been possible in a normal environment. We are excited that everyone is chipping in."