City of Philadelphia Empowered with Imaging Technology to Better Serve Residents
A historical treasure and the sixth-most populous city in the United States, Philadelphia keeps growing. City government officials and staff from supporting agencies are dedicated to providing the best services to the city's nearly 1.58 million residents. In the past, they have led the way in using technological innovation and creativity to achieve this mission. Over the last four years, the Philadelphia city government has embraced a smart city approach, investing nearly $2.8 million annually in software and services across 40 city agencies. SmartCityPHL, the city's smart city program, works to build a more sustainable, economically resilient, and equitable city for the future.
"Our goal, as a local government, is to utilize every tool at our disposal to innovate and advance government services," says Brian Ivey, GIS manager, Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT) at the City of Philadelphia. "This includes hiring quality staff with today's skills, developing accurate and attainable geospatial data, developing sound policies and standards, and leveraging geospatial and imagery products—all to improve the lives of residents in Philadelphia."
The innovations of imagery and geographic information system (GIS) technologies helped the CityGeo team at OIT set out on a citywide digital transformation journey.
The city's transformational journey with imagery has roots in the Office of Property Assessment (OPA). At the time, city assessors, evaluators, and inspectors from the OPA collected property information through in-person site visits and paper documentation. The process was time-consuming, resulted in data inconsistencies, and led to fewer properties being worked on per day. From experience, Ivey and the team knew that a cloud-based service along with high-resolution street-level imagery could provide up-to-date information, save time spent on in-person trips, create automated workflows, and empower staff to accomplish more.
City of Philadelphia
To improve services and meet the needs of residents, the City of Philadelphia staff sought image capturing systems and geospatial technology to save costs, improve processes, and make better-informed decisions.
The city partnered with Cyclomedia Technology, Inc., and employed authoritative street-level imagery (called GeoCycloramas), lidar technology, and ArcGIS technology to populate an enterprise-wide authoritative data hub called DataBridge.
DataBridge successfully filled the gap of information sharing between government agencies and the public. Currently, 30 departments across Philadelphia are using Cyclomedia and Esri products to enhance collaboration, increase efficiency, and improve services.
Realizing how this solution could aid other departments in meeting business needs across the city, Ivey and his colleagues sought an enterprise-wide solution. In 2017, Philadelphia chose to partner with Cyclomedia Technology, a cloud-based imagery company with experience in providing end-to-end solutions for government agencies. A longtime Esri partner, Cyclomedia's digital offerings include integration with ArcGIS technologies.
"At Cyclomedia, we work with our existing or prospective customers to figure out their pains, their business needs, their priorities, and how we can leverage our solution to increase efficiency, enhance collaboration, and augment workflows," says Jason Sealy, sales executive at Cyclomedia Technology. "People are still struggling to find ways to get more work done and be more efficient, and our technology is a beautiful fit for that because you can see the outside world, your jurisdiction, from the comfort of your desktop."
The CityGeo team worked with Cyclomedia to capture imagery of nearly 3,000 miles of public streets. The first capture in 2017 included local universities, Philadelphia International Airport, and the US Navy yard. The street imagery capture utilizes light detection and ranging (lidar) technology to build imagery and improve measurements. Lidar is an active remote sensing technique that sends a pulsed laser to measure distances and produce precise 3D information about the earth's surface and objects on it.
"We had somewhere around 2,800 miles of public streets, so every 15 feet with 360-degree views that were captured the first time," Sealy says. "Each year, we work with the city to find out exactly where they want us to drive; we plan; and then we use several vehicles with our custom lidar camera units on top. It takes about a month or two to complete."
After processing, the captured imagery is published and managed through a cloud-based system, accessible through Cyclomedia's Street Smart, an interactive web viewer for all content. With Esri integrations, such as ArcGIS Desktop, ArcGIS Online, and the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World, information can be overlaid to create other authoritative and intuitive datasets and stored in the city's central data warehouse known as DataBridge.
Information from DataBridge is tapped by City of Philadelphia staff and shared publicly through ArcGIS Online and the city's website OpenDataPhilly.org, as well as the state's geospatial portal Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access (PASDA). DataBridge serves the city as the main data hub for spatial data and many tabular datasets and provides open data for public use. Ivey says, "We created public-facing mapping websites so that city employees and the public are both looking at the same version of the data. With DataBridge, everyone gets the same view of the information."
In a city with nearly 21,000 employees, citywide database account management would be challenging, and Ivey knew all departments would want access to imagery technology. With that in mind, Ivey worked with Cyclomedia staff to set-up a web-based account administration site to ensure that requests could be managed by each department's GIS representatives.
Moreover, understanding there would be a learning curve in deploying new technology to a large employee base, Ivey worked with Cyclomedia staff to develop hands-on training.
"Most trainings were for beginners who had never seen or worked with the technology before," Ivey says. "But the trainings evolved with the help of the Cyclomedia team by adding more advanced courses for measuring or reporting ArcGIS integrations with ArcGIS Desktop and ArcGIS Online, and account administration training."
In addition to the in-person trainings, the CityGeo team created an internal wiki that includes tutorials, written guides on Cyclomedia and Esri products, and account administration contact information.
Currently, over 30 city departments are using Street Smart and Esri products in various ways to do their work. The top users include the OPA, Department of Records, Public Safety, the Department of Licenses and Inspections, OIT, the Philadelphia Water Department, and the Philadelphia Streets department.
Since implementation, employees within OPA can evaluate more properties in a given day thanks to the access to datasets, imagery, files, and more from their desktop computers. Imagery from Cyclomedia allows OPA staff to verify addresses, view condition and grade of building materials, and take measurements on structures.
Other departments have also found success with the technology. For example, the Parks and Recreation department applied imagery and GIS to create a tree inventory system for tracking tree species and diseases. Public Safety accesses the database daily in its work and for long-term planning of citywide events, for risk mitigation, and for Next Generation 911.
"The ability to view and analyze the built environment from one's desktop with confidence that the imagery and the geospatial data available is current gives city workers the tools they need to be accurate and efficient," Ivey says. "The combination of Cyclomedia and Esri technologies has proven to be a critical tool for improving the quality, accuracy, efficiency, and responsiveness of government service."
To coordinate the growth of GIS and empower citywide use of Cyclomedia and Esri technology, the CityGeo team hosts a monthly forum, called GeoXchange, with department GIS leaders and champions. These monthly meetings provide opportunities for city GIS professionals and decision-makers to discuss the different ways they are implementing software, data, and tools in their departments to solve problems. GeoXchange members work to cultivate a better understanding of GIS capabilities and exchange ideas on how city staff can continue to work together to advance the technologies that help them solve problems.
"We don't stay stagnant. We constantly look at how we can better manage and upgrade our data and tools as well as make the interface more intuitive and easier to use for our employees and our citizens," Ivey says. "We try to make all the information, particularly geospatial information, make sense, because, at some point, someone is going to make a decision using this information."
In looking to the future and considering SmartCityPHL efforts, Ivey believes that with the right staff, continual monitoring and adapting of new technology systems like GIS and imagery, spreading awareness of technological capabilities, and encouraging citywide use, the opportunities are endless.