Houston-Galveston Area Council Facilitates Stronger Decision-Making with GIS
Web of Influence
Online GIS applications developed by the Houston-Galveston Area Council are facilitating more strategic decision-making and having an impact well beyond transportation.
Over the past 20 years, there has been a tremendous revolution in online digital mapping and the ability to share large amounts of information easily and seamlessly to many users. Some of the most successful transportation agencies leveraging the technology include the Council of Governments (COGs) and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), who are responsible for long-range transportation planning, as well as housing, economic development, and land-use policies (among others) for their urban regions.
Because of the large data and information requirements of long-range transportation and economic forecasting, as well as data needed to make long-range strategic capital improvement decisions, these COGs and MPOs were early adopters of geographic information system (GIS) software. The Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) was one such agency that recognized its advantages in enabling more data access and transparency. Staff use Esri's ArcGIS Online to shorten the time taken for transportation and infrastructure projects and to navigate their way through the planning and approvals process. Widely accessible data is also helping the agency better understand a project's potential environmental impacts and plan greater resiliency against the future effects of climate change.
H-GAC is a region-wide voluntary association of local government organizations in the Gulf Coast planning region of Texas. Its geographic area covers a total of 13 counties, 134 cities, and 12,500 square miles. H-GAC is also the metropolitan planning organization for the eight-county metro area surrounding Houston, Texas, and is responsible for regional planning activities in most areas of shared governmental concern, including transportation.
It expects to see both the overall population and the number of jobs in the region increase by more than half as much again by 2045. In a little over two decades, the population will rise from 7 million to 10.6 million, while the number of jobs will grow from 3 million to 4.7 million.
H-GAC is therefore under significant pressure to help provide the right infrastructure and service solutions in the right places.
The availability of ArcGIS Online enabled H-GAC to develop a suite of applications, now numbering more than 50, of which a significant number have been made available to external agencies and the public. The main aim was to provide quick, easy access to data that would lead to informed decision-making. Because the data is stored in the cloud, it is easily accessible to H-GAC's planners and decision-makers, helping them make more strategic capital improvement decisions for the region's future while providing better visibility and transparency in what can often be a politically charged environment.
Previously, information queries would be initiated via telephone or email. The times taken to respond—whether in physical (paper map) or tabular form via return email—were very much driven by the capacity of the staff and the complexity of requests. By providing free, direct access to data, this bottleneck was removed.
Additionally, according to Pramod Sambidi, assistant director of data analytics and research at H-GAC the applications have been developed to provide not just raw data but also some element of background analysis of what it all means. The outcomes are twofold: a more comprehensive service to planners and other stakeholders and a better understanding across the user community of what H-GAC does and how.
The audience for H-GAC's series of apps is a broad one. It includes its own staff, as well as those in local government (such as planners); consultants and contractors; educational establishments; public sector and private-sector businesses, nonprofit organizations; and, ultimately, the public itself. H-GAC also leveraged ArcGIS StoryMaps (which is included with ArcGIS Online) in the effort to communicate often-complex information to a sometimes nonprofessional audience with immersive visual presentations that combine text, interactive maps, and other multimedia content.
A major element of what H-GAC provides is a timely and accurate reflection of demographics, based on US Census Bureau information. The information available online is updated by the H-GAC team and is in line with annual census data releases, and it contains a wealth of demographic data for the greater Houston area. It includes data by race, age, language spoken, educational attainment, income, homeownership, number of people experiencing poverty, and transportation variables such as vehicle ownership. This is linked to transportation travel times, which are defined for a range of locations, including independent school and congressional districts, as well as down to the individual block level.
Each H-GAC application features a user guide that explains how to access data. A more advanced demographic data explorer tool enables downloads.
Other key apps include the Regional Commute Flow Map, which is based on Census Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics Origin-Destination Employment Statistics (LODES) data. It provides an accurate reflection of where people live and work and vice versa.
App users can readily see visualized flows, as well as access the underlying information. As an example, Harris County, the most populous county within H-GAC's remit, has 1.5 million people who live and work within its boundaries. It also has 0.5 million people who live outside the boundaries but work within them, and 200,000 people who live within the boundaries and work outside them. All of this can be found with just a few clicks.
H-GAC has divided its geographic region into 25 sectors, based on the highway network geometry. As with the census data, information is available down to the individual block level, but it has been consolidated into square-mile grids.
The app supports those looking to manage and mold commuting patterns. It provides, for example, a strong basis for decisions over where to implement park-and-ride schemes as well as mass transit changes.
H-GAC's land-use model was developed in-house and uses the same methodology as the open-source UrbanSim system developed in collaboration with the University of Berkeley, California.
Land-use data at the parcel level includes present use as well as planned/announced changes and forecasts of how these will have an impact. It includes primary planned community information.
Clicking a parcel will show, for instance, the number of expected units. This helps with demand modeling. Data is summarized for defined traffic analysis zones, and users can also draw polygons, which will show current and future (out to the year 2045) populations. Download is accomplished by clicking an on-screen icon.
The Eco-Logical tool measures the impacts of transportation projects on local ecosystems. This was also developed in-house and uses satellite/aerial imagery to classify land cover. Users can click projects to see their effects. They can see all or select by type and include future projects and those within the regional transportation plan.
A red flag indicator provides a series of layers, including oil pipelines which are abundant in the Houston area, making this tool particularly useful there cemeteries, managed land areas, wells, brownfield sites, and closed landfills. Users can very quickly determine the locations of potentially constraining assets and features and how these might influence projects and their viability and cost.
Regional resilience, meanwhile, is reflected by a number of dashboards that provide a criticality and vulnerability index, as well as information on road segments' exposure to flood risk.
These tools enable the scoring and selection of transportation projects, and Sambidi also notes that users can improve the accuracy of the information held. When individuals have more accurate or specific knowledge of a location, they can provide it through the apps via an online form.
Improving and Expanding
Many public sector organizations responsible for broad range planning have introduced online access to GIS to reduce direct workloads caused by inquiries from those involved in project definition and development. In H-GAC's case, the result of implementing apps has been not so much a reduction in workload as a shift in emphasis.
At the transportation project proposal stage, requests for all the information within a defined geographic area were once common. These have now fallen off to almost zero, and the information requests that are received have evolved considerably.
"We've moved away from a situation where people would simply ask us to provide a shapefile," explained Sambidi. "We don't see that now because they can go online and access and extract the information for themselves. What we are experiencing instead is more detailed questioning and interaction relating to more specific data issues."
The success of this has not gone unnoticed. Locally, other government entities have seen the value of what H-GAC is doing with its data and, particularly, how it prepares it for ease of consumption. This has led to explorative talks, with a view to H-GAC developing tools for other agencies, which will enable them to achieve similar results with their own data.
The capabilities being provided by H-GAC already address many transportation, environmental, and equity issues. Sambidi expects an increase in internal requests for support, which will result in the expansion of GIS services into an ever-wider range of societal areas including childcare and health care.
"That greater level of interaction results in better data, and we look at this less in terms of saving time and more in terms of building better client relationships and overall quality of service," said Sambidi.