ArcNews Online

Fall 2008

Departments Without GIS Skills, Knowledge, and Expertise Can Still Benefit from GIS to Make Better Decisions

Houston Applies Spatial Data and GIS to Support Local Organizations

By Riju Stephen, Brenda Reyes, Ketan Inamdar, and Mark Perry, Houston Department of Health and Human Services, Houston, Texas


  • GIS revolutionizes a routine business process in a local health department.
  • GIS standardized the communication of spatial information.
  • ArcReader helps small organizations incorporate spatial data management in their day-to-day businesses.

Accurate display of information associated with geographic location of buildings in an urban landscape is critical to informed decision making by many local government organizations. Various housing, construction, and utility services programs managed by local governments in Texas require case approvals through the Texas Historical Commission. The commission, with its mandate to preserve heritage in parts of urban areas, plays a pivotal role in preserving the visual congruity of heritage landscapes. In Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States, these approvals are based on the location of cases with respect to the Houston historic districts and historic monuments.

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The ArcReader project provided an accurate and a standardized method to communicate the addresses received by the City of Houston agencies to the Texas Historical Commission.

However, providing accurate location information to the Historical Commission has traditionally been a challenge due to the lack of a standardized method. The use of GIS has solved that problem; now a map document with relevant layers can be distributed among program administrators to display locations easily and accurately using the ArcReader no-cost GIS software extension.

Aiming to Preserve Houston's Historic Districts

Houston, a port city in Texas, began to emerge along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in the middle of the 19th century. It has several historic neighborhoods, large and small, which enrich the quality of life in the city. As a result of its strong economic growth based on the oil and biomedical industries, the historic fabric of the city—composed of many magnificent Victorian-, Craftsman-, and Colonial Revival-style buildings—has always been under threat. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) attaches strings to its grants in order to control the aesthetic qualities of the landscape, since many projects involve construction of new structures or buildings or demolition or alteration of existing ones. Section 106 of the National Historical Preservation Act (1966) requires federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties. Prior approval from the Historical Commission is a requirement according to the act. In Houston, the Texas Historical Commission has demarcated 14 historic districts. The commission makes sure that any undertaking or project by the city does not alter the original characteristics of the designated historic districts. Hence, it is mandatory to obtain the agreement of the commission before the commencement of any projects funded by HUD grants.

This process requires smooth coordination between the Austin-based commission and various local bodies in different parts of the state that require its approval. In Houston, the participating local bodies include the Bureau of Community and Children's Environmental Health (Houston Department of Health and Human Services [HDHHS]), the Department of Housing and Community Development, the Department of Planning & Development, and the Neighborhood Protection Division (the Police Department). These departments have to communicate the location of the projects to the commission. The ideal process means using maps. The original way the information was communicated was by manually plotting the address on a key map grid. Occasionally, the information was sent to the planning department to plot it using the GIS facilities available there. The problems that arose were those of standardization and accuracy in terms of the spatial information. The maps sent to the commission by the different agencies varied in scale, content, and accuracy. This caused much confusion and delay in the commission's approval process.

Bureau of Community and Children's Environmental Health Brings GIS to the Table

To streamline the approval process, an interagency collaboration was requested by the Bureau of Community and Children's Environmental Health, asking for the use of GIS technologies to standardize the communication of spatial information. The HDHHS Office for Surveillance and Public Health Preparedness, Community Health Statistics Section was consulted for GIS mapping support. The project started with a discussion with the members of the commission and grant administrators in various departments to understand the requirements for the approval process. Once the business processes and requirements had been established, a map document with the required layers and sufficient aerial extent was created using ArcGIS. HDHHS has been using ArcGIS for several years for mapping and monitoring infectious diseases in Houston; it was also utilized for this project. The map had layers that included the historic districts, streets, major highways, parcels, and grids, making it easier for the commission to locate a specific address. The next stages involved distribution of the map as a Published Map File (.pmf) among the departments; installation of ArcReader, free GIS software from Esri; and training of the program administrators to use the software. The Historical Commission was given a large paper wall map that covered the whole area and was to be used as a reference map when cases were received from the departments.

The case administrators are now able to locate a specific address; highlight it using the graphic capabilities of ArcReader; and print a custom map that shows the address, as well as the grid that encloses the address. The Historical Commission, using the standardized wall map, can make faster decisions compared to the previous methods, which used different standards for communicating the spatial data. This has resulted in considerable cost savings.

A full-scale GIS may not be right for limited purposes, such as locating addresses. The method adopted here is inexpensive and uses the available GIS resources efficiently. It also demonstrates that GIS can play a role in the business processes in departments that do not have GIS skills, knowledge, and expertise.

About the Authors

Riju Stephen, Brenda Reyes, Ketan Inamdar, and Mark Perry are associated with the Houston Department of Health and Human Services. Riju Stephen is a GIS analyst in the Community Health Statistics Program, and Mark Perry is the program manager. Ketan Inamdar is the administration manager of the Bureau of Community and Children's Environmental Health, and Brenda Reyes is the bureau chief.

More Information

For more information, contact Riju Stephen, GIS analyst, Houston Department of Health and Human Services, City of Houston (tel.: 713-794-9953 or 713-837-6351, e-mail:

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