Walk into any building owned by a local municipal government and not far from the official seal, you’ll undoubtedly see a map hanging on the wall. Thick black boundary lines mark the limit of the local government’s political control and responsibility. The map’s prominent presentation is not out of a sense of pride, but rather to help meet the informational needs of local leaders which revolve almost entirely around geographic locations. Police and fire services, snow removal and street repair, public transportation and trash collection all depend on information that is best represented on a map.
Visual geographic information has grown into a discipline broadly referred to as Geographic Information System or GIS. GIS lets users see data on a map which empowers them with an enhanced ability to understand patterns, trends, and relationships in specific geographic areas. The examples of GIS applications are boundless, reaching far beyond just local municipalities: see 67 listed here and 1000 more listed here.
But points on a map have limited usefulness unless they are tied to an ability to interpret and analyze the data which in turn can drive inspections, reports and results. With powerful spatial analysis tools, local decision-makers are able to manage scarce resources with greater efficiency. GIS technology integrated with digital workflows helps even the smallest municipalities improve services while remaining on budget.
One area where GIS technology coupled with data analytics has proven particularly useful is in water resource management, a central function of local municipalities. It should come as no surprise to learn that water flows do not adhere to political boundary lines. Hence, new interactive GIS maps enable local municipal leaders to delineate and visualize watershed areas, determine water flow direction and assess and manage water quality that is under their purview, but that originates elsewhere. GIS “layers”, which are datasets portraying specific geographic information, can include pollution-producing sites like construction and industrial sites. These “layers” can also reflect sensitive environmental areas, such as wetlands, which viewed with potential polluters, helps leaders determine the areas of greatest risk and manage that risk accordingly. The City of Aspen recently used GIS data to assess a major watershed area in Colorado prior to a development project. Municipalities are able to reduce the impact of storm water runoff and forecast potential land erosion by modeling point and non-point source pollution and inventorying wetlands (National Wetlands Inventory). These are just a few ways in which GIS helps address this dynamic and multi-dimensional challenge.
Another key element of water resource management where GIS is having an impact is in the area of environmental protection and clean water compliance. Software companies such as CloudCompli have incorporate a variety of GIS databases into its platform to include the location of weather stations and nationwide weather data (such as NOAA and AccuWeather data), the location of roadways and water conveyance systems, and perhaps most importantly, the location of businesses and land development projects under the purview of municipal governments. Embedding GIS layers into software platforms creates powerful interactive tools that improve the ability of Municipals Storm Water Divisions and Regional Water Boards to regulate storm water discharges from municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s).
GIS technology has changed the way municipalities see their cities, but GIS technology combined with powerful analytics tools go beyond just seeing the problems and actually helps municipalities solve complex problems. Monitors have already begun to replace maps as key tools for decision-makers and maps are being hung prominently on the wall as a point of pride for a flourishing city.