Electronic Turf Warfare
- By Paul Korzeniowski
- Nov 10, 1996
Jerry Paul information systems manager for Salinas, Calif., predicted the city's computing future. In 1992 he knew that a client/server-based geographic information system (GIS) would make it simpler for many municipal agencies to complete their daily chores.
So he tried to convince some city agencies, including the Public Utilities Department, to champion the technology. But he was met with a lack of interest from other city managers. Although he was rebuffed, he was not discouraged.
Paul says he felt so strongly about the technology's potential that he spent his spare moments preparing information in the city's flat-file database management system so it would work with a relational database management system used in newer GIS systems.
Paul toiled in obscurity until the summer of 1995, when a couple of police officers came calling. The police department had just won a $100,000 grant from the Justice Department. The money, which was provided under the Clinton administration' s crime bill, was to be used to develop a program to curb youth firearm violence.
One piece of the department's proposal was to build a crime analysis system to monitor the city's gang activity. As the officers described the application's requirements, Paul saw the first new GIS system beginning to unfold. But the IS department faced a challenge.
"The police department promised that the system would be in place in six months," Paul said. "The officers obviously did not understand the time needed to develop new applications."
Though the time line was short, Paul's groundwork helped the police department meet its deadline. The crime analysis system has been so successful that the police are thinking about additional GIS applications, such as a 911 system, and other agencies, including Public Utilities, have begun designing GIS applications.
GISes, which are common in state and city governments, use location information such as address, ZIP code, census block, or latitude and longitude coordinates to display information on maps that users can analyze.
A GIS application can illustrate just about any type of information as long as it has a geographic component. With such a system, a user can alter selection criteria, analyze different factors and see patterns, relationships and trends that aren't always evident in a table or a list.
This type of system was exactly what the Salinas police needed. Previously, officers worked with printouts of crime activities and stuck color-coded pins in a map to illustrate crime patterns. That system was not interactive, and the data often was outdated because individual officers were responsible for its maintenance.
The department, which has 151 officers, wanted better tools because crime was on the rise. An influx of gangs resulted in 24 deaths in 1994 in Salinas—an all-time high. The officers wanted to build an application so they could monitor juvenile crimes, especially handgun offenses, and envisioned a system that would display current information that officers could sift through quickly. Like many municipalities, Salinas had legacy computer systems and applications.
The city even ran a GIS application, which tracked 25,000 land parcels, on a Computervision Inc. minicomputer. But the software was not interactive, and users could not customize search criteria. Because Computervision was struggling financially, Paul was concerned about the system's long-term maintenance needs. Salinas wanted a completely new GIS.
Paul had been monitoring the market and was impressed with the Arc/Info product line from Environment Systems Research Institute Inc., a Redlands, Calif., GIS supplier, because it offered an easy-to-follow user interface and ran on a variety of computers. But the city found that building a GIS can be complicated.
"GIS systems are like toolkits where companies build the application rather than simply install an off-the-shelf package like a spreadsheet," noted Jon Harrison, the vertical market manager for the government sector at ESRI. A GIS includes a database management system (DBMS); geographic tools for data input, manipulation, query, analysis and visualization; and a graphical user interface (GUI) for user access. After talking with ESRI, Salinas purchased a Sun Microsystems Inc.
Sparcstation to support its application. Application development began in the fall of 1995. The city had to design connections from the Computervision system to the Sun server. "Government agencies have so much invested in their existing applications that they cannot throw them out," ESRI's Harrison explained. "In almost every case, we have to connect an existing system to a new application."
ESRI and the city developed a batch program that takes changes from the 25,000 parcels in the Computervision system and relays them to the Sun server. Relying on the existing data proved beneficial. "The most important consideration with a GIS system is that the data be accurate," Paul explained. "Because our information was already in use, the accuracy rate was above 95 percent.
Usually, only 60 percent of the information is correct with a new application." In addition to the back end, GISes require a great deal of front-end customization because every organization looks at data differently. Salinas relied on ESRI's Arc/Info and Microsoft Corp.'s Visual Basic to build its user interface. The city began constructing the application in October, had a prototype running in January, began a pilot program in March and has been steadily expanding the system's use. Daily, police officers fill out reports that outline all criminal activity.
Next, city clerks enter the information as well as other updates, such as new street information or address changes, in the Computervision system. The batch processing program transfers the data to the Sun server each night. As they start each shift, police officers sit at a set of four PCs running Microsoft's Windows operating system and sift through a range of data.
Sgt. Tracy Molfino said a team of 17 officers, who make up a violence suppression unit, can now gather more information about gang activities. Following a button-down menu system, they can enter queries and select information about recovered firearms, firearms located near a subject, incidents near a subject and incidents near an address. Radial searches display crime patterns on a street line map using different symbols for each type of crime, and officers can map gang territories to youth crimes and incidents. Initially, the officers had concerns.
"Because GIS systems are so graphically intensive, we were not sure the system would operate fast enough to support us," noted Molfino, a member of the violence suppression unit. "But the Sun system offers the officers subsecond response times."
Because the system presents officers with a quick, graphic view of crime areas, the police department has been better able to marshal its resources to prevent crime. In 1996 the number of gang-related firearm assaults has dropped 23 percent, drive-by shootings have decreased 31 percent, and there have been only three murders.
The initial success of GIS engaged the interest of other city agencies, and the system even helped to settle one dispute. Salinas food providers were concerned that sidewalk vendors were taking away their revenue and sought an ordinance from the local council to keep the vendors away from their property.
"At the first meeting, the proposal was that the push-cart vendors could not come within 500 feet of an eating establishment," Paul explained. "The council used the GIS system to illustrate its impact and saw that the vendors would have been banished from the city. Eventually, they settled on a distance of a few hundred feet."
Paul said all new applications will be developed on the new system. The Public Utilities Department will rely on GIS applications to determine whether lights are city or private property, and the Public Works Department wants to use the GIS to schedule the trimming of city plants and trees.
Eventually, the city plans to migrate all the Computervision applications to the Sun server. Paul said the process will require years because the IS department does not have the staff required to quickly translate legacy information to the new formats and user interfaces used on the Sun system.
Word of the city's success is spreading beyond the city's borders. Molfino has become a featured speaker at various state government conferences Recently, police officers from Kansas City, Mo., flew to Salesians to see if the crime analysis application could help them fight crime. Paul's focus has turned to building GIS applications as a full-time endeavor.
Paul Korzeniowski is a free-lance writer in Sudbury, Mass., who specializes in computer issues.