The new state and local power tool
- By Jennifer Jones
- Oct 11, 1998
For some state and local government executives, geographic information systems have become a political power tool. Take the case of Arkansas Secretary of State Sharon Priest, who this year will use GIS to help redraw the state's political boundaries. In doing so, she hopes to avoid earlier mistakes caused by more manual redistricting methods.
"Were hoping GIS is going to help us keep political boundaries aligned with physical boundaries such as streets, rivers or streams. That has not always been the case," Priest said. "For example, we had several subdivisions built after our reapportionment of 1990. One of the district boundaries now goes through somebody's house. We want to avoid having one member of a family voting in one district and one voting in another [district], depending on what side of the bed they sleep on."
Elsewhere, GIS is maturing beyond its techie beginnings in engineering, utilities and urban planning departments. "State and local governments are using GIS to do tax collection and voter routing, trying to point them to where the voting locations are," said Randy Andes, brand manager for workstations in the state and local market at Dell Computer Corp., which is bundling GIS software into some of its hardware offerings. "We've also seen a lot of applications in fire departments and 911 services. Police stations are also using [GIS] to analyze crime statistics and display areas for missing and lost persons."
In some areas, GIS technology is evolving even further, going beyond its geographic beginnings. Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., for instance, now has an application that maps the human brain. "Using GIS inside the human body is a logical extension of the technology," said Bill Davenhall, manager of ESRI's health solutions group. "It's a fine line-moving what is geographical or land-based to strictly spatial measurements between two points that are not necessarily bound by land."
Technology, Market Drivers
The primary reason for the usage explosion is that the technology underlying GIS is changing dramatically. Spurred by the popularity of Microsoft Corp. Windows NT and advances in desktop technology, many GIS applications are moving off Unix workstations and onto smaller hardware platforms. Also, improvements in database and object-oriented software have produced tools to integrate GIS with other applications.
Although significant, these factors are tied to an explosion of interest among policy-makers in population and demographic statistics. More and more, officials want to know who and where constituents are, and at the same time are demanding at least rudimentary map-making skills from their immediate staffs."When you think about it, all government service is land-based," said Christopher Thomas, state and local government solutions manager for ESRI, Redlands, Calif. "We are now starting to find that societal issues are driving GIS programs. "There is now a lot of interest in using GIS to manage demographics, and there is a lot of work being done to meet that market for non-engineers-those trying to do things like track single mothers applying for food stamp programs. Traditionally, GIS players have been urban planners and engineers. But those are relatively narrow fields, and we are trying to reach other markets."
In part the shift is being driven by the value of the data. "Because GIS is so powerful, it has to be taken out of the back room where it runs on Unix machines under the eye of full-time GIS analysts," said John McCarthy, manager of government accounts for MapInfo Corp., Troy, N.Y. "Business managers and county executives want access to that data. It now makes sense to them."Until recently the technology was isolated in specialized departments. That in turn produced GIS fiefdoms. "I jokingly refer to these shops as the 'guys with beards and Birkenstocks in the back room,' " said Carl Reed, vice president of infrastructure marketing at Intergraph Corp. "We are still going to need them for arcane use of spatial data. But more and more, users are going to be going to the Internet to access GIS, and they will not have to know a great deal about the discipline to do that."
Arkansas' Priest typifies this new user. She's not interested in learning the technology, but very interested in the end product-a smart map she can use to sell ideas and programs to constituents and other policy makers. "I am not a techie. I will never present myself as a techie," she said. "But at this point, I would not even attempt to do the reapportionment without GIS."
The GIS system Priest relies on was developed under a long-standing relationship between Intergraph and the Center for Advanced Spatial Technology at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. "Never before have we had such detail in a mapping project for our district," Priest said. "That is really going to help us."Intergraph once reached agency users almost exclusively through elite organizations such as the Arkansas center. But over the past 18 months, it has focused on developing products for general end users. The centerpiece of that effort is the company's GeoMedia line of spatial data servers, which run on Windows NT.
"It was a big departure for the company," Reed said. Intergraph's GeoMedia funnels geospatial data to end users regardless of where the data is generated-even if it's from behind enemy lines, such as from Arc/Info, the flagship platform of competitor ESRI.
Intergraph is so confident GeoMedia can earn a following among state and local officials that it finalized a partnership over the summer with the National Association of Counties (NACo) to distribute prepackaged GIS "starter kits" to county leaders. And last month the company pushed a similar strategy at the annual conference of Women Executives in State Government, where it put on a full-court press.
"We are going to sit [potential users] down at a PC and show them how to use mapping technology. We're pitching it as a way to get your boss-or yourself-re-elected," said Tom Clemons, Intergraph's U.S. sales manager.
ESRI's weapon in the war for the state and local rank and file is MapObjects, an application development product that enables programmers to generate mapping applications or add mapping components to existing Windows applications. ESRI even has created several MapObjects templates that local governments can use to customize displays of water quality, census data or other crucial information.
MapObjects is designed for two sets of GIS users: Programmers skilled in Visual Basic can use it to design simple mapping applications, and end users with only a working knowledge of Windows can use MapObjects to view simple GIS maps. The product is built upon Microsoft's Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) 2.0 standard to embed mapping capabilities in software products such as spreadsheets, word processors and databases. MapObjects is designed to work in tandem with ESRI's high-end Arc/Info spatial database engine and ArcView, a midlevel desktop mapping system.
ESRI's and Intergraph's efforts to move beyond their engineering orientation has created some competitive pressure for MapInfo, long considered a leader in desktop mapping solutions. "ESRI has a strong foothold in land-planning and related applications. Those were [the company's] original markets for GIS products, and [it] will have to overcome that reputation," McCarthy said. "[ESRI seems] to be interested now in business intelligence because that is where the market is going, so we are going to bump up against them from time to time."
MapInfo also has positioned itself as a firm specializing in "enterprisewide GIS solutions," McCarthy said. The company last month released Version 5.0 of its flagship product MapInfo Professional, which offers better access to remote databases. Features include "continuous thematic shading," which allows users to create realistic depictions of data, such as the percentage of Spanish-speaking residents in a particular region. MapInfo also offers MapX, an object-oriented solution based on OLE, and MapXsite for adding mapping to a World Wide Web site.
While stand-alone GIS applications have become more palatable to general end users, the technology also has become easier to integrate. The result is that more systems are coming out carrying a type of embedded GIS functionality.
San Diego, for example, is one of the first cities to take advantage of a new arrangement between ESRI and SAP AG, the Walldorf, Germany-based software giant that integrates GIS into enterprise software suites. Forged in late summer, the ESRI-SAP partnership combines SAP's R/3 software with ESRI's ArcView GIS and ArcView Business Analyst software.
Initially, San Diego's Streets Division will use the partnership to bundle GIS functions into a new work-order management system running on SAP software. "[The Streets Division] is responsible for all the signs, roads and street lights, and they have to inventory a lot of information," said Gabriela Coverdale, a city GIS manager. "It therefore makes total sense to do the inventorying using a GIS." The arrangement also means the city can move GIS applications into the hands of more end users while protecting its investment in ESRI technology, which it has used since 1984 to create a GIS infrastructure of databases and applications. But now the GIS specialty organizations the city maintains, such as the San Diego Geographic Information Source (SANGIS), will be more involved in data collection than in spatial data operations.
"[SANGIS] pretty much warehouses all the information that is available to everyone so that everyone is using the same exact data," Coverdale said. "What they don't do anymore is complete GIS operations for any city agencies or departments. They are mostly concerned with things like collecting data on a new street that is put in. We all want that street data, but no one wants to be responsible for entering or maintaining that data."
GIS technology also is being packaged into mainstream hardware systems. Last month Dell Computer Corp. unveiled plans to prepackage ESRI's ArcView GIS into some of its Dell Precision Workstation 410 and 610 systems. In doing so, it noticed the surge toward using Windows NT systems in the market as potential GIS workhorses. "What we're seeing across the board in local government is a fairly rapid transition from Unix to [Windows] NT," said David Forsythe, director and general manager of Dell state and local government. "With the success and cost-effectiveness of the NT workstation in the state and local market, we then began to see those governments start looking for opportunities for workstations."
Dell is not offering much in the way of a price break on ArcView. Instead, it is counting on the appeal of GIS to end users to tip the scales in favor of the pre-loaded workstations. "The software pricing is similar to what you can get from ESRI, but the value add is that a local government agency doesn't have to spend valuable resources and time loading the software," Dell's Andes said.
The appeal across so many agencies and to top municipal leaders is perhaps instinctual. "We all have maps in our heads. Mental maps are the way we organize our picture of our communities. Those mental maps can be transferred to community leaders as illustrations using GIS," said Joe VanderMuellen, executive director of the Land Information Access Association, a Traverse City, Mich.-based nonprofit organization that promotes GIS as integral part of maintaining the state's community fabric.
GIS in the Margin
* ESRI is getting many state and local calls for use of its CrimeView product in welfare fraud detection.
* Fresno County, Calif., is using GIS in a holistic healing program offered by its Department of Human Services.
* The Michigan Land Information Access Association is helping to build GIS systems that integrate text, video and sound clips in a new multimedia GIS that portrays communities.
* Towns on Cape Cod, Mass., are using GIS to track the area's unusually high rate of breast cancer.
* More than 80 percent of all government is land-related and georeferenced.
* New York is using MapInfo products in a GIS that displays to aging residents the tax benefits of not moving to Florida.
* Intergraph claims that 50 counties throughout the country a week are requesting the company's NACo GIS starter kit.
* Intergraph is using a business partner approach to selling Geomedia. "Team Geomedia" involves a set of companies tailoring the product to local government applications.