D.C. launches mapping tool

Washington, D.C., will unveil an enterprisewide, Web-based mapping tool today, culling information from 67 city agencies and plopping it on the desktops of every government employee, in essence making it as fundamental and indispensable as word processing.

"The fact is, it would take days, weeks, months to collect data to answer one simple question and now it can be done in a matter of minutes," said Adam Rubinson, senior director for special projects in the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (octo.dc.gov).

While geographic information systems are a staple among many governments, Vicki DeFries, the city's GIS director, said D.C. is trying to take the "mystique" out of using the mapping tool, which has been considered cumbersome to learn. "This is a fundamental shift in how GIS has been delivered in the past," she said. "It's the approach that's unique."

With the new intranet-based GIS tool called DC Atlas, city employees, who will be provided with a one-day training course, can access nearly 150 map layers containing demographic, geographic and socioeconomic data — including trees, streets, buildings and crime — to make faster and better-informed decisions, Rubinson said. For example, by clicking on a hospital, users can find specific information such as the number of beds it has, its mortality rates, utility information and permits issued, he said.

One challenge in developing the system, DeFries said, was convincing agencies they wouldn't be required to give up control of their datasets. This system, she said, is a management tool that enables agencies to retain responsibility over their datasets while sharing it.

However, Mayor Anthony Williams has formed a GIS Steering Committee — composed of representatives of all city agencies — to develop standards on how agencies can maintain data effectively, Rubinson said. The committee also will be developing a data distribution policy that would cover whether some information should be provided for free, licensed or sold to businesses.

In addition to trend analysis, the tool also would increase government accountability for city services. For example, if someone reports a pothole, users, including those in the district call center, can click on the street and see the entire history of the work order.

By fall, the city plans to unveil an Internet-based Citizen Atlas so outside users can obtain such information as well as property data and crime statistics.

After Sept. 11, GIS usage became particularly important in collecting data for emergency preparedness.

The government put the application on the fast track for the Metropolitan Police Department so it could run scenarios and simulate traffic and pedestrian flow at its command center before and during the demonstrations in April by groups protesting the International Monetary Fund, Rubinson said.

The D.C. government has formed a GIS Emergency Committee to reach out to the federal government and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments — a regional association composed of 17 local governments around the nation's capital — to collect, share and expand usage of such data.

DC Atlas cost about $1 million to develop, Rubinson said. Eventually, police, fire, ambulance and public works personnel, among others, will be able to access DC Atlas via wireless handheld devices, he said. Furthermore, by interfacing it with a Global Positioning System device, supervisors could track workers who could note the exact location of, for example, a pothole or other problem. Such functionality may take another two to three years to develop, he said.

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