Study Explores How Local Governments Use GIS

16 Oct, 2013 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

Esri Australia and the Surveying and Spatial Science Institute back a research initiative to better understand users' attitudes and capabilities.

Geographic information system (GIS) technology finds application in a broad range of markets, but it holds particular value for local governments that need to manage city planning, emergency services, and other complex, location-specific undertakings. But is that value apparent to all the users who could benefit from it? How is the technology being applied? What kinds of information are being communicated to the public?

These are the types of questions that the Surveying and Spatial Science Institute (SSSI) and Esri Australia set out to answer with the 2013 GIS in Local Government Benchmark Study, released last month. The report provides insight into the use of GIS technology by local Australian governments — known as councils — which are the largest collective user of GIS technology in the country.

The study compiled feedback from 150 Australian councils and six international local government groups. Most survey respondents think that GIS technology has a role to play in policy development, and that crowdsourced information is important to emergency response activities. A whopping 99% believe GIS technology can improve communication with the public. Only a little more than two-thirds trust that the value of GIS technology is widely understood in their organization.

Josh Venman, GIS solutions architect at Esri Australia, provided further insight on the results of the study.

Cadalyst: How have these statistics changed in recent years? How do you expect them to change in the future?

Venman: As we've seen in the Benchmark Study, the ever-growing demand for GIS capabilities means there has been significant change across the spatial industry. With more than 150 councils surveyed, the Benchmark Study received more than double the number of participants [in] the last study, in 2011. I believe the increase in participants is the result of more councils realizing the value of GIS technology — particularly when it comes to facilitating communication with the public.

In 2011, 73% indicated they would like to start using crowdsourced data. Today the Study indicates 35% are already using it, with a further 83% indicating crowdsourced data is important to emergency response activities.

Likewise, in 2011, 58% indicated they would like to further use mobile devices. Today, 28% of councils now leverage smartphone apps.

Looking to the future, the Study outlines that 60% of respondents said they would consider making their spatial data freely available to citizens. This is a relatively new area for councils, but I think it's something we will see more often — and eventually will become expected by the public.

I also believe more councils will start to see the value of 3D GIS and the significant advantages it can offer when planning for the future of our cities. The Study found 30% are currently using the technology — [a number] which I think will dramatically increase as 3D GIS becomes more affordable and councils further understand its potential.

In the next five to ten years, I also believe we will see GIS technology continuing to grow in the area of planning and analysis, which currently stands at 16% of councils using it. Developing a vision for the future of a city, town, or any public space is a fundamentally geographic problem, and one that GIS is well suited to solving.

I also think cloud-based deployment patterns will increase as local government faces pressure to adapt to a rapidly changing technology landscape. Cloud deployment can be a cost-effective, simple option for rolling out new GIS capabilities.

Would you consider these survey results to be unique to Australia?

While the Benchmark Study only surveyed Australian councils, six international local government authorities' use of GIS technology were incorporated, including: King County in Washington, the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, Singapore, Honolulu, and Marlborough.

These councils revealed similar usage patterns to what we're seeing here in Australia. For instance, Honolulu is using GIS in the same way as Townsville City Council. Honolulu used advanced GIS visualization and 3D tools during the development of a new railway system to show residents exactly how the new infrastructure would benefit commuters and relieve traffic congestion. Similarly, Townsville City Council use 3D GIS to generate plans and models of potential developments. This enables residents to "fly through" the city's new planning scheme via an online map, giving them an idea of how the development would take shape.

Another example of the world moving in the same direction as Australia is the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, and its implementation of an enterprise-wide GIS solution that now underpins all activities of the Borough's departments. Here in Australia, Brisbane City Council has established an enterprise-wide solution, which provides GIS capabilities to more than 4,000 staff from departments including customer service, environmental management, infrastructure, and physical asset management.


What factors have led more local governments to understand the importance of GIS?

I think the growing profile of the technology in the broader community has contributed to the increasing understanding of the importance of GIS.

For instance, the Benchmark Study includes commentary from Bundaberg City Council, and how they used GIS when the floods hit in January of this year. Council found the technology was imperative in providing the Australian Defence Force, Salvation Army, and Red Cross with an up-to-date view of the situation as it was unfolding. The technology also assisted in the evacuation of more than 6,000 people and ultimately improved tactical and operational decision-making, situational awareness, strategic planning, community engagement, and rescue efforts.

As we've discovered from the Benchmark Study, councils are happy to share their experiences with other councils, including the lessons learned. By doing this, awareness among councils is constantly growing.

Does private use spur government adoption of GIS, or vice versa?

Collectively, Australia's local governments represent the largest user of GIS technology in the country. As a result, local governments have traditionally been early adopters of the technology — and in many cases, they are the industry's driving force.

For example, the Gold Coast City Council was the first organization to implement a geo-enabled SAP system in Australia, and since then, many private firms have followed suit. What's unique about GIS technology is it can benefit organizations from any industry — from the health sector, through to finance and insurance, and even retail.

To what extent does the citizenry appreciate the value of GIS in government?

Councils are serving increasingly geo-literate populations, who have a high level of ease with information presented in the form of maps. Residents now expect to be able to access information relating to where they are right now, where they live, and other locations important to them.

I believe this connection with citizens — through geography — is a major contributor to why councils are incorporating GIS technology into their systems and processes at an increasing rate. For example, Gosford City Council has a public-facing online map, which provides the public with around-the-clock access to information that was previously only available during business hours, such as planning, zoning, sea level rise, and bushfire data. As a result, GIS technology has cut the number of phone calls received by Council in half.

Similarly, the City of Bayswater in Perth used GIS technology to develop Interactive City Maps, a user-friendly website that provides public access to the most-up-to-date and authoritative spatial information on the Bayswater area. The map is incredibly interactive and allows people to switch council layers on and off, including: photography, planning and zoning data, and land parcel and heritage information.

What are the benefits of a local government making its spatial data freely available?

In Australia, this is a relatively new area for councils, but I think councils are beginning to realize the value of making spatial data freely available, particularly when there is a need to communicate information to a community. As mentioned above, Townsville City Council shared information via a public-facing map to easily show residents the city's new planning scheme, giving them an idea of how the development would take shape.

On the other hand, councils are also starting to recognize the general extra efficiencies they are gaining by opening access to their information. The City of Melbourne, for example, shared its spatial data freely worldwide via the Esri Community Maps program — a global initiative which brings together the most-up-to-date spatial data from official sources around the globe, including New York and Los Angeles. The City of Melbourne's involvement with Community Maps has given every ratepayer in Melbourne, and the broader community, access to authoritative information about the nation's fastest-growing city. People can now freely access Melbourne's spatial data, which includes building sites, parcel boundaries, tree locations, and other layers which display the CBD and surrounding areas. Users not only have access to view the City of Melbourne's spatial data, they can also create their own customized maps with unprecedented levels of detail.

Businesses often have maps on their website of their store locations or the areas they service, and previously, they have had to rely on some online base maps that have not been regularly updated or verified. As a result of Council making its spatial data freely available, Melbourne's citizens and businesses now have open access to an incredibly accurate and verified base map which they know they can trust.

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