H2M Article on GIS Featured in Talk of the Towns

H2M Article on GIS Featured in Talk of the Towns

An article by H2M’s Director of GIS Services Christopher Kobos, PMP, and Communications Specialist Jackson Shrout, was featured in the March/April issue of Talk of the Towns, the official publication of the Association of Towns of the State of New York.

The article, titled “Communicate with the Public Using GIS,” outlines several creative ways that GIS—short for geographic information systems—can be used to enhance communications between municipalities and constituents, bolster transparency in local government, and improve efficiency in the municipal workforce.

The Association of Towns is an organization dedicated to improving town governments in New York State through training programs, research, technical assistance, and more. Since its establishment in 1933, the Association of Towns has grown to include roughly 30,000 town officials in its membership, representing 97% of all towns in New York State.

Continue reading to learn more about how GIS can be an effective communication tool for municipalities.

Communicate with the Public Using GIS

By: Christopher Kobos, PMP | Director of GIS Services and Jackson Shrout | Municipal Communications Specialist

Geographic information systems (GIS) are an indispensable tool widely utilized by municipalities in New York and across the country on a daily basis. With GIS, local governments—as well as state agencies, special districts, utility providers, research institutions, and more—can log and track a wide variety of assets, and the workforce assigned to maintain them, via a comprehensive map-based management system.

These assets can include roads; streetlamps; public facilities; water, wastewater, electrical, and telecommunications infrastructure; and more. Municipal workers charged with maintaining and repairing these assets can access pertinent information and log their work on mobile devices in real time, providing up-to-the-minute status updates and allowing municipalities to track when, for example, a sewer line was last inspected and cleaned.

Though these aspects of GIS are among the most commonly used by municipalities, GIS is limitless in its versatility due to its geospatial data analysis and management features. Municipalities can also harness the deep asset management capabilities of GIS to facilitate communication with the public, improving government efficiency and transparency and creating a greater bond of trust between residents and their government.

GIS as a Reporting Tool

GIS can be just as useful for government constituents as it is for municipal departments and their staff. Experienced GIS users can develop public-facing modules that allow residents to access a small subset of features and information. However, even a limited window into GIS can produce remarkable results for efficiency.

Consider the following scenario: a resident discovers a dangerous pothole in the road and wants to report it to their local government. Under many circumstances, the resident would need to locate their local government’s phone number, contact their highway department or public works department or its equivalent, and either speak with a secretary or leave a voicemail and hope for a return call. Residents will rarely know when they can expect their issues to be addressed and usually must call again to request updates.

Municipal workers field these types of calls all the time, often from multiple people regarding the same issue, and it can take up a significant amount of time that the employee could spend on other parts of their job.

Now consider the same scenario with a public-facing reporting system built with GIS. That same resident can go online to their town’s website or open an app and fill out a report which includes the type of issue, the location of the issue (either through typing an address or dropping a pin on the map), the resident’s contact information, the option to upload a photo, and the option to submit notes for additional context. This information would then go directly to the proper department, and identical reports from the same area could be stacked so as not to overwhelm governmental staff.

The Incorporated Village of Sands Point in North Hempstead demonstrates the efficacy of this type of program. Though they do not maintain this exact public-facing GIS module, local public works employees and police have access to an app that they can use to report these types of issues even when they are off-duty or responding to an unrelated call. This significantly reduces not only the amount of time municipal workers spend on the phone recording complaints, but also the barriers that might prevent a resident from reporting an issue in the first place if they lack the time or patience to call their local government. This extends beyond just roads, as village staff can use the module to report severed power lines, downed trees, and non-functioning streetlamps and traffic signals.

Crowdsourcing valuable information could even influence future public works projects. If a road is frequently reported as flooding during rainstorms, the municipality could prioritize improving drainage on that street. If severed power lines are regularly reported in a specific area, the municipality can coordinate with the public utility service to relocate or bury the power lines to prevent future disruptions. The spatial analysis and data visualization tools of GIS—as well as the inherent ability to share data and maps with the public—make this possible. These features offer more than just improved efficiency, they can also turn a constituency into a robust pool of useful data.

GIS as an Information Repository 

Not every asset falls under the same jurisdiction, however, and it is unlikely that a resident would know, for example, which roads are town roads versus county roads versus state roads. Additionally, in parts of New York State, such as Long Island, water distribution and fire protection services are the responsibility of special administrative districts rather than the local municipality. Assets belonging to different authorities or jurisdictions could still appear on the same public-facing module with contact information for whichever public entity has the proper authority to address the issue.

A notable example of this system is the Town of Hempstead, which is currently the largest township in the United States by population. The Town’s website contains a detailed map displaying the boundaries for hamlets, incorporated villages, special administrative districts, and councilmanic districts, as well as highlighting roads to indicate the level of government responsible for them.

Furthermore, certain municipal assets undergoing significant maintenance could be logged and configured to display work timeliness and closure information. During storm events such as blizzards or hurricanes, public works employees could track which roads have been plowed or which roads are closed due to accidents or downed trees.

GIS as a Notification System

GIS can also be an integral part of a municipality’s public outreach efforts as well, allowing local governments to quickly and easily build contact lists which can be used to relay important information to specific groups of residents based on their location.

Ahead of emergencies such as severe storms, heat waves, or cold fronts, municipalities can use these contact lists to provide residents with vital information about nearby hazards, the locations of proximate warming centers or storm shelters, and contact information for important local services they may need to utilize. On the other end of the spectrum, municipalities can provide advanced notice to residents living along parade routes or on roads that are expected to close for street festivals, as well as information on closure dates and times and alternate routes.

The contact list can also be used to promote public hearings and referenda. Per New York State’s General Municipal Law, zoning variance applications must have public hearings and nearby property owners must receive ample notice. School, water, and fire districts can also coordinate with their local municipality to notify district residents of upcoming public votes, including bond referenda and elections for Board of Education and Board of Commissioners positions.

A New Approach to GIS

The adaptability of GIS lends itself incredibly well to new and imaginative applications. Greater and more widespread adoption of municipal GIS platforms can yield fresh and innovative approaches to asset management. Utilizing GIS as a public communications tool is just one of the many exciting ways that municipalities can redefine what it means to be efficient, transparent, and reliable to its constituency.