The same geographic information system (GIS) tools residents use every day to find directions or search for homes for sale can be used by local governments to provide information to residents about permitting, zoning and business licenses, as well as public works projects headed to their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, while most local governments already use GIS internally, they are ignoring the ways it can transform their direct connections with their residents.

Currently, local governments use GIS for various internal needs, from public works to public safety. GIS also can provide value to residents when it is integrated with government online services. Local government agencies from Orange County, Fla., to Jefferson County, Colo., show it can be done and have integrated those capabilities into their websites.

Mapping the approach

In Orange County, GIS is being used to determine whether swampland, low-lying areas, flood plains or preservation areas need to be considered when developing property into plats of smaller parcels. It also automatically notifies the appropriate agencies about needing a plan review when a permit is filed with the land development office.

Between 2007 and 2008, Jefferson County gathered feedback from staff, as well as neighborhood and homeowners associations, to identify what services they would like to access through the county's public portal using GIS. The system now addresses a key concern uncovered from the feedback: allowing residents to determine the types of land development and permit applications being processed in their area. By making that information accessible online, the county has fewer phone and in-person requests for the information. Web-based automation of the entire permitting process using GIS improved transparency, service levels and speed.

Those communities integrated GIS' mapping capabilities with a government's service delivery platform to provide more diverse and effective services. Residents, businesses and government officials can use those same integrated GIS tools to quickly interpret and visualize data in several different ways, particularly to understand trends, patterns and the government agency's requirements. Trust improves because residents know they are seeing the same data that government decision makers use.

Why is that important? Transparency is often mandated, and residents demand better visibility into their government's operations. In addition, residents already bank, shop and connect with friends online and expect the same level of engagement from government agencies. Residents also expect government services to be easy to access and use. Integrating GIS tools with a public interface is one way that government agencies can make that happen.

Making the investment pay off

Why do so many government agencies still lag in offering such services? One reason is historical. When GIS first arrived, government agencies set up entire departments to manage the application. Over time, those departments became powerful silos because of the considerable data they controlled. They knew where all the street segments and sewers were, but that data was confined to specific tasks — it wasn't integrated with other government service agencies' data.

Cost also has been a barrier to integrating an agency's citizen services platform. However, using more self-serve functions and integrating GIS saves the time that departmental personnel would have to spend walking residents through permit, zoning or licensing processes.

Inspectors in the field who can access data through mobile applications save time and money by reducing trips to headquarters. Those inspectors can rely on mobile devices to file reports remotely, check blueprints and even get GPS driving directions to the next inspection site. With more time in the field, more work gets done with less staff, and those savings become an annuity, quickly paying back the cost of the original investment.

The automation of citizen services also will help, considering the large reductions in funding and the retirements of staff members who will be leaving with significant institutional knowledge that now will be documented and accessible to all residents — either online or in a kiosk in an agency's office.

In addition, automating the system will reduce the time spent by contractors or property owners who want to obtain a building permit. Even after the time spent visiting various departments — building, planning and engineering, for example — the contractor still has to wait for notifications that the work can proceed. But, when all those processes and services are available on the government's public portal, using GIS data, those activities can all be performed online at the contractor's (or resident's) convenience.

In fact, with the availability of GIS-enabled e-services systems, contractors are using their own mobile devices to receive automated emails from the government while they are at the job site. Reports are available on a mobile device minutes after an inspection, and the contractor can quickly address fixes that are required. That all adds up to more work getting done with fewer delays in completing projects.

Keeping residents informed

Integrating a GIS with a citizen service platform also can help automate public notifications. In the past, producing those notifications was a laborious process involving several government employees working several days to generate thick documents for upcoming hearings. With an integrated GIS, government agencies can layer the relevant addresses from a central point and generate automated notification letters to those residents who are required to be notified by law. Those residents can access the GIS planning tools themselves to get answers to their questions.

Another example is a resident who wants to determine whether a neighbor received the proper permits for an addition to his house. Using a GIS-enabled public portal, the resident can locate the house on a map, see which permits are pending or have been approved, and determine whether there are any potential zoning or code violations.

A fully integrated GIS also can help government with its business development efforts. For example, demographic data from the U.S. Census that incorporates income, population and median home price can be added as layer coverage in GIS. Then, if a small businessperson is planning to open a salon and requires a certain level of income within that market, he or she can determine the best location for the salon.

Land development is another area where residents can use GIS integrated with a citizen services platform. A realtor may tell a resident that a nearby parcel is designed for open space, but a quick check through the GIS-enabled portal can determine whether that is true.

Serving the people

Transparency provided by an integrated GIS system empowers residents to participate more actively in the development of their communities. Instead of looking at outdated maps on a wall, residents and businesses can view a GIS integrated with a citizen service platform to monitor patterns of development and get a sense of how they are going to affect the community, property values and businesses.

The growth of government — and the population — has made providing higher service levels with fewer staff and reduced budgets more challenging. Yet, by integrating GIS and citizen service platforms, governments can make themselves more responsive to their residents while improving internal efficiencies.

Timothy Carl (t.carl@csdcsystems.com) is a strategic account director at Mississauga-based CSDC Systems/AMANDA software and former development and transportation director for Jefferson County, Colo.

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