Mapping Citizen Engagement through GIS

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Guest article by Timothy W. Carl

Nowadays mapping tools are commonplace, especially on the internet, and we can see anything and anywhere with just a couple of clicks.  But when it’s time to deal with local government for a variety of services and information, citizens wonder why their government agencies are not leveraging the full benefits of the GIS systems they maintain and use for internal government chores.

This can be frustrating to citizens who are already using GIS tools such as Google’s Earth and Map products and those available through Bing, the Microsoft search engine. Of course these GIS tools allow overlays of data from other sources, such as Zillow.com, an online real estate site that allows people to search for homes for sale, find home prices, see home values and even view maps and pictures of recently sold homes.

If Zillow.com and the popular search engines can integrate this kind of data with a GIS, citizens may ask, shouldn’t local government agencies at the municipal and county level provide the same sort of services and information to citizens for permitting, zoning, business licenses and learning about public works projects in their neighborhoods?

Mapping the approach

Actually, the truth is today’s government already has the tools to make it happen – local governments already own GIS systems for various internal needs, from public works to public safety.  It’s just a matter of mapping out a focused, integrated approach to increasing citizen engagement through their GIS.  GIS provides significant value to both citizens and government when it is integrated with online services, or a “public portal,” as part of the government services offering.  Government agencies from Orange County, Florida, to Jefferson County, Colorado, have proven it can be done.

In Orange County, Florida, GIS can help determine whether there are swampland, low-lying areas, flood plains or preservation areas that need to be considered when developing the property into plats of smaller parcels, and automatically notify the appropriate agencies about the need for a plan review when a permit is filed with the land development office.

In Jefferson County, Colorado, the second largest county outside of Denver, the government incorporated feedback from its staff as well as neighborhood and homeowners’ associations to identify what citizen services they would like to access through the county’s Public Portal using a GIS platform. The system now addresses a key concern – residents can determine what kinds of land development and permit applications are being processed in their area, which has reduced the amount of phone and in-person requests for information.  Web-based automation of the entire permitting process with GIS integration improved transparency, service levels, and speed.  During peak demand periods, the county was able to improve service levels while managing to keep costs down, and without the need to hire additional support staff.

Integration is the key

As you can see from these examples, the most effective GIS implementations integrate mapping capabilities with a government’s Service Delivery Platform in order to provide more diverse and more effective citizen services. Citizens, businesses, and government officials can use these same integrated GIS tools to quickly interpret and visualize data in several different ways, particularly when it comes to understanding trends, patterns and requirements within the government agency’s boundaries. Trust improves because citizens know they are seeing the same data that government decision makers use.  The end result is significant cost and time savings for both the government and for citizens attempting to use those services.

Why is this important? Governments today strive for more transparency, as legislation often mandates it and as citizens demand better visibility into their government’s operations. In addition, citizens are already able to bank, shop and connect with friends online; they want and expect the same level of engagement when working with government agencies. Citizens 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


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So why do so many government agencies still lag in offering such services to their citizens? 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 in their own right because of the considerable data over which they had control. They knew where all the street segments were, where all the sewers were, but that data was confined to specific tasks – it wasn’t integrated with the data available through other government service agencies.

Cost has also been a barrier to integrating an agency’s citizen services platform. Yet that view is short-sighted, both for the cost of government operations and the perspective of providing efficient citizen services.

Making citizen services more of a self-serve proposition with an integrated GIS saves a lot of time that departmental personnel would otherwise have to spend walking citizens through permit, zoning or licensing processes at the front counter. In the field, inspectors who are able to access data through mobile applications save time and money on trips back and forth 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.

This is significant, because staffing levels in government agencies continue to constrict from significant reductions in funding and the pending retirement of baby boomer staff members who have a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge that will be lost with their departures. By automating processes with a GIS-enabled service delivery platform, the institutional knowledge that might be lost when a government official retired can now be documented and accessible to any citizen – either online or in a kiosk out in a front lobby.

On the customer side, think of how much time is spent by a contractor or property owner who wants to obtain a building permit. There is the trip to the city hall or county seat to fill out applications or check approval status. Then there is the time spent visiting the appropriate departments – they may have to check in on three floors with building, planning, and engineering. Finally, there are all the books of information they have to weed through – everything from government regulations to plats and watershed maps.

For that contractor, a lot of time is spent dealing with City Hall and waiting for notifications that work can proceed. But when all these processes and services are available on the government’s Public Portal, coupled with the GIS data, those activities can all be done online – at the contractor’s (or resident’s) convenience. Instead of taking time away from a job site, the contractor can search the system for the specific address, determine if there are any special environmental or land development requirements, and do it all online 24/7.

In fact, with the availability of these GIS-enabled eServices 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.  This all adds up to healthier businesses, more work getting done and less delay in completing a project.

Keeping citizens informed

Integrating a GIS with a citizen service platform can also help automate public notifications. In the past, producing these notifications was a long, 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 citizens who are required to be notified by law.  Those citizens can access the GIS planning tools themselves to get answers to their questions.

Another example is a citizen who wants to determine whether a neighbor received the proper permits for an addition to their house. Using a GIS-enabled public portal, the citizen can easily search by address or nearby intersection, locate the house on a map, and then see which permits are pending or have been approved. They can also use the system to determine whether there are any potential zoning or code violations.

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

Land development is another area where citizens can leverage the power of a GIS integrated with a citizen services platform. A realtor may tell a citizen a nearby parcel is designed for open space, but a quick check through the GIS-enabled portal can determine whether it is actually slated for a housing estate development.

Serving the People

Transparency provided by an integrated GIS empowers citizens to participate more actively in the future development of their community. Instead of going to City Hall and looking at outdated maps on a wall, a GIS integrated with a citizen service platform can help the resident and business person alike to monitor the pattern of development – for instance, looking at where rezoning has been taking place with a certain boundary – and get a sense of how this is going to affect their community, their property value and their business.

The growth of government, and the population at large, has made it more challenging than ever to ascribe to the ideals President Lincoln set out more than 150 years ago. Yet by integrating GIS and citizen service platforms, governments can make themselves more responsive to their citizens while improving internal efficiencies. And that’s a map worth following.

About the author

Timothy W. Carl is a Strategic Account Director at CSDC Systems Inc., which has partnered with government departments across North America over the past 20 years to improve the delivery of its citizen services via the AMANDA government service delivery platform. He is the former Development and Transportation Director for Jefferson County, Colorado and certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners. Tim can be reached at T.Carl@csdcsystems.com




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