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Geographic Information System’s Role in Decision-Making

Empowering Local Government’s Objectivity

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nagesh Chopra
September 22, 2015

Change can be addictive or resisted. Eventually, it is accepted by the masses as positive. Developed by Roger Tomlinson in 1960, geographic information system (GIS) has evolved rapidly to find its applications beyond its intended purpose of solving spatial problems. Although GIS comes with its baggage of financial investment and a unique skill set, its scope and versatility completely outweighs the criticism that labels it as yet another fancy computer. Cities have found GIS to be extremely useful in designing transportation networks, planning, tax assessments, etc. thereby justifying its effectiveness and efficiency.

GIS is defined as a set of tools for collecting, storing, retrieving at will, transforming and displaying spatial data from the real world for a particular set of purposes. In his 2001 article, “GIS, Public Service, and the Issue of Democratic Governance,” Haque emphasizes, “in essence, GIS is to spatial analysis what statistical packages are to traditional statistical analysis.” In the context of geography, while a city may have a wealth of land or water hidden in its boundaries, it still requires dollars to build its infrastructure to provide for its citizens and offer basic civic services.

Although professionals in various departments are hired to build, maintain and restore services to citizens, a human eye cannot compete with the satellite’s (hovering 30 thousand feet above) clinical precision. In “The City from Thirty Thousand Feet: Embodiment, Creativity, and the Use of Geographic Information Systems as Urban Planning Tools,” Shannon Jackson states “GIS maps allow analysts and planners to broker exchanges in a way that transcends the limit of individual embodied experience.” The majority of GIS data and algorithm sharing takes place via the Internet. To this end, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) was initiated in 1994. OGC is a group of over 100 universities, corporations and government agencies whose mission is to make GIS interoperable by building links that allow the accurate and efficient transfer of information derived using many of the most popular commercial and public GIS.

In the United States, policy makers have always been attracted to the argument of overall well-being of a place and this led to the formulation of ‘indicators’ to assess the physical, social and economic conditions of the subject. Three major types of indicators have developed over time: social, urban and neighborhood indicators.

Social indicators were defined by Raymond Bauer as “… statistics, statistical series, and all other forms of evidence … that enable us to assess where we stand and are going with respect to our values and goals, and to evaluate specific programs and determine their impact.” Urban and neighborhood indicators originated from the same concept, but examined data at different geographic scales. Since the 1980s and 1900s, urban indicators have been widely used to measure quality of life at the geographic scale of cities and states as noted by Sawicki and Flynn.

Ghose and Huxhold in their 2002 article, “The Role of Multi-scalar GIS-based Indicators Studies in Formulating Neighborhood Planning Policy,” give the example of The Healthy Cities Project, initiated by the World Health Organization, as an indicators initiative that has been popular with both citizens and policy-makers. Another example is a GIS project in Kent County, Michigan that has linked more than 20 cities, townships and government organizations to achieve one of the largest, most comprehensive enterprise GIS implementations ever undertaken. On a different scale, the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VAOT) has started to place its GIS-based maps on the Internet to give residents’ access to information about proposed road construction, including locations, corresponding detours and road closures or hazards associated with projects.

In her article, “An Empirical Assessment of the Hurdles to Geographic Information System Success in Local Government,” Brown figures that the primary obstacles to GIS success falls into three camps: technological limitations, organizational hurdles and financial constraints. Collectively, the barriers may frustrate adoption and paralyze implementation efforts. Depending on the scope and accuracy of data, typical municipal-wide GIS projects can range upward of $1 million for a midsized jurisdiction. In addition, if proper databases and communication channels are not established to interpret key functions, a GIS user may have to wait several hours to perform a desired task. Employee resistance, supervisory inadequacies can add fuel to fire and lead to cost overruns and program abandonment.

In conclusion, the consensus is that GIS is an emerging technology that holds much potential. It is not a one-stop shop to solve the problems of society. However, it does allow city managers to build a foundation to assess Mother Nature’s realm of diversity and tackle it flawlessly with maps and spatial databases. Jackson sums it up perfectly by stating, “Geographic Information Systems provide authority, the distance associated with mastery and the ability to erase the distinction between representation and reality.”


Author: Nagesh Chopra is an MPA graduate student at the University of Central Oklahoma. Email: [email protected]. 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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