Hugo D. Cardenas

The Integration of Geographic Information Systems in Municipal Governments

The Integration of Geographic Information Systems in Municipal Governments


Geographic Information System (GIS) technology has found its way into many municipalities across the United States. Many local governments now rely on GIS technology as a support tool to design development plans to make important decisions. The nature of GIS and its overwhelming use and reliance on computer technology can run contrary to the data, skills, and training found in many municipalities. The overriding GIS task of providing and on-going support for planning and decision- making is thus replaced with 'request-delivery' type duties within a municipal government. To overcome the 'request-delivery' cycle, GIS managers must remove the burden of complexity often found in GIS technologies. This can be accomplished by embedding simplified GIS applications throughout every department of municipal governments.


I. The Request - Delivery Cycle

The nature of municipal geographic information and the level of skills available among municipal employees dramatically affect the success of GIS technology in municipal governments. Therefore, GIS technology targeted at municipal governments must be consistent with the available geographic information and tools, and the skills of the municipal personnel directly involved or benefiting from the use of GIS technology. A GIS that does not consider the nature of municipal databases and the level of computer skills available becomes a request and delivery system; the GIS loses its overriding task of providing support for planning and decision-making. The GIS section becomes the 'map room' in municipal government.


1. Tools and Data

The way data is stored, manipulated, and updated in municipalities can make it difficult for a GIS to make use of information because more emphasis is given to storing, rather than analyzing, data. As a result, retrieving, updating, and analyzing municipal data becomes a tedious process and a complex task. This is largely because municipalities often have a number of out-dated tools to handle such information - there will almost always be computerized municipal systems handling municipal information in place and these are often the tools that handle municipal data prior to a GIS. Therefore, with these tools and the lack of a GIS, municipal staff try to give 'spatial meaning', when storing data, using non-spatial methods; for example, a corner lot is given a property location address reflecting the name of both streets intersecting at that particular property. (950 Main Street and Downing Street - the lot is at the corner of Main Street and Downing Street; in this particular case, one is given a spatial reference of this property by adding a second street name to the address.) Conversely, vacant properties are sometimes given vague spatial reference (Burncoat Street NW - meaning that this vacant lot is located somewhere in the Northwest of Burncoat Street).


2. Introducing GIS Skills

Paradoxically, the existence of a large number of municipal employees who have developed considerable skills on computers and the complexity of some GIS software can hinder the overall success of a GIS. Most GIS software is written from the vendor's perspective; oftentimes, a company selling GIS software has to 'idealize' a vast array of municipal GIS needs. The result is complex and overwhelming GIS software that does more than necessary for any given task. To the average municipal employee, GIS is just too complex. In addition, there can be a growing skepticism towards learning GIS technology since most municipal employees may have already developed some computer skills by using non-spatial 'data storage software' and are not interested in investing more time in learning new skills. This is exacerbated by the fact that GIS is often so different from the software they are accustomed to using.

 The training of new personnel in GIS faces different problems; municipal employees are already too busy in their non-GIS daily activities; the likelihood those new-trained GIS personnel endure performing or pursuing GIS beyond a GIS seminar is very unsatisfactory. The GIS training gained during weeks of practice rapidly withers away as employees' daily activities do not involve the use of GIS; there is no consistence between the newly gained GIS skills and their daily tasks.


 3. The Request-Delivery Cycle

Geographic Information Systems have difficulty evolving and expanding within municipal governments. GIS often remains as a small and isolated computer section within a municipal department - a reduced number of GIS personnel engaged in generating geographic data and developing cartographic skills. Increased map requests for reports and presentations become the primary GIS task in municipalities. The GIS work startegy is thus confined to a request and delivery system - a map is requested, a map is delivered; hence, the request-delivery cycles.

GIS work strategies continue to be centered on the request-delivery cycle approach for years. The creation of new geographic data layers is nothing but a response to map requests - the requested map needs a new data layer, therefore, a new theme is added to the GIS database. Most GIS activities become consequences of the request and delivery system - without map requests, the production of maps comes to a halt and the data input process recedes.

Expanding GIS to other municipal departments under a GIS request and delivery approach is not possible. GIS software has an inherent complexity requiring advanced training, preventing non-GIS municipal employees from using it. In addition, the reduced number of municipal GIS personnel restrains GIS managers from launching extensive training sessions for other departments - GIS staff has been trapped producing maps for the entire municipality. Furthermore, other municipal departments do not seem to feel the need of having 'map producing facilities', since they have come to view GIS as a map producing tool only. They can always obtain a ' GIS map' by requesting it through the GIS section who have, over the years, refined their cartographic skills.

The fate for the municipal GIS has thus been sealed. Over time, GIS becomes a small section producing customized maps. Municipal governments continue their normal course making decisions and creating development plans with little input from GIS.


II. A Municipal GIS Strategy - The Worcester Model

To become a decisive player in the process of decision making within a municipal government, GIS must become part of every department in a municipality - GIS has to become embedded in the life of every municipal department. Embeddable object technology, Microsoft's Object Linking and Embedding (OLE), enables some GIS functionality into non-GIS software. This is a promising breakthrough towards expanding GIS in municipal governments. Tabular data management software i.e. spreadsheets, can be added object-oriented GIS spatial functionality using embeddable technology and industry standard programming environments such as Visual Basic, Delphi, Visual C++. A professional GIS like ArcInfo can then be used to manage the entire spatial geographic municipal database.

Highly customized and simplified GIS applications will make GIS part of every municipal department, thereby influencing planning and decision making. The use of embeddable technology and a professional GIS divide users within a municipal government into two major groups: (a) regular GIS end-users and (b) professional GIS users. The former drives highly focused embeddable GIS applications. The professional user's group develops embeddable GIS applications and manages geographic data.


1. Embeddable GIS Technology Strategy

Municipal data storage and data management software can be added as 'light weight' GIS functions. Municipal employees involved in managing and processing non-spatial data applications (spreadsheets) can continue using their existing applications with newly added GIS capabilities. A limited number of customized and simplified GIS functions are added to non-spatial data management software. Municipal employees can then launch spatial data analyses from their non-spatial data software.

The number of GIS functions added to non-spatial data software should be limited and simple to use. GIS managers must meet and discuss with municipal employees the types of embeddable GIS applications to be used; the type of GIS application should be based on the daily basic activities that highlight the functions of involved municipal employees - the most important activities regarding geographic spatial analysis. In addition, the new embeddable GIS applications should not add complexity to non-spatial data software in use, but rather, they should complement it.

Embeddable GIS technology should not be centered on expensive hardware; the technology should minimize municipal costs by relying on low cost and, to some extent, existing hardware. Municipal budget constraints may preclude the adoption of very costly technology.

Finally, embeddable GIS should be a fast technology when performing geographic analysis. Most municipalities have large databases on several servers connected by well-established networks; retrieving, analyzing, and displaying spatial and non-spatial data at high speed should a distinctive requirement of embeddable technology. GIS technology performing slow data analyses might result in frustration among municipal employees.


2. Professional Municipal GIS Strategy

Municipalities need to have a highly skilled GIS section. Complex GIS software should reside at this level of skill. GIS managers should limit the expansion and use of professional GIS to other municipal departments. Municipal data entry and update strategies, the design of GIS work plans for other municipal departments, the expansion of embeddable GIS technology, limited GIS training and the completion of advanced GIS analyses should be the overriding tasks of a professional municipal GIS. Municipal GIS managers should focus and direct a professional GIS on the following:

  1. Maintain, update, and distribute GIS databases. Most geographic municipal data are subject to accuracy requirements. The update and maintenance of parcel data, for example, require considerable GIS skills. Professional GIS users should be cautious not to overstate the importance of data entry and updates. The development of new data layers or themes should part of a schematic work plan drafted with GIS end-users.
  2. Confirm the integration and integrity of other data sets with GIS databases. Existing municipal databases are a great challenge to professional GIS users. GIS managers must confirm how reliable the existing data layers are. The square footage for a given parcel might greatly differ from the actual parcel size; most zoning districts will consider generalized distances only, disregarding parcel locations (zoning districts cutting across many parcels); and several streets might only exist on paper format. Integrating municipal faulty data with GIS databases might hinder the quality of GIS analyses. GIS managers have to devise methodologies to integrate other municipal data sets for updates and GIS end-users.
  3. Design new databases. The creation of new data must consider linkages to GIS databases. Municipal GIS managers must find ways to automate the data integration process. Obviously, professional GIS users cannot enter all the data in a municipal government; however, they can devise embeddable GIS functions to allow end-users to enter data with GIS integration.
  4. Expand GIS capabilities, research, and analysis. GIS must go beyond the GIS office. The average municipal employee with a computer should have access to some GIS functionality. GIS managers need to develop embeddable GIS applications directed at specific end-user groups. Data analysis should be paramount in the agenda of a GIS manager. There are several GIS analyses planners and decision-makers can use as input. For example, crime prevention analyses, based on current crime patterns, can be used to allocate patrol officers to sensitive areas; fire stations can be assigned geographic areas based on distance, current incidents and natural barriers; and current land use patterns might be running against some zoned areas. Finally, GIS managers must research on new methodologies for data entry, maintenance, and analysis; oftentimes, innovative methodologies might need research on new key hardware and software for a GIS.


Hugo D. Cardenas

GIS Manager

City of Worcester

418 Main Street

Worcester, MA 01608

(508) 799-1400

(508) 799-1337 Fax