Shared Responsibility, Shared Reward
Although local governments naturally have geographic boundaries that delineate service areas and responsibilities, those boundaries inevitably overlap. Both cities and counties have an interest in knowing the attributes of the geographic features and infrastructure within their jurisdictions, but neither has much incentive to map features and collect data on the other’s behalf. To save time and money, eliminate redundancy and ensure accuracy, some local government agencies have created incentives to work together to build extensive GIS databases across jurisdictions.
The increasing number of enterprise GIS is an outgrowth of the spread of GIS tools across the country. Since 1992, the number of cities and counties that are using GIS has more than doubled, according to a 1999 survey conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit group American Forests. Many are finding that, by contributing data collectively to their GIS, they can create more comprehensive and cost-effective systems than they could independently.
Central data warehouse
The Clark County (Nev.) Department of Comprehensive Planning (DCP) started the inter-jurisdictional GIS cooperation for southern Nevada. As early as 1982, the department began building a GIS for the county using U.S. Geological Survey quad maps, but the project had a limited scope.
In 1988, the DCP spearheaded a countywide GIS project by gathering several local government agencies together to discuss building a large GIS for all of their needs. “No one agency was totally, independently building its own GIS system,” says Mark Schofield, the county tax assessor. “It was collaborative from the beginning. Some wanted control of their own projects, but, after we rolled out the first maps [for everyone to use], they saw the benefits of sharing. Then, there wasn’t any argument for control.”
In 1989, the county manager hired a countywide GIS coordinator and created the GIS Management Office (GISMO) to store data, maintain metadata and coordinate GIS efforts among local government agencies. Since GISMO was created, 12 local agencies – including Las Vegas, the county school district, the metropolitan police department and the regional transportation commission – have joined the effort to build a GIS in Clark County.
The county tax assessor’s office maintains the base map for the enterprise GIS, which is stored with GISMO. It took 10 years for the tax assessor’s office to convert all its paper maps into digital maps for the countywide GIS, but now, all other agencies that contribute to the GIS can use the same base map, which ensures accuracy and eliminates redundancy.
All agencies that contribute data to the Clark County GIS send it to GISMO, ensuring that all data complies with the county’s standards. The agency with the most specific knowledge of a data layer is responsible for its maintenance; for example, the Department of Parks and Recreation maintains the layer with all of the parks data, and the school district updates the layer with all of the school data.
A users group meets monthly to discuss changes that should be made to the database or to the data standards. If any of the partners creates a unique product with the shared data, that partner shares the information at the monthly meetings. “We’re not re-inventing the wheel,” says Zane Burgeson, manager of assessment mapping for the tax assessor’s office. “We want to make sure data can be shared. If someone went out on their own, it could fracture GIS as we know it.”
Early on, GISMO created guidelines for data users to follow in submitting data to the Clark County GIS and in using data contributed by the agencies. The agreements provide a formal mechanism for the partnerships between government agencies, and they explain how data may and may not be used. “The agreements [also] explain the access rights to the county’s telecommunications network, and they explain GISMO’s services,” says David Edwards, assistant director for the Center for Enterprise Information Technology in Clark County.
Palm Beach County, Fla., has a similar data-sharing structure in which access to GIS data is centralized, and maintenance is distributed among many users. The county has found that interlocal agreements are key to maintaining its GIS and the relationships of all of its partners. “We have focused on clearing up foundation issues, such as how to distribute data and how to maintain it, and we have an information policy that [is a model for] other agencies,” says Penny Anderson, Palm Beach County GIS coordinator. “It saves them time. They can just use our policy, and they don’t have to create one by themselves.”
In addition to offering its GIS data to public agencies, Palm Beach County, unlike Clark County, opens up its GIS data-sharing agreements to private companies. “Since day one, we’ve had cooperation from many agencies in developing our GIS,” Anderson says. “Our goal is to have a truly countywide GIS that includes the private sector and local, state and federal agencies.”
The county contracted with Frankfort, Ky.-based Plangraphics in 1987 to develop an organizational structure for its enterprise GIS. In 1989, the Information Systems Services Department hired a countywide GIS coordinator who partnered with local agencies, including South Florida Water, to create a county base map.
Palm Beach County GIS has not dictated that every agency use only one kind of GIS software. Instead, it chose one enterprise database, 8i Spatial by Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle. Each agency has the freedom to choose from among many GIS tools that are compatible with the database. “Many of the partners are beginning to decide on one GIS platform, but no one is mandating that they do that,” says Kelly Ratchinsky, Palm Beach County’s countywide GIS coordinator.
A policy advisory committee was formed with representatives from nine area agencies to establish rules for the exchange of data between public agencies and private companies. Six of the county’s 37 cities along with the electric utility have signed interlocal agreements for use of the data.
The interlocal agreements ensure that all the GIS users are aware of the proper uses of the shared data before they enter into the partnership. As a result of the formal agreements, problems have been minimal, Ratchinsky says. When problems do arise, they are usually related to differences between public and private sector operations, he notes. “Private companies are used to dealing with other private companies,” he says. “They tend to want things faster, and they tend to want something for nothing. They don’t understand partnerships in the same way the public sector does.”
To help bridge the gap between the private and the public sector partners, the Palm Beach Countywide GIS Forum meets bi-monthly to encourage communication among members and to educate members about technical GIS issues. Participants have discussed issues such as GIS and emergency management, and incorporating GIS into disaster response plans. The Forum also sponsors an annual, regional GIS Expo, which hosts technical presentations and educational seminars.
Communication is key
King County, Wash., does not have as many agencies sharing data in its region as do Palm Beach County and Clark County, but, like those counties, it has a user group to discuss common problems and needs. “We have lots of small agencies in the ring outside Seattle with one person doing GIS or a person doing GIS without a GIS background,” says Richard Thomas, GIS coordinator for the Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District. “They have all the right goals, but not all have the ability to make it work. The group is a good way to get them going again – to bounce ideas off others.”
Out of 39 cities that could participate in a King County enterprise GIS, only 15 to 20 have GIS capabilities. Of those, just four have signed data-sharing agreements with the county. “Up to this point, sharing of data, applications, knowledge and ability has occurred on a transactional basis,” says Greg Babinski, manager of the King County GIS Center. “Two agencies may sign an agreement to share data with one another, and then, six months later, they need that data updated, so they have to sign another agreement. It gets cumbersome.”
To simplify the data-sharing process, King County has set up a central location to store GIS data. However, the county does not have a staff established to manage many data-sharing agreements and to control the use of the data. “We have been pursuing one-on-one data-sharing agreements with municipalities, but, if we were to get a lot of them, it would be a huge administrative responsibility,” Babinski says.
Because King County did not set out initially to create a regional GIS, many individual agencies have created their own systems and have collected their own data, which they are reluctant to share with other agencies. “We have people with significant technical knowledge and data all over the area, but they all have something invested in their own systems,” Babinski says.
King County’s challenges are to create an organization of partners that support a data-sharing structure and to adopt compatible GIS tools throughout the region. “The reality is that not everyone is using the same architecture,” Babinski says. “We’re talking about reengineering and rationalizing the way government does its business.”
The county is on its way to enabling more agencies to share data by installing a fiber optic network that will connect 300 public facilities in the county. The network, I-Net, will be a general-purpose communications network that will provide high-speed transmission of data, voice and video. Englewood, Colo.-based AT&T Broadband is helping the county build the network as one of the conditions for renewing its right to use county property for its cable system. Construction began in 1998, and the county plans to complete installation of the fiber in December 2001.
As local government agencies are seeing positive results from their GIS partnerships, they have formed more partnerships to meet other needs in the regions as well. Two years ago, the Clark County manager grouped county departments that serve similar interests into “communities of interest.” Members of each community meet monthly to determine budget needs, and they make joint budget requests annually. “There used to be boundaries and one-upsmanship in funding requests instead of sharing,” Schofield says. “GIS started the pattern of partnerships in the whole county; I’m convinced of that.”
In Palm Beach County, a coordinator for the Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS), hired in 1992, is working to eliminate duplicate data entry tasks for the public defender’s office, the state attorney’s office, the clerk of courts, the court administrator, the criminal justice commission and local police departments. Similar to the county’s enterprise GIS, the CJIS is meant to provide a central location for all of the county’s criminal justice data. Eventually, the CJIS might link its information with the regional GIS, Anderson says.
Building a successful enterprise GIS requires establishing a central management structure that coordinates data from all of the participants; establishing clear data use policies; and maintaining communication among all of the partners. “There can’t be negatives when everyone’s cooperating,” Ratchinsky says. “The negatives show up when no one is working together.”