GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Low-cost options for creating a GIS
Local governments have found geographic information systems (GIS) to be invaluable tools, whether they are used for improving emergency response, defining the best routes for garbage trucks or planning land use. However, developing and maintaining a GIS can be costly. Local governments have to purchase GIS software and expensive computer hardware, including servers. They also need to hire staff with the expertise to create and maintain the system. To cut down on some of the start-up and maintenance costs of a GIS, local governments have several options.
Depending on its objectives, a community can choose to build a Web-based GIS instead of a traditional GIS. By creating a Web-based GIS, communities limit expenses for purchasing software licenses and upgrades, and computer hardware. Once the system is set up, staff members need only use their existing desktop or laptop personal computers, Internet connections and Web browsers to access the data.
A Web-based GIS also reduces the need for extensive hardware and software training for everyone who will access the system. Whereas traditional GIS software can be complicated to use, a Web-based GIS is designed with tools and features that are common on Web pages, and it is therefore easy to understand for users familiar with the Internet.
In addition to building a Web-based GIS, local governments can save money on their GIS by using geographic data that other cities, counties and government agencies have collected. By purchasing data from other agencies, local governments do not have to send out their own crews to collect geographic information.
Federal and state agencies as well as municipal planning organizations are constantly developing map layers and data sets that can be used by local governments to supplement a GIS. Data clearinghouses such as Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access (www.pasda.psu.edu), the U.S. Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics (www.bts.gov/gis) and GIS Lounge (gislounge.com) provide map layers online.
Alternatively, neighboring local governments can establish data-sharing policies. For example, several counties in southeastern Pennsylvania have developed a data sharing system with each other and with area cities. The counties sell base maps and data layers to local municipalities for a nominal fee, saving cities the development costs. Once the cities create new data layers, they can share that information with the counties and sustain the cycle of low-cost data sharing. Such data sharing programs are intended to get more local governments to use GIS and to continue the development of new map layers.
Finally, cities and counties can save money on their GIS by spending plenty of time planning its development. Most importantly, they need to define the level of map accuracy that will satisfy their needs. For example, if the goal of the system is to track changes in assessments with building permit issuances, a mapping accuracy of about 50 feet horizontally and no vertical data would suffice. However, if a city is interested in a full inventory of its water and sewer utilities for engineering analysis, vertical information within 6 inches and horizontal accuracy of about 2 feet would be required. The higher the level of accuracy, the more the system will cost to develop.
The costs of creating and maintaining a GIS do not have to be prohibitive for local governments. Cities and counties can save money by carefully planning for the system’s future uses and by gathering map layers from existing sources. Additionally, a Web-based GIS can provide a low-cost alternative for map distribution.
The author is an associate for New York-based Vollmer Associates.