That is one key finding in a fresh report, the first national assessment of geographic information technology in localities, by the Washington-based American Forests. It is the nation's oldest citizens conservation organization.
In its survey of 200 cities and counties nationwide to understand the condition and use of geographic information technology in local government, American Forests found that GIS use soared from 40 percent in 1992 to a predicted 87 percent by the end of 1997.
Geographic information technology's domain includes geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing and image processing, global positioning systems and computer-aided drafting, design and mapping.
But while GIS is breaking down barriers at the federal, state and local levels, the report found that the institutional infrastructure for geographic information technology within some localities is lacking. Indeed, less than half of those surveyed had an officially designated focal point for coordinating geographic information technology. Also, there are notable regional and jurisdictional differences in GIS use, the most extensive occurring in the West and South, the least in the Northeast.
Often, it's not readily apparent among city managers and staff that GIT tools "can give an orientation of how things interact together," said Ann Azari, mayor of Fort Collins, Colo., and co-author of the preface to the report.
"Where I live, ecology is most important, part of the ethic of the area," said Azari. She recalled that GIS was developed as a business management tool and had not really been driven from the executive top down as much as from the troops up to the executive suite.
Geographic information technology must be elevated to the policy-making level, she said. She noted that until it is seen as a way to offer the public access to information, and as a tool that can augment that access, GIS will never reach its full potential.
Said Azari: "The reality is that every piece of public data that is developed belongs to the people, not the government."
The study found that as data and geographic information technology capabilities improve, greater GIS use can help address a wider range of local issues.
Lisa Warnecke, a co-writer of the American Forests report, and a principal of GeoManagement Associates, Syracuse, N.Y., feels the report will give communities a sense of the range of applications and data used by a representative sample of communities.
"GIS can be applied to any function of local government, whether utilities such as gas, electric and telephone, right of way management, social services or water," said Warnecke, who is widely considered the expert on state use of GIS.
"You will begin to see more and more creative uses and analyses among law enforcement agencies, for example," she said.
Data gathered from geographic information technology sources can result in more sophisticated analyses, Warnecke said, because it offers an opportunity to relate information from one function to another.
For instance, data on homelessness can be related to crime and public safety. Another example is analyzing data on water pollution, epidemiology and human health.
"With the Internet, there is an added value to the data gathered by GIT. And that is public access and public engagement in the critical areas of decision-making, volunteerism and efficient and effective government," Warnecke said. "Local government is the unique place where we can see GIS as the metaplane for reality."
For Cheryl Kollin, director of American Forests' Urban Forest Center, which focuses scientific information about trees and ecological systems on urban development, the organization's next move is to gather information about valuable applications of new GIS technology.
The organization also recently released its CITYgreen GIS software application. It offers individuals, local organizations and government agencies a way to evaluate development and restoration strategies and their impacts on neighborhoods and communities.
"By mapping and measuring the benefits of natural resources, the software lets decision makers understand its value in their communities and its use in future planning for growth and development," Kollin said.
American Forests is hopeful that developers will be able to see how they can work with the environment in a win-win situation.
"We also want new audiences to get to know us, audiences that are making decisions about future development," she said.
One area where American Forests is actively working is Puget Sound in Washington state, where there is increasing interest caused by a decline of natural vegetation over the last 24 years.
The CITYgreen software is used to gather more local analysis and to develop remedies.
The executive summary for the report, "Geographic Information Technology in Cities and Counties: A Nationwide Assessment," is on American Forests' Web site (www.amfor.org/ufc/pubs/gitsumm.html). The report costs $30 and can be purchased online or by calling (202) 955-4500.