Governors Ready To Explore GIS Benefits at Annual Meeting

Governors Ready To Explore GIS Benefits at Annual Meeting

Steve Cooperman

By Steve LeSueur,Staff Writer

Geographic information systems will take center stage at the annual meeting of U.S. governors next week as state leaders examine ways to tap information technology to improve government operations.

The governors' IT Task Force will explore the utility of this technology as a decision-making tool that can bring together diverse information and guide policy decisions, said officials with the National Governors' Association, which convenes Aug. 7-10 in St. Louis.

"GIS isn't just maps," said John Thomasian, director of the association's Center for Best Practices. Spatial technology is used across a broad spectrum of government sectors, he said, including welfare and social services, economic development, environmental protection and law enforcement.

Government spending in this arena is growing at a fast clip, said David Sonnen, a senior consultant for the International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. Spending by state and local governments on spatial software will grow 15 percent annually over the next five years, the same rate as the private sector, he said.

Global public- and private-sector spending on packaged spatial information management systems stood at $1.08 billion in 1998, according to a new IDC report coming out this month. Sonnen estimated that an equal amount was spent on spatial information and services.

State and local governments are becoming much more sophisticated in their use of spatial technology, he said.

"You're seeing governments trying to understand where people are, what they want and how to get them services," he said.

In business, it is part of what is known as "customer relationship management," but government officials often refer to it as service to the citizen.

Gov. Jim Geringer, R-Wyo., has hailed GIS "the most significant applied technology since the advent of the World Wide Web and the Web browser." At a recent congressional hearing, he told House lawmakers that the potential for GIS "is unlimited since every service at any level of government can in some way be associated with spatial reference."

Geringer, who serves as co-chairman of the governors' IT task force, advocates federal assistance to state and local governments in using spatial technology by stimulating connectivity (by wire, fiber, satellite or other wireless capability) for the enhanced bandwidth needed to carry data.

But Geringer does not want the government getting too involved in regulating the collection or use of spatial data and systems.

He compares the development of spatial technology with that of the Global Positioning System.

"GPS was originally deemed usable only by the military," Geringer said. "Its true power came when it was made available to the innovative and creative people of America."

Today, state and local governments are striving to integrate spatial data with other types of information.

Pennsylvania, for example, has developed an online Technology Atlas that pinpoints the state's technology and economic infrastructure, detailing the location of telephone and cable services, utilities, roads, airports and schools. The tool is used both by businesses and citizens.

Other states are using spatial data to help people move from welfare to work by developing online systems that not only provide information about jobs, but also information about public transportation and child care services. For many people on welfare, access to adequate transportation and child care can be a prerequisite to getting a job, and be as hard to find.

Counties and cities also are using GIS technology for economic development. By putting real estate information online, governments can help businesses and citizens quickly find properties and buildings that meet a specified set of criteria, such as their proximity to a river or a park.

"The main goal is to empower citizens and save them time, so they don't have to go to a government office and wait in line for their information," said Pat Cummens, who is responsible for strategic planning in the state government market for the Environmental Systems Research Institute of Redlands, Calif. ESRI is a leading provider of GIS software.

State and local governments, including utilities, accounted for half of ESRI's 1998 revenue of $278 million, said Cummens.

At the governors' IT task force meeting, ESRI President Jack Dangermond will explain ways governments are using GIS technology.

The city of Laguna Nigel, Calif., for example, is using ESRI's spatial software to administer federal grants; the Legislative Service Bureau of Iowa is using the software to redraw electoral districts, and local governments in Oregon are using it to prepare for natural disasters.

The Internet has opened up numerous opportunities for governments to make spatial information available to government and private users, said Steve Cooperman, executive director for Oracle Corp.'s spatial solutions group.

The Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle has teamed with MapInfo Corp. of Troy, N.Y., to create a Web-based mapping solution. Customers include the New York State Department of Corrections, the New York City Fire Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Because of the spread and ease of using spatial technology, some people in the business have turned away from the term GIS.

"There's a certain baggage associated with GIS that implies a proprietary or stand-alone system that is no longer appropriate," said Sonnen, who uses the term "spatial information management" in his reports for IDC.

Said Cooperman: "In the past, GIS had been for the privileged few, but now you have access for everybody and visualization for everybody."

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