When 2020 began, cities had their priorities set — or so they thought. As soon as March rolled around best laid plans were tossed out and attention shifted towards minimizing the impact of an invisible enemy.
While no local government could fully prepare for what was to come, it quickly became apparent that some governments were more prepared than others to adapt to the unexpected. One common denominator set these governments apart: the ability to make rapid, data-driven decisions.
So how did these local governments turn data into action?
Some turned to Geographic Information Systems, or what is more commonly known as GIS mapping. This allows data to be presented visually, typically in map form, making it far easier to digest and comprehend. While GIS is not a new technology, it's one that has not been embraced to its full potential by local government.
But that’s about to change.
Importance of data visualization in time of crisis
They say a picture paints a thousand words. And after speaking with hundreds of Information Technology and city leaders, I know how true this sentiment is. Local governments have access to a treasure trove of data. But not enough are taking the necessary steps to make sense of this data. Utilizing GIS can help instantly visualize your data to make more informed decisions and to better engage with residents.
COVID-19 has highlighted why it’s critical that local governments (big and small) base important decisions on facts. Only when you have real insight across your organization can you quickly embrace new initiatives or priorities — especially during the chaos that surrounds a crisis.
Within weeks of lockdown, local governments were releasing dashboards and maps to track everything from COVID-19 cases to city resources to grocery store inventories. These self service tools enabled citizens to access critical services and resources at a time when local governments were operationally constrained.
Cobb County, GA stands out as one of the leaders in GIS prior to the pandemic. The county was already linking various data sources on their dedicated maps page. Because the framework was already there, adding pandemic-related maps was not a heavy lift. This existing functionality enabled the re-purpose of these resources within days. Sioux Falls, SD opted to go through a third party and turned to Quantela’s Coronavirus Emergency Response (CoVER) platform, released in September 2020, to guide their continued COVID response. Real-time updates on everything from protective gear, COVID-19 tests, and active quarantines collected by CoVER made it possible for GIS staffers to develop public dashboards and internal maps. City officials are now able to anticipate potential COVID-19 hotspots and adjust response tactics as a result. A county in Wisconsin took a slightly different approach to its COVID-dashboard. Milwaukee County's COVID-19 Dashboard detects racial disparities. It provides information on those affected by the virus grouped on income, age range, race/ethnicity, and even testing and hospital capacity. This has allowed the county to see where vulnerable communities are being most affected. They’re then able to allocate resources accordingly. Moving forward, there are plans to utilize this dashboard to detect racial disparities during future public health emergencies.
Mapping benefits beyond COVID
While current GIS efforts may be focused on COVID-19 data and responses, the need to visualize data won’t go away once the pandemic is in our rearview mirror.
Mapping is having a real impact on key areas like public safety. In order to help police and fire teams respond to residents in need or track active shooters faster, Memphis, TN created 3D interior maps of downtown buildings, including the National Civil Rights Museum and Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. A GIS app was then developed to provide first responders a detailed floor-by-floor map that could be used during emergency calls. In addition to helping make better decisions behind the scenes, public-facing interactive maps can be equally impactful in improving the day-to-day lives of residents. Take something as common as snow removal. Instead of having residents rely on word of mouth or the local news to learn about road conditions after a storm, Schaumburg, IL offers a map that displays the current locations of plows and trucks. And in El Paso, TX mapping is helping the city improve the odds of finding lost pets. The city's Animal Services and Information Technology departments collaborated on an Interactive Pet Finder Map which tracks lost dogs and cats for pet owners and shelters.
Considerations when implementing GIS mapping
Ideally every department within local government can implement mapping and data visualization tools, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say there are resource constraints to take into account. The key is to take a holistic approach and focus on areas where data-driven insights can make the most impact.
Once the best use cases are uncovered, it is important to remember the following:
Find the right technology partner. There has never been a more exciting time for local government technology. Startups have uncovered this largely underserved market and offer solutions that include features that matter most to local governments. Plus, with flexible pricing strategies and in some cases, free trials, it is easier to get approval for tech deployments. Finding the right company partner is what can turn a vision into reality.
Put privacy concerns front and center. Any conversation around the use of data wouldn’t be complete without consideration around data governance. Data has never been more valuable and it’s something that needs to be protected. As Anthea Foyer, Culture Planner at Mississauga, ON, aptly stated, “Each technology product, institution, and community partner has its own need for data. You should be aware of how others may benefit from the data you share so that your policies for data governance protect this asset when possible, and to ensure you are protecting the privacy of your citizens.”
Learn from others. It’s rare that one city is facing a challenge that no other city has faced. Whether it’s a global outbreak or a local weather incident, more often than not, there’s another local government (or even another department) that has faced a similar situation. The more government employees communicate and share what worked and didn't work, the less time there is wasted on ‘re-inventing the wheel.’
The goal for any city should be to be able to tell stakeholders that “there is a map for that” when they are looking for information. By taking control of data, cities can make a difference in solving today’s problems, and be prepared for whatever they might face tomorrow.