GIS in State and Local Government: How Geographic Information Systems Aid Agencies

A recent report from the National States Geographic Information Council revealed that states are making progress on developing their geospatial data capabilities, even though the creation of a National Spatial Data Infrastructure to share geospatial data between states is still out of reach.

The profile of geographic information systems has been elevated during the coronavirus pandemic, as agencies have used GIS technology to track virus cases, help administer and track vaccines, and offer citizens a wealth of data about their communities on matters beyond the virus.

A growing number of agencies include GIS professional certification requirements for new hires and projects

GIS tools and technologies enable “better decisions at all levels of government, from people working in the field to the executives managing the government,” says Brent Jones, president of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), a nonprofit organization of professionals using GIS in government.

What Is GIS?

The U.S. Geological Survey defines GIS as “a computer system that analyzes and displays geographically referenced information” and that “uses data that is attached to a unique location.” GIS is a combination of hardware, software, data and analytical tools used to manage data and merge data sets together for better decision-making.

All data has a spatial component, which GIS leverages, enabling agencies to approach problems from a geographic perspective, leveraging location and data internal and external to the system to make more informed and better decisions.

Which Technologies Enable GIS for Government?

There are four key technology components that allow government agencies and other organizations to leverage GIS.

The first is the enterprise geodatabase, which is basically a database built to manage location, allowing organizations to use location and do spatial analysis and other analysis easily, as opposed to using regular databases with some limited location coordinates.

Cloud technologies have also enabled the growth of GIS in several ways including making GIS data accessible to everyone.

Data stored in the cloud is another key component with Cloud tools allowing organizations to easily configure applications that leverage that data.

The fourth key technology is application programming interfaces, which enable the configuration of maps and apps against that data infrastructure.

GIS in Government: How Is It Used?

GIS was born in the 1960s, for managing environmental and natural resource data for the Canadian government.

In the following decades, as computing power increased and graphical user interfaces grew more sophisticated, GIS evolved and matured into commercial products used by both industry and governments.

GIS tools are very useful in government for visualizing and analyzing land parcels, which helps public works departments, planning agencies, emergency response teams and others in state and local government.

There are more than a dozen different disciplines for GIS within state and local government, including airports, economic development, elections, emergency call taking and dispatch, emergency management, environmental and natural resources, health and human services, housing and homelessness, land administration and land records, and urban and community planning.

Teams in these areas within government can use GIS to gather data, create digital maps and make more informed planning decisions about where and how to allocate resources based on maps.

GIS also can be used in citizen-facing applications and as a public engagement tool. Agencies can provide maps based on crime data, the locations of resources for citizens, where fires are being spotted and other useful information. It also gives citizens more direct access to government data, mapped in a geospatial manner.

GIS enables government leaders to see dashboard data at a glance in order to make quicker decisions by allowing the easy collection of data, the integration of data, and use analytical tools for quick analysis and detailed analysis.

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