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Location, location, location
GIS underpins online initiatives

by JoAnne Sommers

What do groundwater reserves in Ontario's Oxford County, roads in British Columbia and parkland in rural Ontario have in common? Information about all three is being brought vividly to life by a powerful technology known as Geographic Information Services (GIS). It's changing the way organizations manage information by allowing users to see, explore and analyze data by location, revealing hidden patterns, relationships and trends. Not surprisingly, a growing number of municipalities, as well as provincial and federal ministries and departments, are embracing GIS as a key element in implementing their online initiatives.

GIS is a computer-based tool for mapping and analyzing spatial information that integrates common database operations, such as query, reporting and statistical analysis, with the visual and geographic analysis benefits of maps. Like a paper map, a digital map created by GIS represents features such as cities, roads and small areas such as lakes. Unlike a paper map, a GIS map combines many layers of information, resident in a database, that is visible when the user chooses to display it. Users select the information they want based on the goals they are trying to achieve - whether it's determining the best location for a new store, analyzing environmental damage or viewing similar crimes in a city to detect patterns.

Gord McElravy, web and enterprise GIS business development manager with Autodesk Canada, says, "Governments are utilizing GIS to make web-based information available to both internal and external audiences. It's an excellent example of how web-based technology can be used proactively to interact with the public, and it helps to facilitate government accountability."

Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources is a good case in point.

"GIS created open access which enables us to deliver transparency and accountability," says Jim Hamilton, director of the Information Resource Management Branch. "It allowed us to take data from filing cabinets and put it in the hands of resource managers, giving them the tools to analyze and make resource decisions."

The ministry's Lands for Life program, which created 378 new parks and protected areas in Ontario while helping to maintain sustainable forestry, hunting and trapping practices, used GIS to create maps that illustrate those decisions and their impact, he says. "That's helpful because people relate well to maps."

Using a map-based browser to investigate road conditions is convenient because it's intuitive, says David Loukes, vice president of Information Systems with Fredericton's Geoplan Consultants Inc. Geoplan, an engineering consulting firm that implements GIS strategies for transportation agencies, is using the Highways by Exor application as part of the BC Ministry of Transport's Road Inventory and Maintenance System (RIMS) project.

The ministry established RIMS to manage the replacement of its existing inventory system and provide the means to create and maintain a Ministry Standard/Corporate Linear Referencing System. The data from both will be stored on a single data server within an integrated data managed environment.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," says Loukes. "If I want to review all the accidents that occurred on a particular stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway it's much easier to bring up that information on a map and zoom in on the area that interests me instead of assembling it all from tables."

Rick Adie, RIMS project manager, says the magic of GIS lies in linear referencing. "It allows us to see all data - road surface conditions, signs, etc. - within a single context, preventing us from making decisions in isolation. You shouldn't widen a road just because there were several accidents in a particular location when perhaps all that's needed is to replace a missing road sign."

RIMS will make it easier to build a web-based portal to present a view of the information to the public, adds Adie. "When geo-positioning systems (GPS) technology becomes more common we'll utilize it to provide precise location information. For instance, if you're driving we'll be able to present you with route information in the car via a simple hand-held GPS device."

When the ministry initiated RIMS it went through a Request for Proposal (RFP) process, Adie says. "We weren't interested in creating the software. We wanted to buy it based on its ability to support our functionality requirements and integrate it with our IT structure. The process took about five months to complete."

David Loukes praises the ministry's approach to awarding the $896,000 project.

"Everything proceeded right on schedule," he says. "That's important because we often encounter problems with slipped deadlines. We commit resources and when the project is delayed it throws us off." Problems also arise when agencies don't follow through on an RFP. "Weeks of work are involved in preparing a response and when a project is dropped I feel like billing them," he says.

Budgets are always an issue with GIS, says Adam Fox, a Toronto-based account manager with ESRI Canada, but they can be tailored to meet the organization's needs. "It all depends on functionality," he says. "The licence for one software program can cost as little as $2,000, whereas a major program can be quite expensive."

Many of ESRI's clients started small and worked their way up, he notes, adding that once your program is on the Internet, "your budget will increase. When people see what a GIS can do you attract internal champions and that gives you real clout."

Each municipality adapts ESRI software, creating a GIS unique to their needs, Fox adds. "Oxford County in southwestern Ontario is a good example. Their Land Related Information System connects the county, eight local municipalities, the local conservation authority, public utility commissions and the board of health. They all use the same software so they don't have to exchange formats."

Oxford County centralized its GIS-related data, software, hardware and applications at the county office so it can maintain resources efficiently despite limited staff, says Margaret Parkin, manager of the county's system. It also helps to make the information widely accessible. "Maintaining an integrated, broad-based database ensures access to timely, accurate land-related information," she says. "That's important to our planning, public works and public health departments. It also means the public can access our information and examine it in the context of their specific needs."

Data management is a major component of Oxford's Groundwater Navigator project, which uses ESRI's ArcIMS software. The Groundwater Navigator permits users to explore various water-related data layers, including the location of municipal and private wells, potential contaminants, aquifer vulnerability and well catchment areas.

The county budgeted funds to ensure that all data compiled during the project could be integrated with its existing GIS applications for use in reviewing land development applications and nutrient management planning, says Parkin. "That flexibility allows us to address the needs of users, including members of the public, county staff, university students and officials of other government departments."

Flexibility is crucial when embarking on a GIS, according to Autodesk's McElravy. "Always look for open architecture and systems and avoid proprietary technology. Then, if something happens to the software vendor, the data will be usable no matter what technology created it."

Jim Hamilton agrees. "Using an open GIS format instead of a proprietary data structure allows you to share data much more readily with other jurisdictions using a common format."

It's also important to find executive sponsorship, Hamilton adds. "Moving data from paper to a digital format is expensive and time-consuming so commitment and a long-term view are vital. You also need rigor because the data must be standardized and data models constructed that allow you to maintain them. The effort is worth it, because your data will have tremendous value as long as it's maintained," he explains.

Finally, he says, it important to change your thinking about information itself. "Drop the idea that knowledge alone is power," he urges. "Today, its only real value is in our ability to share it."

JoAnne Sommers is Toronto-based freelance journalist and editor whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Report on Business, Onvia.ca and Investment Life Magazine, among others.



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