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Using GIS to Enhance the Decisionmaking Process Part 1

Message From the Assistant Secretary
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Using GIS to Enhance the Decisionmaking Process Part 1

Raphael Bostic, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research
Technology has long been an important driver of American progress. Some more recent technological developments, such as Twitter and “crowdsourcing,” hold the promise of transforming American government and decisionmaking. These tools can be used to improve public sector performance and decisions, because they can make it easier for citizens to participate in government and for citizens and public officials to be more informed. As a consequence, they help to create more and better opportunities for innovative solutions to problems.

One such technology is the geospatial information system, or GIS. Most are familiar with GIS by their use of GPS and other place-based software packages. In this message, I consider the challenge of using GIS in policy settings. In the next one, I will offer some thoughts on how GIS can be applied specifically in the area of livability and sustainability.

I am a believer in GIS, especially in public outreach and consensus building. Ten years ago while I was a professor at the University of Southern California, we used GIS as part of a “reality check” process to engage local stakeholders in a discussion of the future of the Los Angeles basin. People still talk about that day today. My experience shows that these approaches can be very powerful and can help create lasting impressions for people.

In spite of its power, GIS is not used as much in policy circles as it should. We have two problems. On the one hand, we have GIS experts with skills in analyzing and presenting data in meaningful ways. These people are often drawn to the technical capabilities of the various GIS tools, but they may not be as attuned to the needs of policymakers and the public.

On the other hand, many decisionmakers are not familiar with the technologies and data that are available to help answer their questions and solve their problems. This lack of familiarity can result in ad hoc approaches and decisions made without all the relevant information. Given this situation, which happens at all levels of government and both within and across agencies, we are not realizing the full potential of available resources.

What can we do? Capacity is a major issue. There are large differences in capacity among agencies and organizations at various levels and in different areas of the country. There are differences even within agencies concerning the level of understanding of GIS and the availability of databases and other resources. I know this issue first hand from assessing the GIS activities at HUD. When I first examined the situation, we had at least 30 systems, varying standards for data, different reporting protocols, and duplication of effort. We are not alone in this situation. Many other agencies at all levels have similar issues. We need to find ways to expand the capacity at all agencies.

Many can help increase the capacity at different agencies and expanding the use of GIS for policy. For example, public administrators can help identify partners to nurture capacity building and to increase the understanding of GIS resources among different decisionmakers. Much is already underway. We are working to develop a partnership with the University Consortium of Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) to help encourage several activities that could be helpful. Examples include establishing regional geospatial centers that assist communities, developing a placement program for graduates of GIS programs, and advancing research involving GIS technology. A GIS extension service is another activity under consideration. In addition, we have had preliminary conversations others who might help. We have spoken with state and county geographical information officers (GIOs) about the availability of local data. For example, obtaining parcel level data sets would be of benefit to numerous groups.

One important group is the Federal Geospatial Data Committee, which is working to establish geospatial protocols and standards, which are needed to help coordinate activities among agencies and groups and ensure that GIS is applied effectively and efficiently. A key issue is duplication of effort to create a capability, which is a very real concern given the “cylinders of excellence” — also known as silos — within and across agencies. Because an activity in one cylinder influences activities in another, and because the same functionality can be helpful across cylinders, we need to continue to work to establish integrated links and coordinated working relationships. To help advance this, I have convened a geospatial working group to discuss common issues and coordination.

To close, it is important to discuss a strategy for moving forward. GIS clearly is a tool with which we can conduct flashy, sophisticated multilayer analyses. However, we can spend a lot of time trying to hit homeruns with these sophisticated applications, and as many have shown, hitting homeruns is not easy. One can devote a lot of resources building very sophisticated tools that may not be successful. This is a high risk approach. As an alternative, I suggest it might be better to focus on hitting singles and doubles — that is, on building basic tools that have simple and straightforward applications. This approach provides the opportunity for short-term victories, which can build support and momentum for moving forward with more complex analysis techniques. Once momentum is established, it is hard to stop, which is the ultimate goal.