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Using GIS to Enhance the Decisionmaking Process Part 2

Message From the Assistant Secretary
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Using GIS to Enhance the Decisionmaking Process Part 2

Raphael Bostic, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research
In my last message, I wrote about the promise of geo-spatial information systems, or GIS, in enhancing decisionmaking and how American government works. In this message, I focus on a specific policy issue where this is particularly true — the issue of livability and sustainability.

HUD has emerged as a leader on this issue, as we created an Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, which is supporting some of the most innovative sustainability work in the world, and co-wrote the Administration’s livability and sustainability principles. While the development of these principles represents a landmark accomplishment, many still hold different notions of what livability and sustainability success looks like. As a result, there can be difficulty translating them into on-the-ground actions.

GIS can be a major help in overcoming these challenges. First, it can be used to help people begin to describe what it means to live out these principles. The use of GIS can help frame the discussion of the livability and sustainability principles in different regions, and assist in bringing businesses, residents, environmentalists, planners, government officials, and others together to help them forge a common understanding. While the answer to what livability and sustainability should look like may differ by region, the vision within a region should be shared by all. GIS can be key for achieving this.

There are other ways GIS can be helpful. It can be used to identify performance metrics for successful livable communities. At HUD, Secretary Donavan has championed the dashboard approach for monitoring key metrics within the Department focused on successful outcomes. As an example, affordability is one possible metric. One proposed affordability metric is the housing plus transit (H+T®) index, which considers both the cost of housing and the cost of transportation. This reflects the reality that affordability is about more than just housing. A more affordable house located far from jobs may result in a longer work commute trip and higher transportation costs, with the result being higher net impact on the household’s balance sheet. While the H+T metric is easy to understand, it can be hard to operationalize. I live in Pasadena, California, when I am not here in Washington, D.C. Many residents of Pasadena work in one of two places — within Pasadena or in or near downtown Los Angeles. People who work in Pasadena have “T” of 5-to-10 minutes. People who work in downtown Los Angeles have a “T” of 30-to-90 minutes depending on mode of transport and time of day. What should be the night “T” for Pasadena? GIS may provide ways to integrate, operationalize, and visualize these differences into a simple yet appropriate metric.

GIS can also be an asset when one considers mobility, which is an important livability and sustainability concept. It has become increasingly clear that considering mobility in an isolated vacuum can be counterproductive as people can move without really changing their chances to become productive and have opportunities. GIS can be used to evaluate and analyze whether those with mobility have greater access to quality jobs, better performing schools, or other important amenities. A key element of this will involve measuring and quantifying access. This is not easy, however, and will require much thought and deliberation. However, I am confident we will be up to the task. GIS may have a role to play in analyzing and visualizing access to opportunity.

A third topic is regionalism. While we often talk about living and making decisions using a regional lens, the reality is that relatively few places operate this way. The San Francisco Bay Area, for example, has a sense of regionalism. This regional identity in the San Francisco Bay Area is very strong, and sometimes its communities will promote regional interests over self-interests. GIS can be used to help educate the public and policymakers on the impact a decision in one part of the region has on another part of the region.

I’d like to close with a general reflection on livability and sustainability. And the message is political. The livability and sustainability challenge is a 51 percent challenge. Ultimately, at least 51 percent of the population must vote in favor of measures addressing livability and sustainability in order for them to become attractive and gain traction. We need people to understand, support, and take steps to advance livability and sustainability. Conversations to-date have often focused on moral arguments — livability and sustainability are the “right” things to do. This approach suggests that it is good to live in walkable neighborhoods or close to downtown areas, and bad to live in the automobile-oriented suburbs. I think these types of arguments do not resonate with many people because nobody likes to be called bad or a problem. Alternately, I think we need a way to clearly articulate livability and sustainability concepts and provide clear examples of the benefits of these approaches for everyone. With broad based buy-in the sky is the limit. GIS and other techniques can make compelling arguments on the value of livability and sustainability to all segments of society.