A greater emphasis on analysis and modelling is on the cards as councils dig deep into spatial technologies. So too, are more shared services, technologies and standards, as councils team up to meet ratepayers’ increasing expectations. By Mary Searle Bell.
Local authorities face both huge challenges and opportunities as the demand for geospatial data grows. But along with this comes the need for the necessary technology to gather and share data. It’s going to be expensive – out of the financial reach of smaller councils – and will require flexibility and innovation on the part of the people involved and the technology used.
The exact pace and trajectory of future technological change remains unclear, presenting a huge challenge even for large organisations. And when it comes to geographic information systems (GIS), there’s little time to lose.
Gill Lawrence is manager spatial information for Waikato Regional Council and founding member of the Local Government Geospatial Alliance. She emphasises that GIS is not just about the technology. Data comes first.
Historically, she says, local authorities gathered data and created datasets largely for use within their own organisations. Their emphasis was on using these datasets to help with the cartography production for documents such as district and regional plans. However, over the next 10 years, there will be a greater emphasis on analysis and modelling.
“These will use many different layers of information to assist policy- and decision-makers by developing scenarios for their planning, not just add on maps in policy documents.”
She says there will also be a change to making data and information available externally.
Geographic Business Solutions director Harley Prowse says the role of local authorities will evolve as they take on more data analysis and increasingly shift to making information more consumable by the public.
“The public will expect to be able to help themselves to information rather than having to request it,” he says. “And they will expect to be able to do so on their mobile devices at any time.”
Yet capturing, processing and analysing such data will simply be beyond the means of many councils. The solution to this would be to share services, technologies, standards and schema between them.
“Local authorities can work regionally so that datasets don’t ‘stop at the border’,” says Gill. “They can look for ways to create portals of information so that external people and organisations do not need to go to many organisations to get the data they require, nor have to know who to go to in a council or which council can answer their query.”
She says local authorities have the opportunity “to use technology so that the gathering of the data in one place is done in a machine-readable, repeatable way and to enable the visualisation of the aggregated data without necessarily each of the local authorities using the same software”.
This, in turn, raises a related challenge for councils. Many already do not have enough quality IT / geospatial staff.
Lauren McArtney, GIS local government consultant with GIS Technical Solutions, says GIS is becoming more aligned with mainstream IT. “However, specialist spatial skills will still exist and the shortage of these will be felt, particularly in rural areas.”
Meanwhile, Geographic Business Solutions also sees as a major challenge the conflict between the increasing pace of technological change and local authorities’ conservative approach to change.
Harley says local authorities will need to adapt fast to take advantage of the technological advances and to keep pace with their stakeholders’ demands.
“Technology will offer significant opportunities to cut costs, offer new services and provide higher levels of service,” says Harley. “This will force councils to adapt. The challenge will be having the vision, staff and budgets to do it in a way that meets demand and reflects efficient use of ratepayers’ money.”
The development of GIS over the next 10 years presents a huge opportunity for councils to positively interact with their communities: from interactive mapping to better future planning, to emerging technologies such as the internet of things, artificial intelligence, robotics and automation.
“Community interaction will become more about the rapid two-way sharing of information,” says Harley. “And spatial will be integral in how this information is managed, analysed and shared. “Councils have to be able to take advantage of the information they are getting and could get, by using technology to report, analyse and mitigate. The potential is massive, but the challenges are huge also.”
Consequently, it will be critical to have GIS technology that can move and adapt quickly to the needs of the business and stakeholders and as new developments occur, says Gill.
“Local authorities are likely to use either open source technologies or a mix of open source and proprietary,” she says. “Key criteria will be the ability to make different technology elements work together so that the most appropriate technology to use for each task is enabled.
“The technologies need to be reasonably intuitive, especially in situations where there will be wide use across the organisation or for the public and stakeholders to use.”
As Lauren says, “Effective use of GIS is driven by a unified vision and culture in how we share and interact with geospatial information. Supporting a pragmatic approach to information interoperability will ensure that GIS continues to grow in New Zealand.”
- Mary Searle Bell is a freelance writer and editor.
This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.