What’s next for councils when it comes to geographic information systems? Patricia Moore charts the growth of tools and applications set to solve even more council challenges in coming years.
Electronic maps, created through the use of geographic information systems (GIS), are light years from the GIS pioneering efforts of the 1960s and ’70s. Today, GIS enables insights into a wide range of council services ranging from property information and land development, to biosecurity and emergency responses. But are there areas where local bodies could be taking greater advantage of GIS technology?
Simon Aiken, Tonkin + Taylor (T+T) geospatial team leader, believes so. “We think there is a huge opportunity for stakeholder engagement, feedback and, hence, data collection, using online GIS tools and storyboards,”
“Network utility providers have been quick to embrace GIS tools and applications like Collector but we see opportunities for other parts of councils to interact with their customers using GIS.”
And at Boffa Miskell, senior GIS specialist John Watt says while GIS is fundamentally a tool for local bodies to find answers to spatial questions, mapping risks and assessing the impact on people and assets is another area of council services that can benefit from spatial analysis.
“Risks may be natural or man-made and GIS can help councils by demonstrating scenarios or mapping the strengths and weaknesses of current planning strategies and highlighting possible infrastructure bottlenecks. An ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure.”
Use GIS as a problem-solver, says John. “GIS is great at problem-solving and placing projects in an informative and meaningful context. But early engagement is important. Given its strategic value, it’s always better to engage GIS at the beginning of a project rather than near the end.”
Problem solving with GIS is also highlighted by Scott Campbell, head of GIS technology at Eagle Technology. “Spatial approaches are not being applied to solve problems which are well suited to it, due in part to folks not having awareness of these possibilities and not having an underlying spatial approach to problem-solving.
“Independent of the technology itself, many of those faced with answering questions, whether roading or water engineers, policy analysts, planners or senior managers, are unfortunately not thinking how the basic principles of using location to connect disparate datasets can be applied in their own area.”
GIS technology is not standing still. T+T identifies advances like the continued miniaturisation and lower barriers to entry of remote sensing technology; the proliferation of low-cost and low-power sensor networks; and the integration of machine-learning and AI to analyse increasingly large datasets.
Andrew Flaws, T+T senior geospatial analyst, also sees increasing use of 3D GIS for planning and asset management such as underground services mapping, along with increasing use of web services and data sharing between organisations.
At Eagle, Scott believes geo-enabled technology will be the biggest growth area in terms of adoption.
“Applying the underlying value of spatial – mapping and analytics – inside other enterprise systems to many users across local government will give greater benefits and will not require the end users to be GIS technicians.”
He says benefits include enhancing workflows in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. “One aspect of this might be the public view of the council – providing a public portal where stakeholders can have a single view of the council for the area in which they live, but through a spatial lens.”
Most councils serve up at least some geospatial information online, says Simon. “Aerial photography, planning layers, property extents, contour information and natural hazard information are all fairly common offers.”
The reverse also applies says Charlotte Reed, T+T manager data and digital solutions. “Some councils have explored capturing data from the public such as pictures of flood events and infrastructure failures.”
It works, says John. “An example is Tauranga City Council’s FIXiT smartphone app that allows anyone to submit directly to council a geo-tagged photo of damage or other issues. The local park is now graffiti-free. Nobody cares more about a community than the people living there. Citizen-sourced spatial data can be a win-win.”
You can have confidence in a council that’s making its data available, he says. “It demonstrates transparency which, I think, cultivates trust. It also frees up data for uses that lie outside a council’s mandate that may prove a wider benefit.
“For example, community conservation groups like Predator Free using terrain or vegetation data to assist with pest trapping, or the fire service using council data to find the hydrant nearest to a fire.”
While very few data sets identify individuals, sharing information can lead to privacy concerns, particularly in areas such as rating information, property values and ownership.
Charlotte: “Concerns have also been raised relating to the publication of property exposure to natural hazards. Where councils are collecting data there need to be careful controls in place to make sure any information about the provision of data is protected.
“Councils need to ensure they are meeting the requirements of legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation.”
The industry is getting better at design, says Scott. “And data is improving through better capture techniques and having lots of usage. What’s needed now are council decision-makers with an understanding of why spatial is needed – without necessarily knowing the how or what.”
• Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.