Clarity from Complexity: GIS Delivers for Transportation Leaders

In today’s world, understanding how our interactions relate to geography is essential. It’s just this simple: comprehending the complexities our world requires that we understand how we interact with geography. This is why we’ve seen countless examples of government agencies developing and implementing tools that visualize spatial data and information.

Often we have seen the impact that spatial data is having on government. In so many ways, it is radically transforming business operations and service delivery. Although government is challenged to fully leverage spatial data, it’s more important than ever before for your organization to learn how to unlock the power of this data. This is just the start of your organization creating a data-driven culture, and helping to drive new insights and improved decision making.

Yet, too often organizations fail to recognize how much of our data is tied to geography. Nearly every government process is linked to geography, and this dynamic is exemplified by agencies focused on transportation and economic development. Leaders in this field are not just identifying where things are and where they are going, they are also conducting thorough spatial analysis to understand how to improve efficiencies and use location as a tool to boost economic growth.

Rick Ayers, Federal Account Executive, Esri, said “Nearly every mode of transportation, whether it is from a design perspective, maintenance perspective, or an operations perspective, GIS technology is being used to support those modes of transportation.”

Transportation and GIS will be on display at the upcoming Esri Federal GIS Conference. The event is a two-day event, with the third day being the first ever Esri DC Developer Summit. The conference will also feature five immersion summits, educating the government community on the power of GIS. The immersion summits will focus on national security, natural resource management, health and human services, and global aid, development and conservation and the focus of this article, transportation and economic development. Be sure to register for the conference here. Additionally, the Federal GIS Conference is free to all federal employees, NPOs, NGOs, and international organizations. The conference will be held February 10-11 in Washington, DC.

GIS is Not a New Phenomenon

Important to remember is that GIS and transportation is by no means a new phenomenon. For decades, GIS has been transforming the transportation industry. But today, transportation and economic development officials have a unique opportunity to leverage GIS within their departments. This is largely due to the increasing availability of storage, access and reliability provided by the cloud. Now, agencies have the ability to quickly store, manage and collect data. With this opportunity clear, the federal government is finding new ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of transportation and economic development initiatives. One of these trends that is guiding new opportunities is the application of real-time data.“Real-time data is probably one of the most exciting areas of GIS technology, as sensor information and data is coming in at an unprecedented rate, provided an increased availability of information,” said Ayers.

The idea of having real-time situational awareness should not be overlooked. With GIS technologies, an organization can set up spatially referenced perimeters and barriers, allowing leaders and administrators to be alerted when something enters a restricted space, a shipment does not arrive, a truck is delayed, weather alerts, or nearly any condition that an administrator defines. Alerts can come via email, SMS, or follow any defined protocols by the agency. This ability provides unprecedented situational awareness, and drives improved decision-making. Ayers identified some additional ways that the transportation community is leveraging GIS:

  • Aviation officials can monitor airspace in real-time and be alerted if an object enters a restricted airspace. Alerts can be emails, text, or trigger any emergency protocols defined.
  • Track and monitor ships and know when entering restricted waters
  • Monitor trucks and cargo
  • Understand logistics and routing, streamlining delivery operations
  • Monitor funding and grants to local municipalities
  • Improved decision making on economic and transportation policy

In these situations, GIS allows increased awareness, and the ability for decision makers to make effective decisions. “There’s increased situational awareness, and by leveraging data and information through GIS, organizations can understand the volume and make improved decisions,” said Ayers.

Progress Has Been Made, Yet Hurdles Still Remain

In addition to real-time alerts and notifications, GIS is also playing an essential role in economic development initiatives. Like we saw with health initiatives, the federal government is often disseminating grants to local governments to improve their infrastructure, and support various transportation projects.

Along with this, the federal government is adding increased pressure on grantees to show value, and that taxpayer money has been used effectively. Ayers notes, “If the federal government is to provide money to your project in the state, they want to see that the work that was done on this project has positive outcomes, especially from a performance measurement perspective.” Some examples of metrics that can be used to measure effectiveness might include:

  • How did it effect safety?
  • Was the agency able to decrease pedestrian accidents and fatalities?
  • Was there decrease crashes or auto fatalities?
  • Was there decrease the number of motorcycle accidents and fatalities?
  • Did new business open and did economic conditions approve?
  • Did infrastructure get upgraded and increase safety of bridges?

These metrics tie in closely to economic benefits. One example that highlights this comes from my hometown of Syracuse, NY. One of the main highways, Route 81, cuts directly through the heart of the city. The highway is used to quickly jet from one side of town to the next, and it’s part of the reason that literally no matter where you live in Syracuse, you can likely get to any location in about twenty minutes. But, this highway’s lifecycle is about to expire, and there have been some fascinating discussions on next steps and what to do with the highway. The city is currently debating two main options:

  • Tear it down, build a boulevard and support local business around the new boulevard
  • Repair the infrastructure

These options have there are pros and cons, but the key is that they are all tied to geography. With GIS, you could track the impact on commute impact by building a boulevard, look at the economic impact, understand the demographics surrounding the highway, look at tax data around the highway, and fully understand costs to each option. All this data and information is extremely complex, but with GIS, the process is simplified. By leveraging spatial data, the community can make an informed decision, based on the best interests of the community.

Challenges for GIS and Transportation

In order to increase the applications of GIS for the transportation and economic development sector, Ayers believes that there are some hurdles for people to cross. “One hurdle is helping decision makers understand the value that the technology offers the industry. If we are to look at all these modes of transportation, and how the technology is being used in these different modes of transportation, its ubiquitous,” said Ayers. As GIS has become more pervasive within government, GIS professionals and activists must continue to champion the use of GIS for change.

“GIS and transportation is changing the way government engages with citizens, and is the key way to help transform communities,” said Ayers. I’d absolutely agree, and am excited to see increased applications and uses of GIS.

If you’re interested in learning more about transportation and economic development, be sure to attend the Esri Federal GIS Conference. You can register for the conference here; the Federal GIS Conference is free to all federal employees, NPOs, NGOs, and international organizations.

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Esri was founded in 1969, it realized even then that geographic information system (GIS) technology could make a difference in society. GIS helps people to solve problems at local, regional, national, and global scales. Access maps and apps at ArcGIS.com. Be sure to check out all the
 GIS resources produced by Esri and GovLoop.

Photo credit – Flickr Creative Commons

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