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Identifying the Promise of GIS for Government: Health and Human Services

Post Highlights

  • GovLoop releases new report: Identifying the Promise of GIS for Government
  • GIS offers benefits to those looking to improve social services, public health, and urban renewal
  • GIS helps better understand a problem’s context, make better informed decisions, and to collaborate across agencies in implementing solutions

The GovLoop report, Identifying the Promise of GIS for Government, focuses on best practices, case studies and identifies innovative uses of geographic information system (GIS) technology in government. Across government GIS technology has fueled innovation. Often implemented in tandem with other initiatives, GIS is a critical component to help government solve some of its most pressing challenges.

We’ve been highlighting various aspects of the guide through blog posts as well, so stay tuned for more posts about our report. You can check out other posts that have already been published on the guide’s page. Our hope is to provide you information in a easier way to consume than just publishing the guide – let us know if you have other ideas for how we can better bring you information like this.

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The “Great Recession” has simultaneously strained federal, state and local budgets through lost revenue and also increased the number of citizens who rely on government assistance. Providing the optimal level of social and health services, given this environment, requires that policymakers have an excellent understanding of the context around the problem in order to more effectively inform solutions and prioritize actions. Further, agencies must be adept at coordinating across the myriad organizations and jurisdictions involved in providing assistance to vulnerable populations. Geographic information systems (GIS) offer a unique way to help governments on all three fronts.

Understanding the Context

It’s critical to understand a problem’s context before deciding on a solution. The recent explosion in geo-tagged data can help organizations tasked with health and human services missions better understand challenges faced by areas of interest. By using geo-tagged data, it is now possible to view demographics, income, access to low-cost and nutritious food, access to health professionals, and more all within a single map. Each of these distinct, yet related, variables can be mapped on a separate “layer” and be viewed in different combinations to help planners, social workers, nonprofits and government officials best understand what the critical factors at play are and use this information to determine the best course of action.

One great example of this in action is the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Desert Locator, which locates areas in which a significant portion of residents does not have ready access to affordable, nutritious food. Using the map, it becomes possible to understand which areas lack access to nutritious food—critical information for anyone seeking to address public health issues like childhood obesity or social welfare issues.

Making Informed Decisions

GIS can help to make more informed decisions and to prioritize actions. This applies not only to policymakers, who can make better policy and program decisions based on a complete understanding of a problem and available resources, but also to private citizens, who can make better decisions when armed with the appropriate information displayed in a user-friendly way.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the successor to the food stamp program, has used GIS to improve decision-making among the 44 million Americans it aids each year. In 2010, the USDA released the SNAP Retail Locator, which allows SNAP benefit recipients to see the retailers near their home, work, or other location that accept SNAP benefits. Jonathan Bennett, a Program Manager for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, explains that in addition to enabling beneficiaries to make “better buying decisions” by viewing and comparing stores that accept SNAP benefits before showing up to make a purchase, it has also helped state employees make better eligibility decisions.

Coordinating Across Agencies

The potential for organizations to derive value from GIS increases as more organizations discover new uses for geo-tagging and mapping their data. As more organizations collect geographic data and integrate GIS into their programs, new opportunities will exist to improve efficiency. Perhaps some of the biggest of these efficiency gains could arise from increased transparency into organizations’ data and the associated ability of organizations to complement each other’s work.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched a GeoCenter, which USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah touts as “The first key step in enabling anyone in the world to visit a GIS map, click on a country, understand where all of our projects are, what they’re doing, and the kinds of results they’re getting.” In other words, GIS is enabling an entire ecosystem of agencies, nonprofits, and companies to understand all of the work being performed that could affect its own work in any given region.

Want More Information on GIS?

For more resources, check out:

When 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. Check out the Communications & Citizen Engagement Sub-Community of which they are a council member.

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