How GIS Can Strengthen the Nation’s Infrastructure

The nation’s infrastructure is at a critical crossroads. The sustainability of roads, sewers, bridges and transportation networks are in question, and state and local governments have to choose what projects deserve priority funding. Fortunately, geodesign and geographic information systems (GIS) can help the government rebuild and meet the socioeconomic needs of citizens.

In a recent GovLoop online training, Richard Leadbeater, State Government Industry Manager, and Philip Mielke, Industry Patterns Team Lead from Esri, discussed how GIS can assist government in implementing infrastructure improvements in a data-driven and cost-effective manner.

The Infrastructure Problem

The American Society of Civil Engineers released their Failure to Act report on the nation’s infrastructure gaps. Unfortunately, the United States received a D+ rating. In order to meet current and future infrastructure needs, the nation would need to increase investment by $2 trillion by 2025.

Funding issues aside, monitoring and upgrading infrastructure can be a daunting endeavor. “Managing daily operations and providing efficient services in a city is a complex and vibrant task,” Leadbeater said. “Departments are running an array of disconnected technology so as a result, and cities struggle to fully tap into the collected expertise that is available to them.”

However, Leadbeater says that digital transformation marks the beginning of a new era where data can help build a government that is more responsive, efficient, transparent and engaged. “There’s a variety of data out there,” Leadbeater explained. “Geography provides us with the ability to bring this data together in a common index: the context of where.”

Improving the Nation’s Infrastructure with GIS

 Mielke outlined three ways GIS and geodesign can help government agencies execute new projects and improve infrastructure.

1. Rebuild

In order to improve infrastructure, government has to generate community buy-in and agree on a common framework for new projects. “It’s a prioritization process that requires projecting the use and cost of labor as well as understanding the population in order to build a holistic picture for what can be done,” Mielke said. “We ultimately want to create a maintenance cycle rather than a rebuilding cycle.”

Mielke noted that government can use funding prioritization models to decide what projects to focus on by using GIS and existing data. The models, along with citizen feedback, are used to justify decisions about where and how infrastructure changes and upgrades will be implemented.

With GIS, agencies can organize and use data related to population density, crime rates and business permits to prioritize fixing highly problematic infrastructure spots before it’s too late. “It’s a lot less expensive to treat problems than it is to ultimately reconstruct a street,” Mielke said.

2. Rethink

With changing citizen demographics and lifestyles, it can be difficult for agencies to commit to a project plan. With tools like GeoPlanner, agencies can compare multiple project scenarios in order to figure out the best suitable progression for a particular infrastructure project.

A scenario-based application like GeoPlanner can help agencies decide where to distribute resources and funding by using real-time dashboarding to perform a rapid evaluation of potential plans. “It is hosted on ArgCIS online so it’s easy to use existing information and easy to share the data and collaborate on projects,” Mielke said. “Government employees can see the performance of a certain adjustment and create quantifiable comparisons of the differing results.”

3. Refocus

 Agencies can plan to be future ready by supporting real-time decision making, leveraging the Internet of Things and thriving in a sensor-driven world. “Whenever I think about changing the way we’re approaching a problem, I like to think of the common people, processes and technology,” Mielke said.

With mobilized shield plus technologies, agencies can better understand and recognize infrastructure patterns by collecting data in real-time using GIS spatial analysis. For instance, the use of sensors to assess risk and traffic at busy intersections can help agencies prove the need for infrastructure maintenance.

“You need to make a logical statement that you can approach and represent with a series of maps so you can identify to stakeholders how you weigh your criteria,” Mielke explained.

Implementing GIS Technology

With GIS technology, agencies have the opportunity to bring dozens of scenarios to stakeholders that represent the infrastructure’s impact on a city and citizens. “How you articulate the problem is important as well as coming to a group consensus on what the problem is,” Leadbeater insisted. “You have jurisdictions that want to work together but are not using the same language to describe a problem or a solution. GIS technology can be the linchpin in these problems.”

Even with new technologies, however, it will require great efforts to stabilize the nation’s infrastructure. “This issue around our infrastructure isn’t going to be fixed in a year,” Leadbeater concluded. “But we can work with constituents to plan funding and, in the long run, create the opportunity for government staff to work with constituents and have discourses about infrastructure.”

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