It’s Finally Here: The Citizen Engagement Tool Congress Has Been Waiting For

Here on GovLoop we’ve written and shared stories of how GIS has transformed executive level agencies. Yet, GIS is being used in more than just executive agencies. The legislative branch has also caught on to the power of GIS. Tim Petty, Deputy Legislative Director for Senator James Risch (R – Idaho), shared several examples of how Senator Risch’s office has leveraged GIS. His presentation at a recent GovLoop and Esri meet-up shed light on GIS opportunities for Congress. In particular, Tim showed the power of GIS to transform constituent services. “So many of us are working with the analysis of data, but the ultimate goal is to get the data into the hands of the decision makers,” said Petty.

Petty was accompanied by Dan Pollock, New Media Director for Senator Richard Blumenthal (D- Connecticut). In true bi-partisanship fashion, Pollock and Petty have been leading a charge to bring GIS to the hill. They have developed a GIS working group that meets regularly. The group discusses best practices and how they are leveraging GIS to improve constituent outreach and services.

“Part of the vision for Dan and I, is how on earth do we introduce GIS to the hill?,” said Petty. Petty and Pollock have not only created the working group, but have also met with leaders from the Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service and the Sergeant-at-Arms. They have all been supportive of their efforts to bring GIS to the hill.

Although collaboration is needed to advance GIS on the Hill, one of the main ways to gather buy-in is to show great case studies. And that’s exactly what Petty and Pollock did during their presentation.

I really enjoyed listening to both Tim Petty and Dan Pollock, as they outlined some of the ways GIS has transformed their respective offices. First, Petty showed some examples from Senator Risch’s website. The site includes a map gallery where constituents can visit to learn detailed information about their community. Map topics include a crime index and locations of Senator Risch’s offices in Idaho and DC. “The goal is to get information back to the citizens. We were not only able to get information back to citizens, but also create a map,” said Petty.

Petty also explained how one map was used recently, the active fires map. In August of this year, fires ravaged many parts of Idaho. Thousands were temporarily displaced. Homes were lost. And thanks to rescue efforts, countless lives were saved. The active fires map allowed citizens and first responders to see where active fires were. This helped communities plan if they needed to evacuate. The active fires map contained not just federal information, but also layered state and local data.

“With this map we are able to understand legislatively what is happening with fires, the impact on water, waste water, water treatment, and the chain reaction that takes place. We can show impact and take action,” said Petty. These maps can help to create the proper communications tools. They also allow emergency teams to create strategies to quickly make an impact within communities.

Another map that Tim Petty mentioned was the Idaho brownfields map. Brownfields are that land that was previously used for industrial purposes, and has been contaminated by waste. In many communities, agencies have worked to clean the land to make it once again viable. In doing so, communities can open businesses, build homes or use the land in new ways, rather than serve as a eyesore of a bygone era. Petty identified a map that shows success with brownfield cleanup initiatives.

“These are success stories of what we have been able to do in combination with other agencies. We can show we are cleaning up sites and putting them back into the market. We can actually get these [sites] back into the community for jobs and work,” said Petty.

These examples are just another reminder: maps tell stories. And the use of these maps in Idaho has helped Petty improve the way Senator Risch engages with his constituents. “The idea of just taking information and data, to create a storyline behind it, allows people to get really excited about what they are doing,” said Petty.

These maps are also available on mobile devices, and have revolutionized the way Senator Risch engages with citizens. “Now, the only thing Senator Risch needs to take out with him is his iPad,” said Petty. This is truly a remarkable advancement for citizen services.

Dan Pollock is having similar experiences working for Senator Blumenthal. GIS has changed the game for citizen engagement in Connecticut. Pollock has leveraged Esri’s Story Map’s and various other tools to display the power of GIS. One example is that he created a story map around Lyme disease rates in Connecticut by town. “We did this around our August recess last year,” said Pollock. “This was just a push for people to visit recreational sites within Connecticut, and highlight some of the federally funded sites.” This was a creative way to encourage people to not only enjoy parks, but also stay safe.

Another example Pollock shared is a map to show where Yankee and Red Sox fans live in Connecticut. Using data from a study by a Harvard professor, he created a map as a means to engage with citizens. “This is just a fun thing we did, and a nice way to engage with constituents. A lot of what I share and rally behind is doom and gloom, so it’s nice to mix it up a little bit when we can.” This is also a good way to get people to visit the Senators site, and build awareness of how the Senator uses social channels. “Mapping has been extraordinarily valuable for us, and we want to see more,” said Pollock.

I’ve always been optimistic about the future of our government and the role technology can play. GIS is increasingly imperative to improving the way we govern. I was glad to see two staffers reaching across the aisle to share best practices on how to leverage GIS. Now if Congress would only do the same.

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