National Honor For City IT System

August 30, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — The city of Grand Rapids’ information technology department was a star on the West Coast earlier this month.

The department received a special achievement award in Geographic Information System (GIS) technology during the 24th annual user conference of the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) in San Diego.

ESRI is the industry leader in GIS technology, which the city uses in its geographic applications.

ESRI confers the award in recognition of outstanding work in the GIS field. Of more than 100,000 sites reviewed worldwide, less than 150 organizations were selected for special achievement awards.

Although budgetary restrictions kept city staff from traveling to California to accept the award, the designation is affirmation of what was a risky and somewhat controversial initiative by the city.

Grand Rapids’ first exposure to GIS came as a member of REGIS — the multi-jurisdictional program involving 20 area municipalities. After a number of false starts, REGIS began developing a geospatial tool nearly five years ago, and the system became available for administrative and public use in July 2001. At a cost of $13.5 million, the project covered 900 square miles of Kent and Ottawa counties with nearly 200 data levels and 4,000 attributes available.

“There was a screaming need as far as I was concerned,” City Manager Kurt Kimball said. “But that’s a rocky road, to negotiate the politics of a multi-jurisdictional arrangement. It was a huge investment among the participants and I’m happy to say it paid off, and now is a good time to look at how we move to the next level as a group.”

But Grand Rapids may have already moved to the next level, according to the city’s GIS manager, Paul Klimas. Just after the deployment of REGIS, it was decided that in order to serve the city’s needs, the entire system had to be essentially redeveloped.

“It was a big risk taken by the city manager three years ago,” Klimas said. “Now and before I arrived, he had a vision for technology use and how that technology can perform in government operations, make things more e-government and easier to interact with citizens.”

That vision attracted Klimas to Grand Rapids from his GIS administrative duties in Miami-Dade County in Florida.

His first task was to evaluate where REGIS was technically and how best the city could build applications from it. Klimas’ evaluation was that, at that point, the city could not obtain any additional use. And just as the REGIS members were completing their data conversions and architectural solutions, he suggested they all but start over.

“That happens a lot in the IT world,” Klimas said.

“With the nature of technology, you can’t deploy something and have it stay stable for 10 years. We’ll finish deploying something and then we have to change it, because our world changes every three years.”

Klimas explained that in the case of GIS, there is a standard progression for its use.

First, there is the mapping tool, the most obvious application. Next is the creation of additional attributes to the mapping tool, such as pavement type and what kind of traffic a road may accommodate.

After that comes the expansive possibilities involved in the inclusion of “legacy data” — linking the information from preexisting databases to the map, allowing a geographic representation of any of thousands of types of statistical data.

An example would be the city’s first attempt at a GIS visualization of legacy data, a geocoded rate study for the city’s water billing system. Administrators wanted to be able to just fence in an area and find the average water use and other information, which would decrease the processing time of a rate study analysis from weeks to hours.

“The REGIS system at that point would not allow us to take our water billing system and have it connected,” Klimas said. “The systems were disconnected physically and logically.

“We suggested that we go down this alternative path using Web technology and a geography network (but) there was a controversy that had to do with operating systems and open environments and how things worked architecturally.”

On top of that, some REGIS members didn’t share the needs of the group’s largest member.

“Byron Township doesn’t have to do a rate study,” Klimas noted. “Why would they want to invest in writing an application they won’t use? But we needed to do it and we needed to do it now. If the city was going to continue to fund us, they needed to see a return on investment, so we needed to find a way to use this system to our benefit.

“So we decided to take this alternate path.”

Klimas called back to Miami-Dade County and explained what the city was trying to accomplish, and they handed over the tools to accomplish the task. GIS was soon linked to the water system database, and the rate study was accomplished.

Next, the IT department began to examine what other information could be associated with the map, and what other spatial data engine (SDE) geodatabases could be built.

“We started looking at things like nuisance complaints, crime activities and where they were occurring, and the concentration in which these things occur,” Klimas said. “We started looking at things like potholes …”

Internally, 110 different databases have been linked and hundreds of applications have been built through the GIS system.

Klimas said it has become an integral part of planning processes and a tool for use in emergency and tactical situations like President Bush’s visit in July. He said it also allowed the city to function with a smaller work force — a necessity given the layoffs of recent years.

From the private sector standpoint, the real estate industry has embraced the system. It finds the system has made engineering and construction within the city easier while affording more information.

A recent example includes the utility infrastructure containing over 70,000 drawings.

Klimas explained how a Detroit design firm had sent an engineer to Grand Rapids a week in advance to look up the documents needed for a local project. The city staff sat him down, gave him security clearance and a login ID, and he accomplished his research in half a day.

Slowly, these applications will become available for public use, as it is determined what can be released with respect to Homeland Security restrictions.

The city’s first GIS award was the 2002 GIS for Everyone Award presented at the Imaging Conference in Lansing. The statewide award recognized the Public Inquiry system.

Originally built as a “pothole application,” the tool allows citizens to label a nuisance complaint on the map. Previously limited to only some parcels, planning and road closure information, this was GIS’s largest public use application to date.

Administrators were concerned that the system would be subject to pranks and false complaints, but those concerns never materialized.

“It isn’t that exciting to see three guys in an orange truck show up two days later,” city IT staffer Bob Coe said. “What did happen is people started using the system and seeing how their tax dollars were being spent. We even had this unique phenomenon of personalization: ‘You fixed my pothole.’”

And if there are a large number of complaints from one area, a large cluster of dots on the map is hard to miss and the city can investigate the reasons behind it.

Of greatest interest to local businesses, especially real estate professionals, is when additional statistics involving crime, zoning and neighborhoods will become available.

A tool that can detail when and where crimes are happening in the city would be as useful to real estate brokers as to crime investigators, while any piece of extra knowledge that may become available on a piece of geography will likely increase the efficiency of both commercial and residential real estate industries.

Klimas often fields calls from other municipalities, regionally and nationally, for advice on GIS applications, which he provides in the same fashion that Miami-Dade did three years ago.

“Grand Rapids has been the most sophisticated of the (REGIS) organizations in making applications out of GIS, useful ones that change the way we do business in a fundamental way,” Kimball added.

“And we were fortunate to attract the likes of a Paul Klimas to help shepherd us to the next level. The award is just evidence of that.”    

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