Record snowfalls mean city and county budgets for snow removal will run out, and rising transportation rates together with infrastructure problems make transporting goods from point A to point B a continuous challenge. Because of these and other difficult scenarios, geographic information systems (GIS) are becoming indispensable tools on the transportation battle fronts for efficiency of operations and the safety of citizens. It is more productive to diagnose failures in traffic infrastructure or snarls in product distribution networks in government and corporate “war rooms,” and at desktop computer or mobile devices, than it is to physically inspect each potential trouble spot.

To illustrate, in 2013, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) conducted a cost-benefit and return on investment (ROI) analysis for its UPLAN GIS-T system and UGATE data warehouse. According to Nascio, an association of CIOs in state government, UDOT’s implementation of the new system produced savings of $300,000 in the first few years of GIS usage through improved workflow and data visualization in planning processes; $100,000 savings in the first year through use of its UPLAN Planning and Environmental Linkage Tool; reductions in associated project risks and costs; elimination of redundant systems ($5 million initially and $1.6 million on an annual basis); and reduction of costs with corresponding increased benefits to local government and private sector partners, with a dollar value of more than $2 million annually.

Utah is not alone in seeing the benefits of expanded GIS deployment.

In Kentucky, the state focused on leveraging its GIS system by creating individualized portals into the system based upon the different GIS uses that users had. Today, Kentucky’s GIS can display the state’s current highway plan for planners, the bike routes alongside roadways, a graphical context for environmental documentation and compliance for use in road maintenance and construction projects, a complete roadway photo collection and log system, and mapping of traffic counts across the state’s road system. The Kentucky GIS is a “one stop” data repository with individualized windows into it that can accommodate a breadth of planning and operational needs.

In Iowa, government officials are attacking snow plow management challenges by employing GIS. As part of the effort, the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) is developing a GIS-based Snow Plow Portal to assist the agency in asset management for winter operations. The portal will be used in concert with snow trucks that are equipped with data-collecting sensors so information pertaining to road conditions and material usage can be tracked in real time to assess operational needs as they emerge during a winter weather event. This real-time data will be immediately actionable and could speed emergency response in strenuous weather conditions. The new GIS capability can also aid the state in further optimizing its snow plow forces, which can quickly exceed a $40 million per year budget in rough winter seasons.

In the County of Riverside, Calif., a Geographic Information System-Based Accident Records System (GIS-BARS) is being developed to provide more effective and efficient accident reporting. The system will enable the county to identify high accident roadway segments and intersections so it can better plan and prioritize traffic safety improvements.

GIS is also being used in the private sector to promote efficiency of operations, effectiveness of planning, cost savings and revenue increases.

In the country of Colombia, Productos Ramo S.A., a local snack food company, is using GIS to lay out its distribution network and to optimize the performance of its product delivery routes.

In the U.S., one mobile tool company puts all of its inventory on its trucks in the field, which eliminates the cost of physical distribution centers. A tracking system that utilizes GIS monitors truck delivery routes and inventory, and then determines which truck (and which products) are needed at a particular customer location. If necessary, the GIS can also assist in the rerouting of trucks carrying specific parts that a customer needs and that the local truck might not have on hand.

Are we now at a point where we have seen most of the contexts where GIS can be used?

In the next few years, there will be further advancements in ways to exploit both standard and “unstructured” data from machines and the Internet. Information analysts will come up with new information “composites” that blend uncommon types of data and GIS systems will be the “backbone” on which to overlay this data for both trends modeling and for real-time, immediately actionable business decisions. The numbers of incoming data sources are exponentially multiplying. In the future, the data being plugged into transportation GIS systems might originate from a moving vehicle on an interstate, a digital data collection point at a major traffic intersection, and even from the mobile devices of motorists. The GIS system could give the information a referential matrix for decisioning, monitoring and tracking.

The portals into GIS systems will also continue to evolve. More of them will be designed so that they are immediately deployable on a broad assortment of mobile devices and operating systems.

Given this GIS evolution, what best practices for GIS can organizations adopt as they determine where GIS technology can best be utilized?

1. Think of the GIS as a backbone

If you use the capabilities of your GIS as a referential backbone for the different types of information and analytics that you want to use in support of your strategies and operations, it will likely deliver the greatest benefit. Just what is it that you want to know concerning transportation and logistics? Is it relevant to understand what types of consumers are along certain routes in your product delivery system so you can optimize the inventory that your trucks are carrying to reflect what the product demands in particular areas are most likely to be? In a scenario like this, demographics information can be purchased or developed, and then overlaid onto the GIS so you can see the distribution of certain consumer preferences against order history—all laid out on a road map.

2. Define what you expect to gain from your investment and develop a return on investment (ROI) formula that is measurable

If your goal is to optimize the inventory that your trucks are carrying in certain geographical locales with certain types of consumers, then you might define a return on your GIS project investment in terms of more rapid inventory turns, reduced product carrying charges for unused inventory and greater sales.

3. Leverage your GIS investment

If you’re already tracking and monitoring your parts trucks in the field as they deliver to consumers, you can also extend the use of your GIS resource so the planning department can see upcoming road repair schedules on these routes, or so the safety department can see where traffic congestion and fleet accidents are most common. The more you can repurpose your GIS system for other business uses, the more your organization will benefit from it.

4. Develop user-friendly portals for your GIS

GIS ease of use is as important as the information within it—because if the system is difficult to use, users won’t use it. One sound approach to portal building is to deploy business analysts to work with the business users themselves. System ease of use should include ease of entry into the system, ease of navigation, and straightforward means of getting to the information that the users are looking for.

5. Implement a strong security policy

Government agencies leverage their transportation GIS by enabling public usage as well as private internal use. This is sound policy because taxpayers get a direct benefit from using the system that they are paying for. However, at the same time, your IT department should ensure that the proper security permissions and safeguards are in place.