After decades of supporting government agency operations and decision making, geographic information systems (GIS) are entering a new phase. In response to demand for improved services at lower costs, sustainable solutions that protect the environment, and increased government transparency and public access to data, agencies are taking a hard look at existing processes and identifying ways to use the information they have in smarter ways. This entails incorporating the latest technology, such as smart meters and mobile apps, into existing systems; breaking down data barriers between agencies; and providing the tools to encourage civic engagement, whether that is reporting a pothole or broken water main, or logging comments about a proposed new mall or high rise apartment building. A smart community combines data from all sources in a comprehensive platform and facilitates access to the data through commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) applications that address the needs of many different users.

How Do We Get Smart?

At the 2016 Esri User Conference plenary session, Jack Dangermond, Esri president, emphasized the tremendous potential for improving all areas of our lives by integrating GIS data from multiple sources. By deploying “smarter” technology and using comprehensive geodatabases, the information being collected can address a multitude of areas, such as environmental monitoring, noise pollution, agricultural production, renewable energy monitoring, green infrastructure planning, public transit systems design, smart utility meters, building interior efficiency, risk assessment, emergency preparedness and gray infrastructure maintenance.

“GIS itself is getting smarter,” Dangermond says. “It’s integrating and leveraging so many new tools; faster computing, of course, more remote sensing, more data collection, more types of data are being integrated into it. Smart GIS is also about connecting everyone, creating a system of engagement between people and their organizations, providing context so that we understand as communities what's going on, and GIS and maps are the common language that brings us together.”

Esri has more than 200 apps included in its suite of ArcGIS for state and local government solutions, with 30 to 40 new apps being added every quarter. Developers work with users to decide which apps will be most useful, such as citizen reporting systems, inventories, permit status, etc. The goal is to create more uses for the data they have already invested in.

“The platform moves the GIS value needle ahead by presenting options in an easy road map to deploy immediately,” says Christopher Thomas, director of government markets at Esri. “The old model was everyone sitting around and doing a needs assessment, asking what you would do if you had a GIS. Today we have existing apps and data, so we ask which app you would like to deploy right now, today.”

Thomas continues, “A smart community is very specifically about changing operations, improving collaboration and engaging with your citizens through technology. Technology is the driver. This allows government agencies to re-engage with their constituents.”

Executives now have the option every day to review operational dashboards that combine enterprise resource planning (ERP), finance, GIS, traffic or just about anything else that they want to see. Once they have the core software, the apps can be rapidly deployed, saving time and manpower immediately. “It is important to have executive buy-in for the smart community concept to really work,” Thomas says. “You need the mayor, the CIO, and the city manager to push these programs, and to really get the full return on investment, a marketing campaign to inform the public that the apps exist. The city of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is one success story where departments across the board embrace GIS and use the apps for everything from stormwater master plans to evacuation routes to a centralized customer service system.”

Plug-and-Play Apps

Even though many government agencies have invested in a GIS, it’s safe to say that more could be done with the accumulated data. To help maximize the return on investment across the board, a platform like Cityworks is available with applications ready to customize to each organization’s GIS, without reinventing the wheel.

Azteca Systems/Cityworks, an Esri Platinum Business Partner, started developing software in 1996. Its first software product, Pipeworks, documented water, sewer and storm utility systems. Once the value of the Esri geodatabase became more widely recognized, the company added streets, traffic and other infrastructure and changed the name of the platform to Cityworks. Soon after this, the platform was extended to support the public land side of local government, including permitting and code enforcement.

“Through the power of the Esri geodatabase, Cityworks covers the whole city, including land authority data, infrastructure data, parks, light poles, electric, gas, inside buildings, everything,” says Wayne Hill, Cityworks executive vice president of client relations. “We’re seeing the fastest adoption in the areas of public utilities, streets, traffic, building permits and code enforcement.”

Hill says, “Traditionally, each department worked in a silo, but barriers have come down a lot over the past few years. Everyone is realizing that GIS information is interconnected with every activity within a government’s operations. Cooperation between multiple departments is required to create and implement multi-year master plans, as well as for daily operations.”

By using the power of ArcGIS and Cityworks, information is recorded more accurately at lower cost. For example, instead of a person reading meters, smart chips in meters allow usage and damage reports to be automatically transmitted via a Wi-Fi connection. Convenience is also increased when a customer applies for a permit online and is immediately notified that the area is in a flood zone or a historic district, and if there are additional costs or restrictions. To help disseminate important information, Webmap capabilities allow anyone to create a map showing what is happening in a certain region, such as road construction and traffic detours.

To encourage public participation, organizations use a variety of marketing methods, including social media, newsletters and billboards. “We’re seeing more citizen engagement solutions over the past few years,” Hill says. “Cityworks’ partners develop mobile apps for citizens to use. Their requests are automatically transferred into Cityworks. Workers can see where the issue is on the map, send a crew and report back to the citizen when it’s fixed.”

What Will Smart Communities Look Like in the Future?

As technology continues to get smarter, the opportunities for collecting and analyzing data will increase. “The major trends for smart communities include 3D GIS and drone imagery for mapping, as well as other collection devices in the Internet of Things,” Thomas says. “The new data sources will change how we react to emergencies due to improved visibility into situations. To assist with visualizing and analyzing all sorts of data in just one interface, Esri is coming out with a new product called Insights to support real-time and near-real-time data-driven decision making.”

The ability to generate more accurate and timely information in smart communities will have far-reaching effects. “I see the Internet of Things making a big impact on infrastructure management and the quality and speed of government services to the public,” Hill says. “Smart chips are already being used for monitoring, such as stormwater systems to check flows and levels of retention basins so alerts are sent immediately, rather than relying on scheduled maintenance checks. Thermostats can adjust themselves based on your habits. A building’s HVAC system will have the capability to trigger its own alarm and generate a work order. At some point every street light will have a chip and when the bulb burns out, a report will automatically be sent to the office. The possibilities are endless.”

Our capacity to measure everything means more information feeding the geodatabase, which allows the interconnectedness of all facets of our communities to be analyzed, displayed and leveraged to support smarter decisions.