Geographic information systems, known as GIS, are a way to organize, analyze and display any data that has a location.
For a city, that data can be anything from the demographics of the people living around a park, to a full schematic of the city’s water system, according to Barry Waite, Lomita city council member and adjunct professor of GIS at the University of Southern California’s School of Policy Planning and Development. It can answer questions like, ‘What kind of street trees are damaging sidewalks?’ It can help planners and residents see what a proposed project will look like in the context of existing buildings. More broadly, cities can use GIS to map environmental and infrastructure conditions that may enable assessment of alternative solutions to issues to help
them arrive at more sound policy decisions.
South Bay Watch invited Waite and Bonnie Shrewsbury, manager of GIS for the City of Manhattan Beach and also an adjunct professor of GIS at USC, to explain what this technology can do and how cities can and should tap into it to better plan for the future.
Q: Is GIS technology new? How did it evolve and why do we seem to be hearing more about it lately?
A: It is a fairly new technology, having started around 1970. It became much more powerful and easier to use in the mid-1990s. The first time SBCCOG used GIS for a project was in 1995 as a planning tool. If you are just now hearing about it, it’s because it has been quietly working in the background. Now, it has worked its way to the foreground as capabilities and ease-of-use have grown,
while its cost has dropped. It is a tool that can be useful in any city department. Most of our communities locally have been using GIS in their day-to-day operations for at least 20 years. With the advent of mobile GIS that facilitates capture and analysis of geospatial data and information in the field, along with the evolution of cloud computing—which facilitates easy and instantaneous data
storage and sharing—you now have a recipe for rapid and widespread adoption.
Q: Map making is not a new thing. What can this technology do that couldn’t be done prior to its advent?
A: GIS is far more than making maps. The strength of it is that data of all kinds is in reusable layers, such as parcels or streets, that can be mixed and matched and analyzed in relationship to each other. For example, it can help answer questions like how much do residents within a 10-minute walk of a location spend on restaurant meals? Or how many seniors live in walking distance of a particular park? You can’t do that with a paper map.
Q: Sounds like this technology has all sorts of untapped potential. Describe what you see in the future for GIS technology as it relates to municipal and governmental uses.
A: The future is in sharing data and combining it. For example, we want to know how traffic moves between our communities. The technology brings together the data from each of those cities and the county seamlessly. To the user, it is as if it is all coming from one place. Combining it with mobile GIS allows a police officer in the field to use a cellphone to see areas impacted by a power outage, or shows a building inspector likely locations to check after an earthquake, just using a phone. As more data is created and shared between agencies, the value of GIS grows and grows.
Q: Is there anything else you would like people to know about this burgeoning technology?
A: It doesn’t happen by itself. You need to have trained staff. It could be people already in your organization such as planners, engineers, or IT professionals with some added training. Just as
importantly, you’ll want to maintain your data. While the county maintains parcels and a lot of other data, your streets and local data need to be maintained by your staff as part of their normal workflow. Most importantly, know that GIS is a tool for collaboration both between departments within the organization and between organizations. We can do much more working together, and GIS is a great
way to make that happen. •