Making the most of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in your community

A quality municipal GIS system provides substantial benefits to a community beyond parcel mapping. GIS can provide comprehensive services to a variety of departments, dramatically increasing efficiency and reducing costs.

Not so long ago, many municipal governments were hesitant to invest in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Let’s face it, GIS systems can be very costly in up-front investment, require additional staff and/or training for existing staff and may require contracting consulting firms for additional professional technical support. Additionally, the benefits, particularly the cost savings benefits, of investing in a GIS system were not always clearly defined or easy to calculate.

My, how the times have changed! Today, communities who invested in GIS years ago and provided continued support to maintain, upgrade and expand their systems have a comparative and competitive advantage over those who did not jump on the preverbal “band wagon” of technical revolution.

According to Michigan State University Extension, a good municipal GIS system can be fully-integrated into most departments to provide applications for virtually every facet of government. In addition to its traditional use in equalization departments, GIS can be used to manage all utilities, sheriff, 911/dispatch and emergency services operations, and road commission routes, tracking and monitoring. GIS can also be used to manage data relating to housing, natural resources, water quality, crime, populations and other relevant data that can be quickly and efficiently utilized for various purposes including grant development, programs management and other useful needs.

A properly developed GIS system can provide information to organizations beyond the municipal government. Local educational, non-profit, environmental, recreational and tourist organizations, business and other groups can benefit greatly from access to local data they may not otherwise have access to due to technical or cost limitations. Access to these resources can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their work in your community, providing a symbiotic effect that would otherwise not have existed.

Additionally, a GIS system can provide access to a broad network of information and research from a variety of federal, state, educational and other agencies and institutions. Michigan State University, for example, provides access to historical aerial imagery and houses its own RS&GIS center.

If your community is thinking about investing in a GIS system, there are many options to consider as you move forward. You can provide GIS services in-house, contract them with an independent contractor for ongoing service provision or contract them on a project-by-project basis. Since GIS systems are scalable and their resources can be shared, providing services at a larger geographic area (such as a county-wide level) and partnering with other local municipalities and organizations to provide more comprehensive services with shared financial responsibilities can be an effective method to provide a high quality GIS system for your community.

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