Blogging for America

Boston: GIS More than Making Maps

Over the past few years local government GIS (Geographical Information Systems) Departments have grown significantly.  GIS has been an important tool for mapping, data visualizations and spatial analysis. Cities have been relying on GIS for public safety, public works, infrastructure and  urban planning.

Typically every city has GIS whether in the form of a centralized department that serves enterprise wide or a departmental system that serves particular departments. The City of Boston is no different, it has a centralized GIS team that is part of the Department of Innovation and Technology.

The City of Boston has  a population of 600,000 people with over 4.5 million people covering the metropolitan area.  The City of Boston covers about 89.6 square miles. Claire Lane, GIS Manager, and Jim Alberque, GIS Specialist, are the two faces of GIS for the City of Boston. The GIS team supports about 12 departments and works with other public agencies such as Boston Public Schools, Boston Center for Youth and Family, Department of Water and Sewer as well as the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Working at the City of Santa Clarita for the past five years I was surprised to find that the GIS team at the City of Boston was only a two member team.  A small team for one of the largest cities in the nation.  I started looking around and talking to the GIS staff at the City of Boston and was amazed at all they were doing with such a small amount of resources.

For example, they launched the city’s GIS data hub, an interactive mapping feature that gives users the ability to visually browse different sets of information such as service request.  Solar Boston is another great project that allows users to see active renewable energy installations within the city.

When GIS started at the City of Boston 14-15 years ago there was no centralized GIS department. GIS had been implemented on a department by department basis in areas that made sense; this includes departments such as police, publicworks, and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). About eight years ago the City of Boston decided to investigate into creating a centralized GIS department. This process went through the traditional needs assessment, investigations, etc. After this process the City of Boston decided to invest in an enterprise GIS and create a centralized GIS department that is part of the Department of Innovation and Technology.  Jim Alberque was the first member of the centralized GIS department at the City of Boston. Three years ago Claire Lane was brought on as the GIS Manager.

With a two member staff in such a large city it is important to be creative in solving problems. One issue with GIS is the data; in particular, who is responsible for maintaining it? A city must store droves of data on infrastructure, such as light poles, street lights, traffic signs, and fire hydrants — just to name a few. So in Boston, the GIS staff doesn’t manage the data, they curate the data. Each operational department has a person that manages the GIS data, trained and supported by the centralized team. This approach takes much of the day to day data management away from the GIS staff and allows the staff to continue to solve more GIS problems throughout Boston.

Boston Hack Day

Jim Alberque at Boston Hack Day with Code for America Fellows

I recently had a chance to sit down with Jim  to talk about GIS at the City of Boston and to get a sense of what GIS has done and where they are heading.  Jim is very passionate about GIS, technology and open data.

Me: What is the best part about your job?
Jim:  I enjoy the wide range of items I am able to work on.  The cool thing about public service is that it doesn’t lack challenges.  There are tons of projects to work on every day that range from editing data, building applications, creating maps, I always get to work on something interesting.

Me: Considering the size of Boston and such a small team, what are you’re thoughts about that?
Jim: There are definitely pros and cons to the situation.  The great thing about it is that it goes back to the range and ability to work on many different projects.  On the downside the more success we have more challenges and responsibility take place.  A third staff member will be joining us which will be a huge help

Me: Where do you see the future of GIS at the City of Boston?
Jim: In the short term I see GIS as a service.  GIS will be another service like any other line of business system.  A service that is called from internal applications to help solve problems.

Me: What do you like the most between doing cartography or the data analysis?
Jim: Making the maps is my favorite part.  The analysis is cool but being able to show it is much better.  I get excited about being able to show them how to answer the question.

Me: How can you attribute the small team size to the success of the GIS department here in Boston?
Jim:  The reason that we have been so successful is that Claire and I get really excited about the technology behind GIS and public service in general.  This has really helped grow and become successful, the enthusiasm has been the key ingredient. Additionally, the support and vision of our CIO Bill Oates has been has been instrumental in the success of Enterprise GIS.

For more about GIS at the City of Boston check out:  http://www.cityofboston.gov/maps/

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