The City of Philadelphia has a long history applying Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Adopted in the early 1990s by the Streets Department, GIS has become part of the fabric defining information technology for the agency.
Meeting the mission to provide clean communities and safe streets requires more than knowing where things are located. It demands a detailed understanding of the shared interests and the relationships across programs, related Departments, and a large community of public and private entities with concerns involving the common right-of-way. Integrating applications and data through a spatial framework provides the basis for collaborative planning, execution of work, and evaluation of outcomes towards the management of entire business landscapes. The Department has benefitted by those forces necessary to successful adoption– creative, engaged employees and executive support that remains consistent. The embrace of GIS has positioned us to take advantage of the future.
Challenges Only Increase
Philadelphia has over 1.5 Mn residents. It is among a handful of major US cities dating to the colonial era. The original city plan is nearly three centuries old, and could not have anticipated the contemporary urban environment, including complex infrastructure, increasing development, and roads supporting shared use by vehicles, pedestrians, and bikes. The Streets Department manages 2,525 miles of roads, nearly 200,000 poles and attachments, and over 3000 signalized intersections. The city reviews close to 15,000 right-of-way permits each year, receives between 500 to 600 service requests per day, and provides waste management services to over 530,000 residences. The Department is challenged to achieve quality service at high volume even with a work force of nearly 1,800 employees. Fortunately, GIS supports coordination of our activities as well as those of numerous public and private entities related directly through interests or indirectly through shared space.
"Integrating applications and data through a spatial framework provides the basis for collaborative planning, execution of work, and evaluation of outcomes"
Solutions Require Innovation
The Streets Department’s GIS underpinning is the street centerline. It describes the network of roads in Philadelphia and key attributes such as name, address range, and directionality. Comprised of over 40,000 spatially referenced segments, the centerline is used by numerous City agencies and outside parties. It’s critical to activities ranging from 911 and emergency response to planning and development. For the Streets Department, it’s indispensible in managing transportation, the condition of assets, and our resources. Dozens of datasets are tied to the centerline. Moreover, this information becomes more valuable as GPS and digital mapping technologies become main stream. Increasing collection and sharing of spatial data creates new opportunities and brings greater sophistication to existing practices. A GIS-enabled tool is being applied by the department to document compliance of curb ramps with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Another application provides web-based mapping of permitted street closures within a specified distance to citizens through their mobile phone. Developing innovative systems that capture and take advantage of geographic data is crucial to improving public service.
GIS is a powerful tool for integrating an application portfolio. Where explicit relationships are traditionally defined through key fields such as project ID, GIS not only relates data through reference to features, but supports implied relationships through proximity. This is particularly valuable where the co-location of assets is not easily recognized or activities were executed independent of one another. Building GIS into applications and across systems ensures that spatial relationships are part of the process. This improves workflow and avoids costly mistakes while building an ever stronger foundation for analysis and problem solving.
The Streets Department’s work is inherently spatial. GIS data supports integration with partners making the Department more responsive to immediate needs. For example, Philly311 allows citizens and officials to report concerns by address or location through the city’s call center, online form, or mobile app. Service requests are geo-coded and dispatched to the Streets Department. Automated processes compare requests to geographic service areas and route work orders to locations across the city for action.
While public engagement creates a greater awareness of needs such as traffic signal and street light maintenance or sanitation enforcement, it also raises expectations. GIS is instrumental in meeting these demands. Capturing location and relating it to core infrastructure through the centerline ensures data availability for analysis. This provides an opportunity to predict issues and monitor service delivery trends towards goals such as equitable quality of life.
GIS is incorporated into most of our applications. From planning activities through an online system requiring utilities to coordinate excavation work in the right-of-way to permitting of street closures and follow up inspections, relationships are managed to ensure a comprehensive picture of our physical infrastructure and the forces acting on it. Through process and product integration the Streets Department is able to focus energy where and when it’s needed to enhance service delivery and ensure our collective interest.
The City’s role in Shared Services and GIS
It’s tough to go it alone. The City’s Office of Innovation and Technology provides core services, including GIS expertise and an environment for sharing data. Standards for making spatial data available internally and publicly have been established to ensure both access and understanding. OIT manages enterprise software solutions and provides guidance, lightening the load for those whose focus is split between Department mission and information technology.
Most important, OIT oversees working groups that promote information exchange and collaboration. The individual relationships established through these forums are integral to technology transfer and data exchange. Feedback through both formal and informal channels is critical to alignment, integration, and constant improvement across Departments. This central resource creates a rising tide that lifts all boats.
What Does the Future Hold?
Endless possibilities lie ahead, particularly for those who view individual applications and GIS as a part of larger integrated systems. Use of mobile technology is expanding exponentially; governments and businesses have the ability to deliver information and capture data at point of us and need with unprecedented ease across growing communities. The Streets Department is planning new and upgraded mobile solutions to enhance spatial intelligence through the integration of GIS datasets. Moreover, work with other Departments seeks to exploit relationships and common workflows. Citywide web-based mapping is increasingly capable of organizing current relevant data around themes to answer questions, provide background, and support decision making.
Another emerging area, Public-Private partnerships, promise increased access to vast datasets, such as real-time traffic reporting that can improve situational awareness and critical response. These same solutions help to build a repository of information that can assist with future technology adoption, development, and implementation.
Geography is integral to everything we do–it has always been applied. GIS taps one of the fundamental planes supporting human communication. The abilities to represent location, understand distance and scale, and recognize and convey spatial relationships are innate. GIS unlocks tremendous unrealized potential by promoting these core capabilities through the technologies we use every day. It plays an ever-increasing role in the City’s effort to improve quality of life for the residents of Philadelphia.