Why politicians don't get GIS

When recession hit, many businesses invested in the tools they needed to make smart decisions. That's why when the economy started going south, sales of business intelligence and CRM software in the private sector stayed reasonably stable, says Rich Leadbeater, manager of industry solutions for government at geographic information systems software vendor Esri.

"But BI sales to government went to zero."

Of course, most governent organizations already have a geographic information system (GIS). But that attitude is still a challenge for Leadbeater, who would like his government clients to use GIS more strategically to understand their constituents, rather than just as a way to automate the mapping of wetlands. "It's used in the environmental department, not in legislative offices as a policy tool. They're not trying to figure out their own customer," he says.

In Esri's view, GIS in government should function as a "citizen resource management system" that can help elected officials make smarter decisons -- and avoid costly mistakes.

For example, he says, Esri provides a GIS-based hosted redistricting application that the County of Los Angeles is using right now. The system includes the address of every registered voter, as well as a wealth of geo-coded demographic data -- ethnic makeup, age, income, gender, voting history, etc. -- about each voter. But politicians generally only use that data for one purpose."They use it for redistricting and throw it away afterwards," he says, squandering a golden opportunity to better understand the customer.

Politicians in the state of New Jersey could have benefitted from geo-coded business intelligence when planning a new tax a few years ago. The tax policy looked good in a spreadsheet analysis, but the tax did not benefit voters in towns with less than 10,000 people. "Then someone put the data on a map and legislators realized that 80% of their constituents were ill-affected by the tax," Leadbeater says.

"With redistricting, I have a map and I have a database of information about the people I need to engage," Leadbeater says. But will policy makers leverage it? This year, after redistricting is completed, Leadbeater hopes things will be different. The use of GIS in government is about more than Gov 2.0, he says. Its about getting policy makers to recognize the value of the technology as a business intelligence tool for citizen engagement - and to capitalize on it.

That is, if the politicians are even aware of it. "This is my one time in a decade when I can walk up to legislators and say, 'That GIS thing? You've used it,'" he says.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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