The Wide-Ranging Role of GIS

May 01, 2019 | Mike Liska

Co-Authors: Pete Lovell, GISP, GIS Practice Advisor & Mike Liska, GISP, Project GIS Specialist, GIS Practice Advisor

What is GIS?

Chances are your perception of GIS – or Geographic Information Systems – is that it is a simple, computer-based mapping system. While that is true, it is not the whole story. Its utility and versatility extend well beyond this functionality. Communities are beginning to leverage GIS to keep an inventory of public asset information via its mapping interface. Further demand for GIS solutions is growing, as it has become an integral tool for managing information and establishing a data-driven basis for intelligent planning and decision-making. The organizational and analytical capabilities of GIS can help communities work more efficiently and make well-informed operational and planning decisions.

Asset management, prioritizing redevelopment, code compliance, and transit studies are a few of GIS’s incredible variety of solutions that allow for intelligent planning and decision-making.

Asset Management

Many communities struggle to maintain a current and comprehensive inventory of their public assets.  Once established, this can be incredibly beneficial for day-to-day operations and capital planning.

A few years after developing a GIS database and mobile data collection application, the City of Oskaloosa, Iowa’s Municipal Water Department wanted to expand the database to accommodate its sanitary sewer and stormwater system assets.  In addition to collecting high-accuracy locations, NASSCO-certified GIS specialists examined and recorded detailed structural information, assigned manhole conditions, and attached asset and site photos.  The sanitary sewer asset inventory included inspections of all accessible manholes in the system.  This additional inventory has assisted City staff in system operations, maintenance, and improvements planning.

Prioritizing Redevelopment

Blighted properties, known as “brownfields,” can receive a boost toward redevelopment when they qualify for EPA funding for assessment and cleanup. Community leaders often overlook some properties that are not easily identifiable for revitalization. HR Green’s environmental specialists recognized a need for a systematic approach for evaluating community properties for blight and redevelopment potential.

To meet this need, HR Green GIS specialists developed a Prioritization Model that identifies potential brownfield properties and scores them based on environmental risk and redevelopment potential. It is robust enough to provide full and equal consideration to every parcel in a community while easily accommodating new data or priorities. This automated model performs a consistent, thorough analysis while remaining efficient.

Property Maintenance Code Compliance

The City of Thornton, Colorado, adopted a new maintenance code with the purpose to remediate blighted properties by requiring owners and tenants to maintain the exterior and interior features. Mandated inspections assessed the impact of the ordinance and provided cost estimates to remedy all violations. A GIS database facilitated efficient and comprehensive data inventory, and smartphone collection forms allowed inspectors to input violation location, category, photos, and other pertinent information. The database sorted violations by categorizing them in accordance with the City’s code, allowing for data integrity and efficient field collection. Database report standardization allowed staff to expedite reports in order to share violation information. Automated reports and single data entry points collectively saved the City and inspectors considerable time and increased data accuracy.

Transit Studies

As part of a transit study in Minnesota’s Twin Cities area, all bus stops in Metropolitan Council communities were assessed using GIS.  GIS modeling played a critical role in systematically ranking bus stops based on deficiencies and improvement potential for accommodating the needs of pedestrians and cyclists.  Planners and engineers collaborated with Council officials to assign weights to different evaluation criteria related to ADA access, safety, and amenities. A mobile GIS data collection application gathered site-specific amenity data for selected routes where minimal existing data was present. The Council used the GIS data report to prioritize bus stop improvements.

Thinking “outside of the box” to utilize GIS well beyond its conventional mapping purposes is creating efficiencies for many community projects.  More than just a pretty map, GIS also plays a critical behind-the-scenes role, offering data organization and analysis that help deliver services more efficiently and comprehensively.

View more examples of GIS uses and success stories below:

Collection System Improvements – LIBERTY, TX

Utilities GIS Services – ANAMOSA, IA

2017-2018 On-Call Stormwater Engineering Services – JEFFERSON COUNTY, MO


Northwestern University – Campus Site Survey EVANSTON, IL

Asset Management – SHELBY, IA

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