GIS a break

Mapping the benefits

It’s a guest post for us today, which is always something we love to be able to say. If you’ve got a topic you’d like to write about (or even something you’d like us to look at from a slightly sideways perspective) you can get in touch at Until then, here’s some words from someone who’s done just that.

In my line of work I meet a lot of different teams from a lot of different places around the Council, and last week I had the chance to expand my network a bit when I met our GIS team. For the uninitiated and non-councilese speakers, GIS stands for Geographical Information System; basically a way of mapping geographical information on a map, with other data able to be overlaid.

To start with I was taken through some maps of the borough, with ward boundaries and key council buildings plotted on it. Next was a layer produced which showed the borough as it was laid out throughout several periods over the last 200 years, before up came a layer which showed satellite images of the borough.

It was nothing that I couldn’t have seen on Google.

I was then taken through a whole load of new maps they had produced – for plotting where cash machines were, where local businesses were and where some other similar resources were located.

It was nothing I couldn’t have seen on Google.

When I asked them about this, about why they had invested so much time and resource on something which to my untrained eyes looked like it was out of date several years ago and which appeared to be slower than a slow motion replay of a snail in a last-past-the-post race, it was as if I’d asked Jamie Oliver why he didn’t serve turkey twizzlers at his restaurant.

I was told about legal wrangles regarding crown copyright, about technical issues around using certain types of data and about ownership of information, but not once was I told that the GIS system they were using was actually better. These may very well be good reasons, but to me they sounded distinctly like a bunch of excuses from people who knew a system and weren’t willing to look at anything else.

This reticence seems a little odd to me, although I can understand why people for whom their employment relies on the continued use of a system should defend it.

I also understand that a GIS system may very well be able to do some things which other systems cannot. The degree of accuracy they offer for boudaries of premises and for roads, alleyways and pavements is impressive, and that these precise maps are used internally by teams servicing these locations.

What I can’t understand is why so much time and effort is spent on trying to make these maps more interesting and ‘useful’ for residents by adding such superfluous data to it. Accepting that it is an internal tool is one thing; anything else is a bit far fetched for me.

When I want to find out where cash points and businesses are I might search for them on Google, or use an app or two I’ve downloaded for exactly that reason. There are industries built up around providing such information, and which will forever do it better than any local authority should hope to do. In fact, there is an arguement that this is not something local government should do at all, with the money and effort spent on all these maps possibly far better spent elsewhere.

In some respects this harks back to recent discussion around keeping ICT systems simple. GIS may have a world of functions and uses that only it, in all of its ponderous and grinding glory, can provide. However, there are many other features which actually are already provided and used by residents, and which don’t need our involvement.

As I said, I am not aware of the real benefits of using a GIS set of maps over the more user friendly, cheaper and openly available Google Maps. The relative costs are low, and the ability to develop new layers and maps is open to far more officers.

Can anyone out there GIS a clue about GIS?!

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9 Comments on “GIS a break”

  1. Phil Says:

    I fear you have not had the benefits of GIS explained properly. Speak to your contaminated land people (or person these days), or planning, or highways. All of these will make use of GIS in ways which Google would fail.

    I agree, don’t plot cash machines, or banks. But it is great for storing geographic data that all councils hold, need and use. I can use our planning layer to pick up the full planning history of a site, and it’s neighbours, together with historical uses. This allows easy assessment of the likely impact of a proposed development on neighbours.

    I’m not an IT person, and whilst I can use google, I wouldn’t know how to make it do some of the things I can make GIS do.

  2. Asynchro Says:

    Interesting … and stated with clarity, but GIS technology used in local government must be seperated from analysis and spatial record keeping fuinctions. It may be cheaper to use publicly available mapping tools but many records and much valuable operational data is held in proprietary formats.

    To transition this to an open system such as google is not without a cost of change. It also doesn’t help in the event of civil emergencies where internet access may be restricted. These LA systems could however be limited to essential functions and I am a firm supporter of transparency and open data. There should be a business plan to move as much as possible to the public domain using the open government license and reduce LA GIS operations. This requires LAs to understand what data is confidential and closed and why.

    Its a big bullet to bite – change costs money, and open mapping tools whilst widely available require skills that have a steep learning curve … I know, as I’ve been trying to get my head round them myself and had to go back to geography basics (e.g. UTM and grid references)!

  3. localgovalso Says:

    It’s somewhat closed minded of the OP to say that because they can’t see an immediate use for the kit, then it therefore does nothing that can’t be managed on Google.

    But I think there’s an issue here with regards GIS as a piece of kit (Software like Arc, MapInfo and the like) and something which gives easy visualisations. If you’re trying to show a thumbnail of population density, then of course there are open source alternatives. But if you need to get a mm precise understanding of key boundaries (contaminated land being a big one) or flood zone risk management then you need the accuracy and the associated technology.

    I think the problem comes when the two things get conflated and I think that’s often down to the conversations between managers and technicians and each realise what the other needs/wants/can provide.

  4. This is a conversation that I have had repeatedly with colleagues and one that continues to offer useful challenge to the trap of doing something out of mere habit. If we leave aside internal uses for GIS (which I think you seem to accept), in my mind, the key benefit of public-facing web mapping (of whatever flavour) is self-service.

    By allowing residents to check if they fall into a particular school allocation area or conservation zone, where their local polling station is, what the restrictions are on a given controlled parking zone, if their nearest library holds DVDs, who owns a particular stretch of damaged highway etc etc, a public facing GIS enables citizens to answer their own questions without having to go through the hassle of talking to their Council. It’s not about pretty points on a map, but rather the way that GIS can bring together contextual data related to that point.

    Likewise, as others have commented, GIS allows a level of detail that is vital to certain common queries – it really does matter which side of a planning boundary or floor plain your fall. Indeed, in our experience, people will accommodate inaccuracy in third-party mapping, but not that which is officially endorsed by the local authority – we should know where things are, after all!

    All that being said, I have to agree that the experience of using most public sector web mapping packages is far from perfect. Equally, there are examples where using Google would be sufficient. However, things are looking up and new developments are allowing Councils to offer the detailed accuracy of Ordnance Survey / GIS with the look and feel of Google. In the long-run, Google will have done GIS a huge favour by opening the world of digital mapping to a much wider audience and challenging existing providers to raise their game…

  5. Tom Steel Says:

    Hi all

    I’ve been through a very similar situation in Croydon when producing an online “About your area” service for our website.

    Getting the balance between accuracy from data in our GIS system and the usability and familiarly from google was key. So we built a site that used both – google interface on a GIS back end. We focused on information that the council “owned” and which residents would be most likely to look for (based on their web browsing) : schools, libraries recycling centres etc..

    We’ve still kept our “techy” GIS front end available to professionals who need that level of detail, but direct the public to our “pretty” Google powered site. At the moment usage is fairly low so we’re well under the pay barrier Google have recently imposed.

    You can see it here:

  6. Ruth Says:

    Why we have to fit all into a Google interface? Google is not suitable for all questions. Means we have a uniformity of web mapping applications which reduces quality and potential of maps at the same time.
    If everybody is able to make maps with mashups we have to be sure about where the data come from. There was almost a war because of wrong borders shown in Google.

  7. […] Perhaps I’m being a little harsh, but surely the same thing produced using a computer system would be better?  Repeating elements such as trees and bushes would then be simply cut and pasted rather than repeatedly hand drawn, clouring in would take a couple of clicks of the paint bucket, and perhaps the data could even be uploaded onto a GIS map. […]

  8. Steve Bayley Says:

    The author says it all with the comment “I am not aware of the real benefits of using a GIS (set of maps)”. GIS has a significant role to play in analysis and is not just about maps. The author also fails to understand fitness for purpose; one size does not fit all. Nor are the copyright, intellectual property and licensing issues an excuse to avoid change but a very real obstacle to efficient working across the public sector. The most significant point is perhaps that the GIS team were seemingly unable to eloquently explain why GIS was not “actually better” than Google. I accept that the mapping of assets not owned by the Council seems inappropriate and I would question this. I also sympathise with the technicians who have to work with “ponderous and grinding” ITC perhaps this is another example of an obstacle to efficient working. GIS has a great deal more to offer than Google can provide. And it can help realise real savings in these difficult times.

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