Q and A with Rich Leadbeater: May 2010

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Rich Leadbeater, state government industry solutions manager for ESRI, talked with State Legislatures about how governments are using geographic information systems. 

State Legislatures: When did governments really start using GIS? And what were its initial functions?

Rich Leadbeater: ESRI has been around for 40 years and governments were ESRI’s first customers. The state of Alaska was ESRI’s third customer. In government, it’s been used in natural resources mostly, in environmental issues, often in property or cadastral issues. It’s typically being used in inventory or tracking.

The genesis of this whole wave of what I’m calling accountability of government began in the ’90s. You would put crime or housing data on a map. You would find where most of the service calls are and where are your caseworkers. It became a management tool that mayors started using. One particular mayor [Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley] became a governor and started using it as a state tool. As mayor, he brought a map to his public meetings. Seven or eight other states have picked up on that.

SL: How important a role can GIS play in state government and legislative functions? And how much of that role is it playing now?

Leadbeater: Ultimately, GIS is nothing but geography. But geography in today’s world is the only index that allows you to see all the complex levels of different interactions that go on.

The stimulus package has done a lot with GIS. One of the things we’re seeing the stimulus requiring is asking questions about spending, like: Why am I putting a road there? Will it connect to transit areas? We’re seeing this call for transparency actually drive interdependency of decisions. And different agencies are now working together to use GIS to connect their granting actions.

Right now, it’s completely “scratch the surface.” There are six or seven states I can identify where the governors’ communication to the citizens and the governors’ reporting to the general population involve a mapping interface.

SL: Who is using it more – federal, state or local governments?

Leadbeater: It’s hard to say, but ESRI users tend to have a more environmental slant. It would depend on the state. You go out West, and water rights are the issue, so they’re using it for that. You go back East and groundwater is the issue. Percentage-wise, state governments are almost 30 percent of ESRI’s budget.

SL: What kinds of innovative projects are states using the technology for?

Leadbeater: Utah has a big issue with federal land management: Where are the federal assets, how do I interact with the feds over its data source? They mapped out a good chunk of all federal, state and public properties so they could manage their resources and [payment-in-lieu-of-taxes] payments.

There are environmental issues, from fire-control management in California to forest reserve management, all the way to carbon footprint measurements.

We’re even seeing it now for effective management of fleets. How many miles are my fleets driving? If I could find efficiencies through this, that helps.

SL: What are the most important things states are learning from GIS?

Leadbeater: Constantly, it’s that “a-ha” moment. You put it on a map, and the same thing we’re seeing on green-bark paper is brought to life with its territorial relationships.

Kansas used it in a study for child obesity. They had an interest in investigating whether proximity to fresh fruits and vegetables was an indicator of obesity. As they started putting data together, it wasn’t working out like they thought it would work out. They found that there was a bigger connection to two parents traveling long distance to work than proximity to fresh fruits and vegetables. As you start looking into the city, the mass body index started to retreat. But as you started going out to areas where two parents were commuting, it grew. They found they were targeting the wrong areas.

SL: Can the use of GIS technology actually build trust between the government and citizens?

Leadbeater: I think that is the ultimate outcome that geography and GIS can provide. You can start communicating in a visual sense. People understand visuals. A picture is worth a thousand words. The politician that is using the map can convey why and where his programs need to affect. It’s the politician that leads the charge with visual information. People can understand that.

Data is power, but it’s actually the distribution of data that is power today. Most of the maps being used by the states have a way for people to download the data. You can have a kitchen-table discussion of data and the issues.

Ultimately, the anti-government sentiment comes from a lack of understanding, and if legislatures can get more data into peoples’ hands, that’s going to build more understanding. And understanding will help citizens like me understand what they’re doing.