Government agencies and some large businesses use geographic information systems to a prolific degree in Spokane, but many businesses here havent caught up with the technologys capabilities, say local GIS experts.
GIS technology involves the storage, retrieval, mapping, and analysis of geographic and tabular data.
Within Spokanes local government, layers of information exist that businesses could analyze and use to their advantage, but so far it has been mostly outsiders or national companies that have tapped into the resource, the experts say.
We have just started to get some funky requests, says Chrissie Deibel, a supervisory analyst with the city. I think as people understand it more, they will request it more.
Information derived from the areas GIS technology can help businesses make smarter marketing, service and product delivery, and development decisions, analysts say. Although accessing that information now means submitting records requests through either the county or the citys public works departments, local jurisdictions plan to put much of their GIS data online within the next year.
The city and county systems are integrated and also include data from Avista Corp., the Spokane-based utility company. Information from the 2000 U.S. Census also can be accessed, creating a powerful databank, the experts say.
A query on Public Works Inquiry software, or PWINQ, can uncover information as basic as school-district boundaries and as specific as the appraised value of an individual home, plus the name and address of the homeowner.
Many people confuse GIS with GPS, which stands for global positioning system. Although the two sometimes are used together, the data they produce are different.
GPS is a satellite navigation system. A GPS receiver uses satellite signals to compute data such as position and velocity. Many Web sites, such as Mapquest and Expedia, use GPS to produce driving directions and plan trips.
GIS is the marriage of geographic, spatial, and tabular data. Various information about a specific location, such as its coordinates, elevation, property owner, and tax history, is layered electronically. When information is sought about a particular location, a map is created. Users can click on a particular geographic point on the map to see the data that they requested in their query. That geographic point can be as broad as a country and as specific as an office, depending on the information available.
Instead of having to look at one layer, and then closing that information, then opening another layer, you can look at all the information you need at one time, says John Bottelli, a GIS specialist with Spokane County. The power of the system is that you can query it.
The GIS information available now, for example, can help a company located in Southern California find a good piece of property for development in Spokane without having to send a representative here. Likewise, an adult-entertainment business could use the system to find a place to locate without violating zoning laws. Both of those examples come from real requests received by the city in recent years.
Often, the businesses seeking information are national companies, such as United Parcel Service Inc. or Sears, Roebuck & Co., Deibel says. Usually requests come from businesses that are new or just coming to town, but are made less often by established, local businesses.
One of the things businesses could be doing is looking at how effective some of their advertising is, Deibel says.
While many companies ask customers for their ZIP codes before ringing up sales, the marketing information derived from that question is broad, she says.
They could get more specific than just the ZIP code, if they use GIS, Deibel says. In fact, businesses could find out the average income and education levels of neighbors living in any given city block in Spokane, she says.
Im not sure they think theyre ready to do that, Deibel says.
Another area of potential use for local businesses is in trip reduction. Larger organizations, such as Avista and ambulance services here, use GIS information to cut down on travel time and mileage by mapping the best routes between themselves and their patrons, but small companies havent requested such data, city and county GIS experts say.
GIS mapping has applications for the real estate industry, as well. Realtors can get a visual representation of where available property is by pairing a list of new building permits (the tabular data) with a school district boundary map (the geographic data).
It helps them keep their finger on where new developments are, Bottelli says.
Many GIS experts praise Avista for how it uses GIS technology to its benefit.
Avista has one of the most sophisticated systems in the Northwest, says Spokane County GIS coordinator Ian Von Essen. Once Ice Storm hit, they saw the light.
Von Essen says Avista had to turn repair crews from outside the Spokane area away during the November 1996 storm because it was unable to manage the flood of information received. Since then, Avista has put every gas and electrical line into its computer database, Von Essen says. That information has benefited the city and county, and, in turn, can help businesses willing to use it, he says.
Were building a virtual model of the whole city thanks to the city, county, and Avista, Von Essen says.
Soon, Inland Power & Light Co., of Spokane, will have a similarly extensive body of information. Last spring, the electrical cooperative began an inventor of every pole, line, and meter for its new GIS program. Inland Power serves 33,000 customers in 13 Eastern Washington and North Idaho counties.
Most large cities and counties in the U.S. allow residents to tap into their GIS databases. Without that access, many businesses wouldnt be able to afford such data on their own.
Experts say it takes at least one full-time employee to create and maintain a GIS database.
The real cost is collecting the data, but weve got it, Bottelli says.
Some counties, such as King County, allow residents to access the information over the Internet. Deibel says the city of Spokane and Spokane County plan to put some GIS programs on their respective Web sites by the beginning of next year. More information will be added throughout 2003, she says.
For now, the public can access GIS information through two computer terminals at the Spokane County Public Works Building, 1026 W. Broadway. Businesses can contract with city and county GIS specialists to obtain information they desire if they want a more sophisticated analysis or dont want to retrieve information themselves. Costs depend upon the time and complexity of requests.
Private companies, such as E-Terra LLC, also analyze GIS data for businesses and develop GIS software thats specific to clients needs. E-Terra is an international company that has employed a representative here for more than a year, but has yet to secure contracts with any local clients.
Although businesses here arent utilizing GIS technology as much as they could, GIS specialists say theyve seen an increase in the number and sophistication of requests received over the past five years. As businesses become more comfortable with GIS, that trend is expected to continue.
Were about to have an explosion of the uses of this in the business community, Bottelli says.
Subscribe today to our free E-Newsletters!SUBSCRIBE