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‘Coordination between departments of LA County has boosted people’s confidence in geospatial data’

Mark Greninger, Geographic Information Officer – County of Los Angeles, Chair – California GIS Council and Chairperson – California Geographic Information Association (CGIA) shares his views on the importance of GIS data, easy accessibility to public via portal, focus on enterprise infrastructure, and advocacy efforts of CGIA and GIO in the LA County.

Mark Greninger, Geographic Information Officer - County of Los Angeles, Chair - California GIS Council and Chairperson - California Geographic Information Association (CGIA) How is Los Angeles County incorporating and integrating geographic information into its activities?

The County of Los Angeles is the largest in the United States. There are 10 million residents and the County itself has 100,000 employees, with 32 different departments such as public safety, law enforcement, mental health, public health, hospitals, parks and recreation, public works like flood management and fire response.

The largest departments are public social services, welfare, and law enforcement support. The budget for the County is about USD 26 billion a year. We have been one of the first adopters of GIS and use it across all aspects of government. Two examples include maps of property boundaries and election precincts. Taxation is one of the key areas where we use geospatial data. It is easier for a person to go to the County assessors’ website to find details on their property, boundary, recordation and value. County assessors have been making property maps for many years, and these maps are also used to respond to emergencies. We also maintain addressing files that we use for dispatching police and fire department to emergency response calls. We have precinct boundaries where we organise elections and display election results. We try to map basically everything that we have. There is a lot that we do within the County, and we try to put all that information up on the maps.

About 20 years ago, mapping was down in the basement of many departments — a map request would end up with a paper map a week later. Now we are pushing a lot to integrate GIS into the internal business flows of the Counties, and into the existing technologies that the County uses. For example, if somebody is filling out a death certificate or a property recordation, they don't have to go to another website to find the information about the location. We incorporate GIS within the system. We are also making a lot of our websites publicly available. We have a lot of outreach to the public. One website is our Services Locator, where one can find various services. Another one is our GIS Viewer which provides more standard GIS capabilities such as querying and overlaying many different datasets.

You said there were 32 departments and the geographic information of all the departments is together. Does that include utilities, as well?

We have 88 cities in the County — each managing its own public works information. Separately there is one major gas utility, six electric utilities in the County, and many different water agencies providing water. The biggest city is the city of Los Angeles, with a population of about four million people. The unincorporated region, which is the non-city portion, is about 1.5 million people. The information for the unincorporated area is managed by the County’s Public Works Department. They are in the process of transitioning information for utilities for under construction structures from either paper maps or from CAD into GIS. This will be a multi-year effort. One of the first projects was moving its entire land database from CAD into GIS, which has been a very successful project.

One of the problems we run into is when the residents don't have an idea whether their property falls into the incorporated or the non-incorporated region. From a geospatial perspective, we do want to have an integration of different data sources of these 88 cities of the County; and that's one of the current challenges. We would be working on that and it would be a reality in the next 5–10 years.

Is the underground infrastructure mapped in LA County?

LA County has a long history of about 150 years with respect to maps. Several departments are still working with digital maps and are slowly converting them into digital format. We are also working on mapping what is over the ground and then we slowly move to underground infrastructure. But the process is definitely on.

But that's about how the cities are managing, converting their paper maps into digital…

The County, in contrast to cities, is unique in some sense as it runs hospitals and mental health. The City of Los Angeles handles the streets of Los Angeles city. However, for the unincorporated parts, for instance, an area called La Crescenta, LA County is responsible for maintaining the streets. So, the office of LA County caters to the 1.5 million that live in the unincorporated parts.

One trend across the world is to bring all the data across the departments together and create an enterprise or a data infrastructure system. Is Los Angeles County working on such a system?

Yes, we have a GIS programme where we have an enterprise repository, an enterprise infrastructure, moving all of our data into a single system. Most of our primary information is in this system, where we store close to 8 Tb of data. If you centralise critical information, people have the confidence that those data systems will be available and they have enough control. We have been working on that for the past seven or eight years.

Once our data is in the repository, we use that to publish map services using the Esri software. eGIS Data Map of LA-countryOur mapping servers, which support applications, draw about 70,000 maps a day. For our cache maps, like Google and Bing, people pull about 300,000 maps a day. We get 10,000 queries a day. We are doing a fair amount of responses to the applications. Obviously, the nice thing about services is that they are loosely coupled to the applications, so they can be re-used in other applications, reducing cost and increasing development speed.

What kind of services does this system provide?

At the moment we are providing about 80 services. Hazards is one type of service; the others being points of interest maps, data, elevation contours, parcels, boundaries, etc., Some of these services are for enterprises, and some of them are department-specific. If a service is useful to another department, it can easily integrate it.

We also put data out to the public when we can. So we push it out to the public through our GIS data portal and a lot of people access that. We get 2000 hits/day on our data portal, which is just for downloading GIS data which is publicly available.

How do you coordinate the GIS work in the County?

We have a steering committee which guides all our departments to focus on the strategy. As the GIO of the County, I am leading the coordination efforts. We have about 22 departments of the County that actually use GIS. The rest 11 departments do not see big need and feel it is expensive to implement. As technology matures and becomes easier to use, I am sure they would find due reasons to use it.

Sensitising people towards available data and to make them utilise it effectively is a big challenge. How is LA County handling this challenge?

What you are talking about is actually more along the lines of 'Open Data'. GIS and geospatial has been on the forefront but people didn't know how to use the data. One of the things we are eventually moving towards is creating a data portal from where people can download data. But they need to have software to be able to handle it. We are moving towards a 'Data as a Service' option, where people can not only download but actually access live data.

What are the things in the pipeline for the County?

The big focus now is on collaboration with the cities, the state and within the region. We are trying to ensure our GIS data is authoritative, accurate and up-to-date and it is one of the hardest things to do. One remarkable thing is now the government recognises the need for exclusive GIS personnel. In the past, a person doing GIS analysis in a public works department was actually a civil engineer. Now, this has changed and that person is now a dedicated GIS staff, with a career path in GIS. We have reclassified over 140 staff to these dedicated GIS positions.

We have an Imagery Acquisition Consortium where we work with cities to purchase licensed imagery data together to drive down the overall costs to the government. This effort has been running since 2006. Now we are trying to do that with addresses, streets, points of interest and rest of the data. This reduces duplication and increases data quality. The whole point is to spend less time doing data maintenance and more time doing business.

CGIA (the California Geographic Information Association) is doing trainings, holding conferences and playing an advocacy role. How often does CGIA take up these activities?

CGIA actively advocated creation of the position of a state level GIO upon realising that there is nobody to coordinate GIS activities across state agencies. CGIA plays a key role of coordination and collaboration with respect to California’s GIS Council and other regional GIS collaborative. The main focus is to enable collaboration between the federal agencies, states, counties and local government.

Last year, the Supreme Court of California ruled that GIS data is public record that any public agency has to provide to those who request for it. This is one of the issues that CGIA advocated for. However, being a non-profit outsider it can only advocate and not implement. The California GIS council functions in a similar role. It can advocate to the people who work in the government and to the GIO or to the state asking they shall assign funds for certain initiatives that are recommended.