Home Articles GIS Implementation in a Brazilian City: Lessons for developing countries

GIS Implementation in a Brazilian City: Lessons for developing countries

Karla Albuquerque de Vascocelos Borges
PRODABEL, Belo Horizonte, Brazil Email: [email protected]

Sundeep Sahay
University of Alberta, Canada
Email: [email protected]

1. Introduction
Belo Horizonte was one of the first Brazilian municipal administrations to develop an urban Geographic Information System. Situated within the local government tradition of local government, the development and implementation of the Geographic Information System (GIS) commenced in 1989 and has proceeded significantly to the extent that it has become the most complete experience of its kind throughout Brazil, with applications covering areas such as education, health, sanitation, urban planning, transportation and traffic, among others. This article reflects on the experiences of this this GIS project, from the technology acquisition and team formation phases, through the creation of the geographic database, to the development of applications and dissemination among users. This “successful” experience of GIS implementation is contrasted with some GIS projects in India to highlight probable areas of emphasis in future GIS projects in developing countries.

Up until 1988, Brazilian municipal administrations had a limited scope of action: the public resources were primarily the responsibility of the state and federal governments and the processes were largely centralized. After 1988, through the Constitution a decision was taken to curtail this centralization, and new responsibilities and powers were transferred to the municipal governments. The municipalization of various public services, such as health, basic sanitation, energy, transportation, and traffic were tasks for which the municipal administrations were not prepared for, and which also placed additional pressure on them to be more responsive towards the larger population.

For the municipal administrations to be able to fulfill these new demands, there was the need to increase the level of efficiency through the adoption of new approaches, and the use of non-conventional methods of integration and analysis. It is within this broad context that Belo Horizonte municipal administration’s geoprocessing project was conceived. Belo Horizonte, the fourth largest Brazilian city, has a population of more than two million people spread over 335 square kilometers, and is the center of a metropolitan area that houses around 3.5 million people. The project of introducing the technology of geoprocessing in the Belo Horizonte municipal administration is widely recognized at the national level, for its pioneering nature and its innovative proposals, which gave priority to social applications, including education, health, transportation, traffic, environmental control, taxation, infrastructure, and fiscalization.

2. The Process of Implementing the GIS Technology
In the first work of its kind in Brazil, Belo Horizonte began in 1989 striving towards greater economic and administrative efficiency. A key objective of their efforts was to integrate the most significant databases on the city, through the use of Geographic Information System (GIS) based tools. This would allow public administrators to visualize and control urban dynamics, thereby providing the citizens with higher-quality public services and democratic access to information.

Belo Horizonte was the first Brazilian city to implement a full-scale GIS, instead of beginning with a pilot project. In 1992, a very large geographic database was assembled in vector format from stereophotogrammetry, comprising around 95 different themes, and covering subjects such as street network, buildings, hydrography, relief, infrastructure and urban facilities. A complete set of information on street addresses for the entire city, comprising around 380,000 individual georeferenced addresses, was also built. On the whole, the initial database included around 3.5 million geographic objects.

Over the last seven years, the database has evolved significantly, including a large amount of information related to the comprehensive set of GIS applications. In general, there are applications on education, health, transportation and traffic, urban planning, socio-economic indicators, water and sewage networks, urban cadastre, land use, and parceling. Also, other applications, such as leisure, social development, the environment and economic activities have been set up. Applications on sanitation, taxation and emergency dispatch are currently under way, as well as improvements to several of the initial sections, especially related to the management of the city’s bus system. Presently, the database includes about 5 million geographical items, divided into more than 250 different classes.

PRODABEL, a municipal level information technology company, has been responsible for the design and development of these urban GIS-based applications for the last 7 years, and it is also responsible for managing the city’s digital geographic database. In 1992, at an early stage of its development, Belo Horizonte’s geoprocessing project was awarded the Green Action Diploma by the Society for Environmental Management and Crefisul Bank, in an event which ran parallel to the Rio-92 international environmental meeting. We now discuss the manner in which PRODABEL has been managing this project of GIS implementation in the city.

Learning About GIS Implementation From A Public Sector GIS Experience in Brazil

2.1 Acquisition of computer resources

The geoprocessing project started to take shape in 1992, with the acquisition of equipment and software based on the initial definition of resources for a GIS. These initial resources were obtained through public tender, including RISC technology workstations, connected to a local network, under a Unix-like operational system with a graphic user interface based on the X-Windows/Motif standard. Additionally, the necessary peripheral equipment, such as digitizer tables and plotters, was detailed and acquired after a similar tendering process.

The software was chosen based on its potential for integration of data coming from several different sources, as well as for its level of technological sophistication. The software selected (which is in use even now) is based on an object-oriented database management system, which stores geographical data organized on a continuous geographical base. Over time, this was supplemented by the adoption of an intermediary, lower cost solution, based on micro-computers and on the MS-Windows operational system.

2.2 Basic mapping

In October 1992, with the arrival of the final set of photogrammetric data in digital form, the process of setting up the permanent geographical database began. In 1993, Belo Horizonte had a continuous geographical base in place, covering all the municipal territory, where around 3,500,000 geographical items were distributed among 97 different classes of information [1]. Table 1 shows a list of the main classes of items.

Despite being rich and very detailed, the database set up from the stereorestitution did not yet contain any of the necessary elements for users to be able to locate specific places in the city in a quick and simple way. The solution to this problem was to localize geographically the addresses in the city, and to accompany this with a network of centerlines, dividing the city into census sectors, neighborhoods, regional administrations, and other spatial reference units.

    • the option of georeferencing the indicators, i.e. associating them to individual different regions of the city, in order to understand better the intra-urban inequality and the influence of the urban infrastructure on the standard of living of the inhabitants;
    • the option of collecting the data from a demographic census according to different spatial units of reference to those used in the Census.
  • Addresses
  • The correspondence address is the spatial reference form most often found in information systems, even in the non-automated systems. This is also the form of spatial localization used most often by the general public. The use of the address as a key to accessing information makes the GIS much more user-friendly, making access easier and more popular. Economic activity records, property records and data about incidents in the urban environment generally have address as the principal reference. The creation of an address base was a fundamental step towards the successful implementation of the GIS. To be more specific, it was necessary to establish ways of transforming addresses (in the form they are given by the general public, or in the form they are stored in the available information systems) into geographical coordinates, and vice-versa.

  • Centerlines
  • In traditional urban basic mapping, no graphic element is used to represent the actual streets. Only items that define it visually, such as curbs square boundaries, are represented in the maps. To make up for this omission, a network of centerlines were created, the fundamental elements of which are nodes, at the crossings, and arcs, each corresponding to the stretch of the street between crossings. The network of centerlines makes it possible, using simple and efficient algorithms, to trace the best route between any two points of the city, embodying accessibility numerically, an indispensable concept in urban planning.

  • Census sectors
  • The greatest difficulty in developing social applications is usually in getting hold of trustworthy and precise indicators. In the case of indicators from a demographic census, the use of the GIS offers two important advantages:

In order to make this type of analysis viable, the first step was thus to georeference all the census sectors of the city, which are the basic work units used by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). This work was carried out at one of the earliest stages of the project, so that this demographic information could be put to use by geographic applications as soon as possible.

Learning About GIS Implementation From A Public Sector GIS Experience in Brazil

3 Key Application Areas

Once in possession of a basic set of information on localities in the municipality, along with information from census sectors, it was possible to plan and implement a vast range of applications. Several different geographic applications have already come up and have been implemented, and others are being presently developed. The most important are the following:

3.1 Education: The School Registration System
For six years, Belo Horizonte has had a geographical application software which makes it possible to determine the most suitable state or municipal school for each student. Using this resource, the parents register their children at a post office, and are informed about which school to enroll at by mail. Until 1992, school registration in Belo Horizonte was done at the schools themselves with each school administering its own enrollment requests. When the number of students exceeded the number of places, the parents were obliged to find another school. In order to avoid this problem, they usually enrolled their children at more than one school, causing more problems to the already confused network of state/municipal education.

In the new system, the parents did not need to go to the school to enroll their children. They would go to a post office and fill in an enrollment form. With this information, the enrollment committee was able to place the child in the most suitable school. Each registration request has an address, which is automatically localized geographically. From the geographic location of the student’s home, it is decided which is the most suitable school for him/her, according to a division of the city in school jurisdictions, and physical proximity. The jurisdictions are defined by the Education Secretary and by the Regional Administrations, bearing in mind physical obstacles (dual carriageways and geographic obstacles), and the size of each school [2].

The development of this procedure of school registration made it possible to distribute the schools’ capacity in a more democratic way. Unlike other cities, where long queues and a lottery for places often occur, in Belo Horizonte the process is totally resolved by one visit to the Post Office, and the posting out of the results. In 1993, the school enrollment system in Belo Horizonte was featured on national television, and was presented as a model of local management of state/municipal education.

3.2 Transportation and traffic:

On the geographical database, a large amount of information is available concerning the transportation system and traffic in Belo Horizonte, including: the localization of each traffic sign and each set of traffic lights; all one-way streets; legal turns, bus-stops, and bus routes.

The georeferenced information on the transportation system is of fundamental importance for a series of activities currently being carried out at Belo Horizonte’s transportation and traffic company, centered on a computer-based public transportation management system [8]. Other projects, such as the restructuring of the public transportation system and the plan for restructuring the road traffic in the central area of Belo Horizonte, have been able to use this powerful instrument, as a database, in their analysis and generation of scenarios, or as a base for simulations.

The use of geoprocessing technology in the creation of the transportation and traffic system of Belo Horizonte has been fundamental in the achievement of the aims of the municipal administration in the area. The growth of a geoprocessing culture at at Belo Horizonte’s transportation and traffic company has enabled the development of several other applications which will benefit from the quality of the original database and the previous efforts to produce new alternatives and solutions.

3.3 Urban Planning Applications
In December 1996, Belo Horizonte’s legislative has approved a new Master Plan Law. All of the studies done for the elaboration of this plan and for the development of the Urban Life Quality Index (ULQI), a fundamental instrument in the monitoring the impacts of public intervention and actions, were assisted by using GIS and specialized information. ULQI benefited particularly from GIS usage, as it provides the measurement of the citizen’s quality of life based upon the availability and accessibility of public services. Developing the sophisticated indicators that compose the index would not have been possible without the geoprocessing system [3]. It was necessary not only to determine the distribution, by regions, of service providers and urban real estate, but also to determine how difficult it is for the citizen to reach services that are not available in their respective neighborhoods. Going beyond a simple supply analysis regarding urban services and infrastructure, GIS tools made it possible to analyze accessibility an to make it possible to combine specialized information from various sources in the development of the index

The Regional Master Plans are local specializations of the city’s Master Plan, and are the fundamental references for public sector interventions, mainly to foresee large urban infrastructure structuring efforts (such as in housing, roadway and traffic systems, or sanitation). The use of GIS has been a fundamental aid in the formulation of regional plans for Belo Horizonte.

The geoprocessing system was also utilized for the production of maps in the new Law of Land Parcelling, Occupation and Use (1996), allowing them to be published in large volumes. The municipal administration is responsible for publishing these maps, along with all materials necessary to understand the law, including map keys and summary tables. Therefore, the municipal administration was required to adequately publish the information regarding the new law, disseminating information, hence informing interested citizens and supporting the work of professionals in the fields of architecture, urban development, real estate market, civil construction and others. The following information needed to be prepared for publication: land use zoning, presented in the form of thematic maps in color; Special Guideline Areas (SGA), regions in which zoning has additional restrictions due to local characteristics; street network hierarchy (arterial, collector, regional link and local thoroughfares); indication of roadway expansion priority areas as defined by the Master Plan; and a table containing the width of all thoroughfares in the city.

The information on the new law was incorporated into a geographic base, already available, showing not only data necessary for the compilation of maps, but mainly the information required by the computer applications that were used to provide operational support to the municipal administration in the execution of the plan. All architectural design approvals, as well as economic activities operation permits, started to be readily issued considering the requirements of the new law. All of the georeferenced information was transformed into alphanumeric information and incorporated to the city’s conventional database systems.

3.4 Health: Surveillance of Infant Mortality
With the address base, the centerlines, and all of the socio-economic information available, the Municipal Secretary of Health is using geoprocessing and desktop mapping to fight infant mortality in the city [6].

The Health Department of the city of Belo Horizonte, with PRODABEL’s support, has implemented a system for infant mortality surveillance in high-risk areas. The system, based on GIS techniques, processes social and demographic data generated by many institutions, using geography as a common frame of reference. The importance of the system is to provide help in the decision-making process, favoring the discussion and evaluation of specific public policies. The goal is to reduce infant mortality ratios. Belo Horizonte, which has a population of more than two million, has about 345,000 (17.2%) people living in high-risk neighborhoods, which corresponds to only 3% of the city’s total area. In a typical month, about 450 infants die, many from avoidable causes; and of those deaths, more than half live in poor neighborhoods.

With the Infant Mortality Surveillance Program, the children that run the highest risk in the first year of life, due to low birth weight, children born to adolescent or illiterate mothers, or newborns in favela (slum) regions receive individualized care from health centers. Geoprocessing is used to produce this distribution, through geographic localization of a newborn’s residence, therefore assigning the follow-up responsibility to the more geographically adequate health care unit. Counting only on the simple presence and orientation provided by health care professionals, the program is expected to reduce many avoidable deaths (pneumonia, diarrhea, malnutrition) among children less than one year of age. Since the beginning of the program, the infant mortality rate has been reduced by 35%.

4. What Can India Learn From The PRODABEL Experience?

Many developing country government organizations have been attempting since the late eighties and early nineties to implement GIS technology to support their socio-economic development processes. In 1991, [7] noted that despite the rhetoric which exists around the potential of GIS, there is very little evidence to show that this potential has really been converted into applications of substance that have made a difference to their socio-economic development processes. And recently, Sahay and Walsham [4] based on an extensive empirical study of GIS use reinforced Taylor’s inference within the context of India and Malaysia. They reported while a lot of hardware and software has been acquired by various organizations, there is little in terms of “real” use wherein the outputs of the GIS have been integrated to support their organizational decision making processes.

Seen within this broader (and rather dismal) context of GIS experiences in developing countries, the PRODABEL experience in Belo Horizonte is indeed a very refreshing and positive contrast. There is positive evidence that GIS technology is being used quite meaningfully by a number of different departments involved in the municipal administration of Belo Horizonte, including health, education and transportation. It becomes becomes important for us to reflect on the reasons why we think the PRODABEL experience has been positive, and draw some broader lessons for similar GIS projects in developing countries. Sahay and Walsham [4] have pointed out a number of important issues which impede the effective implementation of GIS technology in developing countries. We will look at some of those issues to see how they have been addressed in the PRODABEL case. Specifically, we will focus on issues of: institutional arrangements; sustainability; data management and manpower related issues.

Many GIS projects fail in developing countries come as a package of international aid, with agencies like UNIDO, UNESCO, USAID and CIDA being very active in this regard. Often what is found in such internationally funded projects is that typically these projects are 2-3 years long, and when the aid money dries up the GIS projects also die away. As a result, what we often find is a number of pilot projects, and other kinds of experimentations but little in terms of full blown use. Another issue related to international aid projects is that they are typically accompanied by consultants from the donor country. So, while they are present in the recipient nation, there is some activity, but with their departure, the activity also dies out because there have been very limited attempts to develop local sustenance mechanisms. Specifically, there are limitations in terms of manpower, technical support and hardware and software resources. Also, often in these technology transfer projects, the international consultants have limited understanding of the local context, and they try to implant Western processes which have little to no applicability in the developing country context [5].

It is interesting to see how PRODABEL have tried to address these institutional bottlenecks which are a regular occurrence in many GIS projects in developing countries. Firstly, they have not relied on international technology transfer and instead have attempted to build in-house expertise over a long period of time (starting in 1989). Secondly, PRODABEL has set up an organization which is dedicated completely to the development of geoprocessing expertise to support municipal administration in Belo Horizonte. Being organizationally within the structure of the municipal administration, they are in a better position to understand user needs as compared to international consultants. Also, since they are physically co-located with the other departments, they are always on hand to respond to the queries of the users thus providing the much needed technical support which also helps to instill a sense of self-confidence to the users to engage with this new and complex technology.

Another interesting feature of the PRODABEL experience is the systematic and integrated manner in which they have gone about to build a database for the needs of the city. In many GIS projects in developing countries we find that the problem of data is not given the necessary importance, and we find that different departments go about trying in their own individual and compartmentalized way to develop their databases. In contrast, at PRODABEL, the first task of the GIS exercise was seen as creating a comprehensive database. After creating an initial framework for the integrated database, they have gone about systematically and incrementally adding on to the database reflecting the needs of the different departments. This integrated approach has had a number of positive implications. Firstly, it reduces data redundancy and thus keeps costs in control. Secondly, the responsibility of maintaining the database is mostly with PRODABEL which is competent to deal with the various technical issues. Thirdly, an integrated approach allows new applications to be built on easily with the same dataset, thus satisfying the needs of various end user departments.

A very significant feature of the PRODABEL effort was the team of geoprocessing professionals that were picked from several departments of the company, in such a way that specialists from the various technological areas involved could adequately assess and develop a technology that was essentially unknown at that point. The team included: systems analysts who were specialized in databases, data modeling, and data administration; applications development specialists with an understanding of different domain areas; experts in computer graphics and digital image processing; urban cadastre and cartography specialists; and operating systems and computer networks experts. That initial team was, at a later time, joined by an applications programmer, another applications development analyst, an operating systems and network support analyst, a geographer, and eight digitizing technicians (who were formerly cadastre technicians or draftsmen).

Over the years, the team has achieved the status of national reference in urban GIS, due to the pioneering character of the project, and the delivered and perceived results. This team has also a very strong research orientation, and more than 70 articles have been published by the various team members in national and international conference proceedings, and various Brazilian GIS magazines. A large number of lectures and presentations at seminars and conferences has been given, and numerous technical visits from all parts of the country have been hosted at PRODABEL. After the first five years of centralized applications development, the initial team was dismantled, with some members leaving the company to pursue positions in the private sector, and some others were transferred to various end-user departments thus helping to initiate GIS projects there. These movements were part of PRODABEL’s corporate policy to decentralize municipal administration information technology resources. Currently, the remainder of the core team is responsible for the maintenance of the existing digital cartographic data, building applications development related to the urban digital basemap and database maintenance procedures. This basemap contains general-use geographic entities, such as street centerlines, addresses, and neighborhoods. Decentralized GIS application development teams are currently being structured, through a technology dissemination and professional requalification program.

An interesting part of the interaction between the core group and the user departments has been informally conceived as the “squadron theory”, which is based on the notion that, depending on the “stunt” required to solve a problem or to overcome a barrier, one of the “aces” took over the command of the team’s resources. Having people from several different areas, with no forcible hierarchy, has served as a great problem-solving resource. For example, if one of the user departments experiences a problem involving the use of raster images, an expert (the “ace”) from the core group (the “squadron”) would lead the studies and development that would eventually solve the problem. Likewise, if a particular problem involved cadastral fieldwork, another “ace” would take over, and solve the problem. This kind of “anarchical” approach has been very effective because firstly, there was no formal hierarchy to constrain such an approach, and secondly, it was recognized that different people were specialists in particular domains, which is natural considering the inherently multidisciplinary character of urban GIS. The corporate leaders were happy to let things “flow” in such a fashion.

The project also was blessed with champions in the political arena, people with privileged access to the decision-making process for financial resources allocation at the municipal administration level. At the initiation of the project, PRODABEL’s president was the vice-mayor, a former systems analyst, who could easily perceive the strategic value of such a project. One of his closest staff members was extremely enthusiastic about the potential impact of the project on municipal administration. Soon after, vice-mayor became the mayor, thus making things flow even more easily. By the time a new administration took over, the project was already consolidated, with a complete and updated database, and with some applications already under development. This way a strong base was established which was further strengthened over time by the team of dedicated professionals. The following administration grew to like and respect the use of GIS as a tool for the city, and are currently engaged in a large effort for the expansion of GIS usage.

The current philosophy underlying the interaction between PRODABEL and the users is based on the following principles: PRODABEL’s decentralized unit at the department’s site should be responsible for all applications development, customization, installation, support, etc. required by the GIS users at that site; both PRODABEL’s unit and the users, meaning the department as an institution, should be responsible for the maintenance of the data pertaining to their organization. In the Education example, the user department would be responsible for updating data on schools, school jurisdictions, student data, and so on. And PRODABEL’s central GIS team would be responsible for overall support and standardization, as well as for the maintenance of general use layers, such as those that compose the city’s base map.

In summary, the key learning that can be gained from the PRODABEL experience relates to the following: the manner in which the institutional arrangements have been organized locally; the integrated and holistic approach taken for database development; the systematic manner in which a team of dedicated geoprocessing professionals has been built over time; the long term view of GIS development taken by the city; and the extremely user-sensitive and incremental manner in which the developers and users interactions have been initiated and strengthened.

There is a lot of learning which other developing country organizations can take from the PRODABEL experience. PRODABEL recognizes that the project has to be continuously strengthened and improvised upon, for example upgrading their technology to reflect current technological trends. We believe this project has a very bright future ahead of it, and is one which can serve as an international model for GIS implementation.


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The author Karla Borges wishes to thank PRODABEL’s GIS professionals and systems analysts, the people of municipal administration departments of Belo Horizonte declaring that this paper is a truly an achievement of the whole team.
A special thanks to Clodoveu Davis.