GIS tools help Kitchener civic crews work faster, better

The City of Kitchener is taking a fresh approach to infrastructure management.

Using a geographical information system (GIS)and hundreds of database interfaces, this southwestern Ontario city is able to consolidate, not just location-based data on civic projects and assets, but financial information as well.

In some cases, the GIS rollout has allowed civic staff to assemble information in one day, what would otherwise have taken five days to complete.

This feat is accomplished by aggregating information pertinent to their assignments, even before the crews leave their desks.

For example, typically, city workers called to do a water pipe repair would need to gather maps, schematics and other data covering details such as pipe location, building and street plans.

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Information on other utilities with assets at the same repair site would also be included in the mix, according to Jeff Ham, manager, database administration and GIS for Kitchener.

“Normally it takes about three to four hours just to collect data from all the concerned departments,” he noted. “It involves going through disparate computer files, making requests, and getting hard copies of documents.”

But that data collection process has been streamlined as all of this information is now stored on a single database that’s accessible online.

“Data is available within minutes and this means our workers can get to the site right away,” said Ham.

A recently added financial data component now takes care of internal and external billing, as well as compensation expenses for workers.

This type of implementation is relatively new in the government sector, according to a Toronto-based technology analyst.

In the municipal space, typically, GIS systems enhance city administrators and technicians’ ability to manage assets and projects linked to a geographical location, said Alison Brooks, director of research for public sector at analyst firm IDC Canada.

Brooks guides public sector IT professionals on best practices assessment and funding strategies.  

GIS tools, she said, improve data analysis by rendering information visually, or creating models that can be layered one on top of another.

She said it’s much like dealing with architectural plans composed of layers of transparent paper that relate to different aspects of a building such a exterior walls, plumbing and electrical wiring.

“With GIS, the data is in the form of digital visual models viewable on a computer screen. Some systems even allow online collaboration.”  

Brooks noted that only recently organizations have started using GIS data visualization tools with business analytics apps.

Such a GIS-BI mashup is typically implemented by law enforcement agencies who use models to uncover crime patterns.

Kitchener’s GIS enables the city’s operations, utilities, engineering and finance departments make critical decisions based on information “synchronized across all corporate systems,” noted ESRI Canada president Alex Miller.   

Miller said  Kitchener’s example illustrates how municipalities can use GIS technology to improve accounting and asset management.  

The city sought to migrate its databases to a a central GIS back in the late 1990s, when officials realized growing information volumes would soon be very tough to manage, according to Mike Grummett, director of the city’s information technology division.

Kitchener has been using GIS tools for about 17 years already, but the city wanted a new system that covered a greater number of work areas, and merged financial and work order systems, the IT director said.

The city roughly covers 135 square kilometers and has a population of more 204,000. Kitchener is a culturally diverse community with colleges and universities, hospitals, museums and galleries, theatres, shopping centres, and an airport with daily international flights.

“We realized that nearly 95 per cent of the city’s data relates to location,” Grummett said. “So we thought it was best to relate the corporate database (assets management and financials) to a GIS”.

By 2007, Kitchener had selected a suite of tools inlcuding CityWorks, a GIS-based work management application from Toronto-based ESRI Canada, to replace its aging and unsuported legacy work order .

The GIS implementation managed by IDS Scheer incorporates financial management software from SAP Canada Inc., and modeling tools from Loki Innovations of Toronto.

The system was rolled out in December 2008.

The result is not only a system that automates information gathering but also one that helps technicians and engineers make better and more informed decisions, said Mike Bolger, Kitchener’s manager of business systems and services.

As the system’s reporting tool automates data uploading and filters for multiple entries, duplicate entries are eliminated, he said.

For some projects Kitchener could have as many as nine different databases containing the same addresses. The system consolidates the information so everything comes from one source to eliminate keying errors and to provide uniform report formats.

The system helps city engineers adopt a one-shot approach to an assignment, Bolger said.

If a crew were to work on a sidewalk project, the system provides data from the property taxation application to determine where schools and buildings needing sidewalks are located.

A component containing the traffic division data provides information on the type of roads and traffic volumes. The financial component will later be used to report expenses and salaries paid out to workers on the project.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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