Perserverance Pays Off: How a Small Community in Iowa put GIS to Work

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This story features one person’s five-year odyssey to bring the power of geospatial system technology to his small hometown in rural Iowa. It serves as an inspiration for other rural leaders who are intrigued by the possibilities of implementing geographic information systems (GIS) to serve their citizens.

In 1999 Bob Schultz, a training consultant for Iowa State University and the Iowa Department of Transportation, dreamed of putting the power of geographic information systems (GIS) to work in his rural hometown. Although not technically versed in GIS himself, he knew enough to know that Polk City, a rural community of 2,500 in the heart of Iowa, could reap great benefits from geospatial technology, just as suburbs and cities have been doing for years.

To begin, he decided to simply map “crash and crime” events in Polk City, despite the fact that the local police chief had never heard of GIS. Schultz located a graduate student at Iowa State University who optimistically said that the project could be done in about six months. Schultz emphasized that this project must be a “turnkey” project, so lay persons like himself who were not technically competent in GIS, could easily understand and use the system.

Learning to Communicate

Six months passed. Bob Schultz and a member of the Polk City Planning and Zoning Commission sat down to see the GIS project results in action. With a new, step-by-step manual in hand, Schultz sat at the computer and was stumped. He had no idea how to begin. He realized that the Polk City GIS Project was not going to be as easy as first thought.

Therein lies a basic obstacle in GIS implementation: a communication gap between GIS designer and newly learning end users. With little knowledge of the complexities of a GIS, Schultz believed a functional GIS was simply a matter of connecting existing databases to maps. The graduate student designer, on the other hand, assumed Schultz had a basic knowledge of GIS software, computer file management, and the various GIS data structures.

The first six months of naïve optimism turned into frustration. There was, however, encouraging progress during these early months. Polk City had received a grant to purchase a new computer for the police department, along with basic office and GIS software, a new printer, and a scanner. The early months also introduced the concept of “data scrubbing.” Seldom does a person or agency write street addresses into public record the same way. Many hours were spent researching address formats with the county assessor’s office, the U.S. Post Office, the police department, and the local utility company. Schultz also attended conferences that dealt specifically with another new GIS operation, “geocoding” (address matching). The result: a standardized addressing format for Polk City and an efficient format for street naming by city officials.

Help Wanted

After Schultz’s initial disappointment, a new crisis arose. The graduate student on whom Schultz heavily relied graduated and was gone. Left with a strong vision of what positive things GIS could do for his little town, Schultz had no one to provide the all-important technical expertise. What followed was a revolving door of volunteers and new problems.

Schultz shared his frustration with Polk City Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) staff. An MPO staff member volunteered to help in his spare time. After reviewing the previous six-month effort, the volunteer offered the discouraging news that it would be easier for him to start over than to try to continue the graduate student’s work. Surprised and disheartened, Schultz realized he must explain to the mayor that the stalled Polk City project had to be created again from scratch. Little did he know that this scenario would repeat itself during the next four years. Each new volunteer, in turn, either moved out of the area or transferred elsewhere, thereby eliminating project continuity and the hope of sustaining volunteer efforts.

After four years, discouraged and ready to admit defeat, Schultz shared his story of dead ends and missteps with the GIS coordinator for the state of Iowa, Alan Jensen. Jensen listened and then asked, “Would a cooperative GIS arrangement with Iowa State University be helpful?” Asked to describe how this arrangement would work, Jensen didn’t know because he had just come up with the idea.

The two men brainstormed and settled on a basic framework that would not only help Polk City, but could help other rural towns that were interested in following Polk City’s lead. There would be a membership fee and a service contract customized for each town. Iowa State University students and professors, along with University Extension, would provide technical and educational assistance to Polk City department heads. The GIS work done at ISU would be billed at an hourly rate; a line item in Polk City’s annual budget would cover the costs. The key in the GIS co-op plan was Alan Jensen who acted as Polk City’s interim GIS coordinator (see sidebar). The project was finally on its way toward a cost-effective, accurate system to serve Polk City.

As time went by, city officials became more aware of the benefits of a GIS. The police department computer and GIS software began to pay off with real-world solutions:
* When the Des Moines MPO requested a new land-use map from Polk City, the fee for the town’s consulting engineer to prepare the map would have been $3,000. A GIS volunteer prepared the map in one hour at no cost to the city. Savings: $3,000.
* In the wake of an active tornado season in the Midwest, city officials took a close look at their early warning siren system. Using GIS to delineate the range of the two existing sirens, they quickly realized they needed to add a third. Depicting the sirens’ range with circles, the GIS quickly helped them identify the most accurate placement for the new siren. Savings: $500.
* When an area of land northeast of town was being considered for annexation, the town used GIS to show a one-mile buffer of land along the northeast boundary. Drawn by hand, the process would have been tedious and time-consuming. The GIS software drew the buffer in seconds. Savings: $1,000.
* The town used GIS software to digitize an existing snowmobile trail and then map changes to it after a city review. Savings: $500.
* The Polk City team created maps of the local bike path for organizers. Savings: $500.
* The volunteer GIS team assisted city departments with emergency-response planning for a national Seniors PGA golf tournament to be hosted by Polk City in June, 2005. The resulting plan was compiled into maps, which were distributed to all police and fire units to help improve emergency-response times. By completing the project in-house, the town saved about $3000.

Polk City Formally Embraces GIS

As a sign of growing acceptance of GIS, the town recently created the Polk City GIS Committee. It’s comprised of a city council liaison, the head of each of the four departments involved in the GIS Project – administration, fire department, police department, public works – and the GIS specialist from the town’s engineering consultants, Snyder and Associates. Bob Schultz is a consultant.

The committee’s first project was to identify and map each of the town’s 2,300 fire hydrants, which would benefit three of the four city departments: administration (for inventory), fire department (for location and flow information), and public works (for maintenance). One volunteer located the hydrants with a GPS unit, and another took a digital photo of each hydrant providing a visual context so it could be located under snow. Public works employees rechecked each hydrant for various items of information, such as vendor name, date purchased, and flow volume. This information was entered into the GIS fire hydrant database. Finally, a public works employee painted the end bolts of each fire hydrant plug according to a predetermined code for amount of flow and the hydrant’s condition.

In June of 2004, the city council unanimously voted to adopt the GIS budget into its planning and maintenance processes. They approved a GIS budget of $50,000 for computer equipment, plus basic office and GIS software. An additional $5,000 was proposed for the GIS software maintenance agreement, Internet connectivity, and miscellaneous expenses. This figure will be monitored and adjusted annually.

The historic GIS-support vote by the city council placed Polk City in a strategic position for future planning and maintenance of the city’s infrastructure. Town officials can now make better decisions using “what-if” scenarios constructed in-house with their own GIS. Many day-to-day management tasks have been simplified, and as GIS skills of town officials grow, the cost savings keep adding up. Increasingly, city staff are requesting GIS maps and information.

Other GIS implementations/projects for Polk City that are under way or being planned include:
* Controlled burn planning for public safety
* Parade routing and special events planning
* Parking maps for the city’s Web site and public distribution
* Construction project planning
* Manhole cover locating and inventory
* Sign inventory and database development
* Law enforcement: GIS-produced maps help monitor sex offender housing locations
With the power of geospatial technologies at hand for planning and infrastructure maintenance, city planners will be limited only by their own imaginations.

This bulletin was produced by the National Consortium for Rural Geospatial Innovations–Mid South (RGIS), located on the campus of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. RGIS brings geospatial technologies and the benefits of the Information Age to rural America, where land is fundamental to rural economies and ways of life.

Additional support provided by the USDA Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service (CSREES).