Use of GIS Client / Server Systems by U.S. Government Agencies Case Study

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GIS Client/Server Systems

Geographic Information System (GIS): Overview

Use of GIS Client/Server Systems by U.S. Government Agencies

Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Census Bureau

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Department of the Interior

Fish and Wildlife Service

Federal Emergency Management Authority

Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

Successful Deployment of GIS Technologies in Facilities Management and Transportation

Real Life Application of GIS in Recent Times

Application in other Jurisdictions

The Future of GIS: Opportunities for Application

An Examination of the Use of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) Client/Server Systems by U.S. Government Agencies


Recent years have seen thousands of business organizations embrace GIS client/server systems in an attempt to improve processes and enhance efficiency. It should, however, be noted that government agencies are also increasingly implementing GIS client/server systems -- particularly in the analysis of complex situations and enhancement of coordination. This case study examines the use of GIS client/server systems by U.S. Government Agencies. In so doing, the case study will be seeking to establish whether or not GIS technologies help U.S. government agencies deliver accountability and transparency, enhance coordination, bring down costs, and increase efficiency.

Geographic Information System (GIS): Overview

A Geographical Information System (GIS), according to Folger (2010, p. 2) "is a computer system capable of capturing, storing, analyzing, and displaying geographically referenced information -- information attached to a location, such as latitude and longitude, or street location." Client-server systems, on the other hand, "divide the processing tasks between the user's own local machine, the client, and a remote and probably more powerful machine known as the server" (Anselin and Rey, 2009, p. 53). In instances where most of the processing is server-based, the client becomes a mere "dumb terminal" (Anselin and Rey, 2009, p. 53). As the authors further point out, this is an arrangement that most federal government agencies often favor.

It is important to note that on paper, most GIS functions can be offered as client-server configurations. However, in practice, as Anselin and Rey (2009) note, the number of GIS applications availed as either public or commercial services are limited.

Historical Perspectives

In the words of Reddick (2010, p. 450), "the use of GIS by government agencies has grown exponentially since the 1980s across the world." However, as the author further points out, it was not until the 1990s that GIS was fully embraced in the U.S. Essentially, the connotations GIS had in 1992 is different from that which it has today. As Anselin and Rey (2009) point out, thanks to new technologies, some significant changes including, but not limited to, marked growth in several application areas and new technologies have brought about numerous changes in the field. To put this into perspective, it is important to note that "in 1992, GIS connoted a single, monolithic software package running on a stand-alone workstation or perhaps a local-area network, and analogous to Microsoft Word or Excel" (Anselin and Rey, 2009, p. 52). At the time, the key purpose of GIS was to make things easier for the user, i.e. By eliminating tasks that were either time-consuming, repetitive, tedious, or prone to error if performed by hand. According to Maling (as cited in Anselin and Rey, 2009), such tasks as map and map data analysis were not only too complex but also repetitive and too tedious. In that regard, therefore, any technology that made analysis effortless and more accurate was desirable. Some of the packages vendors offered, as of 1992, included, but they were not limited to, "Intergraph, MapInfo, ESRI, Wild, Caliper, and Tydac" (Anselin and Rey, 2009, p. 52). At this time, most of the packages were largely differentiated, with some targeting universities, others government institutions and agencies, and yet others corporate entities. There were also cheaper packages targeted at individual and non-corporate users.

Thanks to a number of factors, within the last one and a half decades, some significant changes with regard to GIS technologies have been observed. To begin with, with maps being regarded the primarily source of input, early GIA applications were largely dependent on maps -- and hence areas covered extensively by maps, i.e. forestry and resource management. Later on, it was discovered that there was much to "be gained by adding geographic references to the records contained in the otherwise non-spatial but massive databases of" various entities (Anselin and Rey, 2009, p. 52). It was on the basis of this discovery that a number of database vendors took it upon themselves to develop extensions that could not only support simple queries (such as queries involving the location of facilities), but also handle records that were spatially enabled.
The emergence of internet as a dominant network, as well as the emergence of the World Wide Web (WWW) as an effective application also contributed towards the changing perspectives on GIS. In addition to opening unlimited digital geographic data sharing potential, the internet facilitated seamless supply of data on which GIS is heavily dependent on (Anselin and Rey, 2009).

It is clear from the discussion above that today's geospatial landscape is far more advanced than that of the early 90s. Indeed, in the words of Anselin and Rey (2009, p. 54), "the geospatial world of today is clearly a much broader domain of data, tools, services, and concepts than the limited GIS world of 1992."

Application: Use of GIS Client/Server Systems by U.S. Government Agencies

According to ESRI (2014), federal "agencies use GIS to enrich operations, meet missions, and communicate with the public." Some of the government agencies that have successfully made use of GIS client/server systems include, but they are not limited to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Authority. It would be prudent to highlight these success stories and their utilization of GIS client/server systems.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

In an attempt to further enhance image delivery to its members of staff in various field offices, USDA Forest Service, as ESRI (2014) points out, "implemented ArcGIS Image service, which delivers imagery to the regional, forest, and field offices in seconds." This made it possible for the agency to easily and effortlessly serve a lot of imagery, thus effectively doing away with the need to download large files to computers. Next, we have the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, which according to ESRI (2014) avails soil maps and any related data via the National Cooperative Soil Survey. The Natural Resources Conservation Service as the author further points out launched what is referred to as Web Soil Survey - a platform that makes it possible for online users to gain access to not only the survey database but also maps, in what helps eliminate unnecessary paperwork and avails government services to more people. It is important to note that prior to the implementation of the Web Soil Survey, maps of soil surveys and associated data were only available in hard copy versions. Today, thanks to the Web Soil Survey, users only need reliable access to the internet to access the survey database, identify any parcel of land in the country, and conduct soil interpretations. The application, according to ESRI (2014) "uses ArcGIS Server and ArclMS to perform navigation functions, display and manage user-defined areas of interest, and generate maps." This utilization of GIS technologies by USDA and its various arms remains one of the clearest indicators yet of how U.S. government agencies are making use of GIS client/server systems to improve coordination and further increase efficiency.

The U.S. Census Bureau

According to ESRI (2014), the American FactFinder Web site, which is powered by the U.S. Census Bureau, avails to members of the public up-to-date geographic, economic, and demographic data. The site's reference maps, thematic maps, as well as geographic address searching capabilities were, as ESRI (2014) observes "developed using ArclMS and ArcSDE technology" - with the former coming handy in the provision of "the interactive mapping capabilities used to search for and visualize data with spatial components through Web browsers," and the latter being "used for retrieval and management of all spatial data." It should also be noted that as the author further points out, the program used in the automation of field data collection is designed to make it easier for enumerators working for the U.S. Census Bureau to not only follow up, but also collect survey data from households that fail to give back their census forms (ESRI 2014). The said enumerators, in this case, are equipped with mobile devices that are GPS-enabled (ESRI 2014). This is yet another example of active utilization of GIS client/server systems by a U.S. Government Agency in the improvement of coordination and efficiency.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

This particular agency concerns itself with the protection of both the environment and human health. In seeking to execute its mandate, the agency makes use of a GIS tool known as the drinking water….....

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