While cloud computing is now commonly recognized as the newest stage in the ongoing development of computer technology, its application in public works departments is often misunderstood. Server and desktop computer use is still the predominant approach implemented in municipal departments throughout the country.
The free online maps hosted in the cloud by various providers allow for regular — though restricted — use of cloud-computing capabilities. For example, someone might use Google, MapQuest, or Microsoft's Bing Maps to identify the exact location of an event that requires their attention. Simply type the address of the graffiti, say, or a broken water main into the service and a map of that location is subsequently displayed.
The ability to display a location on a computer screen, however, is vastly different from the ability to use that map to coordinate and compare data. That's what a geographic information system (GIS) does. In the past, the use of GIS in the government sector has been restricted to server and desktop platforms because of hardware constraints, security considerations, and the need for specialized technical staff to operate and maintain the system.
Today, that paradigm has begun to change (see sidebar on learn how North American communities use GIS).
Static Web maps vs. dynamic Web GIS
Maps have been used for thousands of years to record locations and events. In fact, the earliest known map is inscribed on a clay tablet more than 4,500 years old. Found in the ruined city of Ga-Sur at Nuzi in ancient Babylon, it presents a view of the local area that includes natural and man-made features, place names, and a plot of land identifying Azala as its owner. Thus, the first map ever created was of a municipality.
Today, public works departments can use free Web maps to highlight specific features, such as streetlights and manhole covers, for maintenance purposes. Those features are overlaid on a general basemap that depicts common landmarks, such as roads and property lines, for easy visual identification by field crews. They're often interactive and allow the viewer to pan and zoom to explore different areas.
Once such a map is generated, it can't be changed until it's been updated for a subsequent printing. And it's static, meaning the map is just a picture. You can see a road and, with a provided measuring tool, perhaps even figure out how long it is. But you can't determine from the map whether that road is concrete or asphalt, what the speed limit is, when it was last paved, or any of the other many details critical to public works.
A GIS-based map can.
GIS was created to solve problems in addition to presenting information on a map. A GIS attaches many sources of information — databases, pictures, CAD files, scanned documents, and even other maps — to a map's features. Its built-in analytical tools can identify trends and patterns based on location and even time. These capabilities transform a static map into a dynamic map that can be used to proactively manage that road.