In 1996, when Jim Querry started at the then called and still evolving Mayor’s Office of Information Services, there was a single Internet connection, an Apple dial-up tool at 1234 Market Street.
“That’s where you met to get on the web,” he said.
Fifteen years ago, Querry, who now leads the city’s geo-spatial information systems group that is responsible for mapping, tracking and evaluating city services, was joining an effort by some in the city to get ahead of what was already being billed as the digital revolution, a chance to bolster transparency and efficiency of government systems.
The Planning Commission, Querry said, led the charge to put the City of Philadelphia in a position to be setting the standard for what municipal use of GIS could yield.
To create the foundation on which the city’s crime analysis evaluations, trash collection routes and 311 complaint locations are determined, early city leaders chose platform tools from Calfornia-based Esri, now the global gold standard for GIS products. After early hesitance, Philadelphia became a leader in publishing its longitude and latitude-based map layers to state clearinghouse PASDA. By 2000, the city had won the prestigious Esri President’s Award, an honor again earned in 2008 — a two-time win that no other organization or level of government has yet duplicated.
Though other big cities have caught up in the GIS space in the last 10 years and the surging open data movement has captured public attention in other ways, Querry says the City of Philadelphia maintains some of the most dependable map layers around.
If accuracy is at the heart of making impact with data, then, Querry might argue, Philadelphia has a lot of reason to be a leader again.
Below, Querry speaks to Technically Philly, flanked by his young, four-person team, about the past, present and future of city GIS.
Edited for length and clarity.
When did the city’s GIS program begin?
GIS started as roughly a departmental effort in the early 1990s. In the mid-1990s moved to the enterprise, the city level. The first big milestone was lifting our very first central server so there was equal access to data. Before that, everything was done through Unix, and so if you didn’t know what a Unix mount was, you didn’t have access to data.
Putting it all in one place in warehouse and giving everyone access to it in the city was a big step forward, that moved us into the true enterprise into the late 1990s…. Since then, the focus has been creating ways for more people to access this information.
How advanced was the City of Philadelphia?
We were leading the charge in municipal GIS, but everyone was at a different point and people caught up very quickly in the last decade. There was probably a point where we were out front in the late 1990s, but you saw other municipalities investing in GIS and then everyone in the last decade, so quickly most were on a level playing field.
We have done things over the last 10 years that I think set us apart from other municipal organizations, but others have too. Everyone has their own strength.
For Philadelphia to have launched efforts to digitize GIS so early, there must have been a champion. Who was it?
The Planning Commission, specifically Dave Baldinger, who was the deputy planning commissioner at the time, started GIS in the city.
They were the first to put the stake in the ground and say Esri was the platform, that IBM ERX was the hardware platform, that they were going to start creating data layers to share with other departments.
One of those layers was street center line, one was parcels, one was zoning, and then as other agencies such as the Streets Department started to get into the game, they took over what fit their business services.
So, the Streets Department took over the street center line and made it arguably the best street center line there is.
What does that mean to be best?
The data model: how spatially accurate and informationally relevant.
Your team is just four people: who is doing all the department-specific data cleansing and lifting?
City GIS is a federated system. You might call it a hybrid federated system.
The departments are really responsible for keeping up data according to their business practices. And we coordinate a lot of that, make it centrally accessible so departments can touch upon each other. We bring departments together and have done so since the mid-1990s to talk about common issues and coordinate.
What’s an example of something your team
This group is responsible for a number of things: sharing geo-spatial technology across agencies and customer service and helping customers do their business, like an agency like Streets.
So, for example, there’s this application that has been running for a while, it’s called the Guarantee Pavement Information System [that is run by the Streets Dept., but GIS built]. It’s a classic deconfliction application, that gives utilities and data providers a peek into the Streets Department capital program.
Meaning, part of the Streets capital program is that they repave all the streets every 10 years, so they repave one-tenth of the city’s streets each year. So we want to make sure that if you’re a big utility like water or gas, for your capital upgrade, you don’t show up the day after Streets paves that street, so you want to know about that in advance. We run that program and it has been running for about 10 years, which replaced a meeting of department heads to talk about what everyone is doing.
You said every municipality is good at something. How is the City of Philadelphia GIS team best?
We’re good at operations and public works.
What does that mean?
Pretty much things you can kick.
Wastewater and stormwater [impact models], snow routes, where we’re going to plow, and daily collection of trash. Day to day operational things, and then building the workforce on top of that in a reasonably organized fashion.
GIS application developer Adam Conner: I’d say that we’re also ahead of contemporaries with sharing data with something like OpenDataPhilly.org, rather than doing a stale FTP data dump.
What is keeping Philadelphia from being as much a leader with that data release as it was with GIS in the 1990s?
The issues the city has with data, like property data or anything, really comes from antiquated business practices. There are extenuating circumstances agencies deal with that people don’t realize. That’s not an IT problem, that’s a business re-engineering problem.
The new Office of Property Data job is meant to focus on workflows to find out why data is in the state it’s in.
The real answer is that the data developed in silos, using what technology was available a the time. if you could go back and build everything differently, all the data would be a single database.
How have you reacted to the growing interest in city data in recent years?
I’m not surpirsed by the interest. People have been asking for it for years. In the mid-1990s, it was tough to get the city to relase data, but it was 10 years ago we started posting to PASDA, and around then developed a data distribution policy, allowing for sharing information with educational and nonprofits and contractors with the city, but not commercial entities.
That’s what has been changing, opening up the data entirely. We’re sharing all data that departments are willing to share with anyone.
Still, data is one thing, information is another. If you want to know when your trash is going out, you don’t want to download a file with all of the trash days, you want a tool to get you your answer more easily.
Adam Conner: Using PASDA to post snapshots in time of our data and map layers has been great, but the real-time, the updated data tools make a lot more sense and that’s what people want… We want to do more of that too.
What did you think of OpenDataPhilly when you first heard this private collaboration was building a city data catalog? [Full disclosure: Technically Philly was involved in its early strategy]
It seemed like the next generation of things.
The city would never have the resources to pull off that kind of project. We need to focus on helping the customer agencies to do their business services. We need tools that have reasonable performance and are dependable and the data behind it all can be opened up and benefit the city in ways we can’t even imagine right now.
What has had a bigger impact: city mayoral administration changes or technology changes?
During the Rendell administration, the technology was very different obviously than today, and the Street administration was the transition from where we were to where we are now.
..During the Rendell administration, technology was limited to very few users and the drivers were the big business programs in the departments, like the stormwater cost allocation program that was the genesis for the first aerial imaging and plyometric mapping in the city. In the mid 1990s that was new and innovative and now it’s just common place and expected.
Through the Street administration, it was about getting technology out of the backroom to make it more open and apparent to people, to unify land records databases from a technology standpoint.
Now, the Nutter administration is focused on the business processes, and the technology is almost taken for granted. Really, [Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid’s] big charge here is to bring this back around to a fashion that is sustainable and really and push for the funding to do that. We’ve been in a state of deferred maintenance for years. That’s not the sexy stuff, they just want access to it, the running the railroad, as they say.
….Mostly, it’s the technology changes [that move us]. The administrations may change focus, but the access to data, there is still a city charter to pick up trash and find where the bad guys are, so the technology has shifted more than anything.