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Teaching Local Government to Use Data and Think Spatially

By Roger Stancil, Town Manager, Tow of Chapel Hill, North Carolina

I have been very interested in how we teach our organization in Chapel Hill to use GIS to analyze data and tell the story of how we are doing in making decisions for our community and achieving the outcomes we seek. Like many organizations, I assume, we have become adept at using the tool to draw maps, but not much else.

I recently centralized our GIS resources by transferring them from our technology and public works departments to our Office of Planning and Sustainability to encourage broader coordination of the resource as a mutual planning tool. Our staff has begun using StoryMaps to track outcomes and changes in a large area to be redeveloped through the use of form-based code. This effort gives me hope we will grow our knowledge of GIS as a planning and analysis tool. I took advantage of the opportunity to attend this spring’s Esri-ICMA White Boarding exercise to grow my understanding of how we might unleash the power of GIS in making better decisions and measuring our success in achieving the civic goals we set.

While much of the conversation at the exercise was over my head, I learned a lot by listening and learning from other more experienced GIS users, and brought home many resources. We have one planner who serves as a project manager for planning the growth of an area outside the Town to be incorporated into the Town as it develops. I have been encouraging her to find more ways to use GIS in this process. When I returned, she arranged a meeting with the two of us and two of our GIS staff so they could learn all I had learned at the White Boarding exercise. They wanted to hear the wisdom I had gained.  I am afraid I was underwhelming in my sharing, but like many things, the conversation and resulting shared knowledge was exciting. I learned more about Community Planner as a way to engage residents in land use planning and consequences of different decisions. And we mutually planned experiments of how we would use Community Planner and Story Map in new ways in this planning venture. We agreed to try other products and apps that might advance our interests in community engagement and informed decision-making.

Not a bad return on investment.

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