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Phoenix Strips Away the Boundaries

Integrating GIS and Web Technologies to Better Serve Citizens and Staff

by Lora Engdahl

"Hmmm, do I call the Education Programs Office or the Human Services Department?" Phoenix citizens looking for job training opportunities no longer have to flip a coin to answer that kind of question, or bounce from phone extension to phone extension. Using "Phoenix at Your Fingertips," a Web site organized with the end user, not the service provider, in mind, they can get the information they want fast.

A citizen-focused Web service that strips away the traditional boundaries between government and citizens is just one of many ways the city uses information technology to create more efficient, responsive government. Since 1990, Phoenix’s population has grown from 900,000 to 1.1 million while city government has simultaneously reduced head count. City leaders attribute at least part of this accomplishment to information technology investments that date back to the late 1980s, when $42 million of a voter-approved $1.2 billion city bond issue was earmarked for IT reengineering and network expansion, as well as projects such as the Web site and a Geographic Information System (GIS).

Over the last decade, Phoenix has fine-tuned its deployment of a number of technologies. It uses many of the same tools as other cities — GIS, shared databases, imaging systems, intranets and the Internet — but is a leader in tailoring information to the needs of the end user. It is also linking technologies to provide both internal and external customers with better ways to measure performance and solve problems.

Phoenix at Your Fingertips

Phoenix at Your Fingertips, a World Wide Web site, went online in October 1995 and now receives about 900,000 hits a month. It offers a menu of virtually every service the city has to offer, from where to find job training to how to have a fallen tree removed. It also includes some related services offered by nonprofits. Citizens use it to download forms and job applications, sign up for services, learn about public meetings, send e-mail to city officials, report crimes, read neighborhood newsletters, use the local library’s card catalog or follow links to over 250 outside agencies. More services will become available as the city merges its Web infrastructure with its GIS system, making the Web the front end to access GIS data.

"Many other cities have gone online to provide citizens with information on city services," concludes a report by the U.S. Commerce Department’s Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP). "Phoenix stands out because it presents the information in a user-friendly manner, i.e., in categories that make sense to citizens, rather than by department or program area."

The common — and simple — approach is to let each department devise its own Web page, but citizens often don’t know which department offers which services. So Phoenix’s Information Technology Department (ITD) spent six months negotiating with city departments to design the system properly. Information technology officials had to persuade departments to relinquish some control of what appears on their Web pages and to give up some visibility.

"Departments needed to understand that they fit into a larger scheme," says Kristine McChesney, deputy information technology director within the Information Technology Department (ITD). "It’s not important that the department’s name shows up anywhere or that all the department’s services appear in one list, which is what would happen if each had their own Web page."

Two grants totaling $275,000 from the U.S. Commerce Department’s TIIAP program enabled the city to set up about 30 public access workstations (browser-equipped PCs and trainers on site) across the city. The Information Technology Department partnered with the Human Services Department to train senior citizens as trainers. For activists, inclusion of a cadre of active senior citizens, and e-mail access to officials and related policymaking sites is a big attraction. Lonnie Wells, a Phoenix citizen and trainer, says people who use the online service become more interested in learning about government.

Inside Phoenix

Inside Phoenix, the city’s intranet, is the technology platform for the city manager’s "Seamless Service" directory. When a citizen calls a city employee in error, the employee obtains the name and number of the correct contact with a desktop PC using a keyword searchable database. Callers aren’t transferred from department to department. The directory also helps city employees who often have to get information from workers in other areas, but may not know who to contact. Soon employees will be able to use it to find answers to frequently asked questions.

How popular is this application? Of the roughly 300,000 hits to the intranet in May, 11,864 were to the directory, ten times the number of hits (1,160) to the personnel department’s list of job descriptions, the next most popular database.

Enabling employees in different departments to search the same databases is just one of the benefits of having an intranet, which is essentially like a mini-World Wide Web — only for internal use.

Having the intranet positions the city to take advantage of new applications now being designed to run in a Web environment, from the geographic information system to workflow and e-mail to such software packages as PeopleSoft (human resources management) and SAP (Phoenix’s financial package).

In comparison to traditional networks, intranets make it easier for employees to send and receive reports and use various programs. Employees go to the main menu (similar to a Web page — only a little less fancy) and point and click. McChesney describes it as one-stop shopping: The browser serves as the front end to all applications, so staff members don’t have to learn a different set of commands for each, something they have to do when accessing a network through a typical client-server arrangement. The intranet also has plenty of capacity (bandwith), which is needed when sending major files like GIS maps over the network at high speeds.

Keeping the citizen-targeted information windows separate from the staff "Web" pages may create more work for Web site designers, but is critical, she explains. "By organizing things the way we have we make the system more user friendly," says McChesney. "Inside Phoenix is organized by workflow. If you are trying to accomplish a particular task, all of the steps and information you need will cascade from your menu picks. Staff can concentrate on what needs to get done and citizens don’t get a lot of stuff they don’t care about."

Coordinating Service Delivery

Phoenix officials are excited about using intranet technology to help coordinate fragmented service delivery. A prototype project is the Phoenix Education and Youth System (PEYS).

In Phoenix, many youth services are provided through the schools. For example, the Fire Department offers urban survival courses through schools. The Human Services Department places social workers in school-based CARE Centers and runs Head Start programs through the schools. Through contract, the Police Department places school resource officers on campus to enhance student safety and follow up on truancy and child abuse cases. Several city departments are helping schools reduce truancy through a program called Operation A.I.M. (Attendance is Mandatory). Public Works does recycling outreach; Streets and Transportation honors crossing guards; Planning looks at school capacity and zoning impacts; and the Parks, Recreation and Library Department provide a number of youth programs on campus.

Phoenix has 295 schools — 50 of which are charter schools — in 28 districts. Keeping track of who was doing what and where was a major headache, not to mention the difficulty of spotting patterns in service distribution and tying them to community outcomes. The Youth and Education Programs Office in the Office of the City Manager, which coordinates information about city departments that serve youth with staff members, wanted to get out of the business of constantly answering queries from the field, and turn more attention to the bigger picture.

Through PEYS, every department will have access to the schools and youth facilities database. They can use it to do their own personnel scheduling without having to constantly update addresses and changes in school grade level enrollments, student absence rates, and ethnic breakdowns. The county provides information on the number of adjudicated youth in the schools and the parks department provides the number of curfew violators in the schools. The database also includes such information as the police precinct, library, and human service center closest to each school.

The Information Technology Department developed the centralized relational database using a popular business area analysis program called the Municipal Reference Model, from Allen Mitchell, Inc. in Canada. Six city departments used the program’s standardized taxonomy of city services to outline the scope of services the new system would cover. (Business area analysis essentially asks, "What business are we in?") But it was the interviews ITD conducted with more than 55 representatives from various departments and the city council office that drove design specifics, says Deborah Dillon, director of The Youth and Education Programs Office.

According to Dillon, once these individuals began telling interviewers what they do and what information they need to succeed, they got excited about ways in which they could help one another by sharing information.

Dillon predicts the database will foster collaboration. For example, someone who is starting an after school program can find out which schools have a school resource officer and coordinate with them. Dillon’s department can also answer inquiries from council members who, for instance, might be concerned about violence prevention and want to know where programs are targeted.

The ultimate goal is to tie the database to performance indicators using the city’s GIS system. That will position departments to benefit from the data collection activities of other departments and do some creative problem solving.

Geographic Information System

Phoenix’s $7.6 million GIS combines geographic, census, infrastructure and zoning data in a common database. It replaces thousands of physical maps, covering 460 square miles of parcels, streets, sewer lines and other data, with a desktop application that can overlay one map with one or many others. Departments use the system for spatial analysis, as well as planning and decision support. For example, Public Works uses a GIS-generated map of land parcels and streets to estimate when trash vehicles on certain routes will be full, and to select optimum routes. The Police Department plans to use maps of district population density, resident demographics, and crime statistics to decide where to deploy patrol officers. The City Clerk’s office uses a map overlaying crime rates and proximity to schools to support liquor licensing decisions.

GIS also enables faster response times in key areas, says Bill Bayham, deputy information technology director. The Police Department, for example, uses it to support its 911 response service, in conjunction with computer-aided dispatch.

The geographic information system was designed with software development tools from Oracle Corp. and the Environmental Systems Research Institute’s (ESRI) Arc/Info software. The Information Technology Department administers the GIS using a client/server architecture that links relational databases. Individual departments maintain their own data. The Planning Department refreshes zoning and census data, the Engineering Department tracks parcels, and so forth.

When GIS and Internet/Intranet Applications Converge

Exciting new services for citizens and employees are coming online, thanks to some new technology developed by ESRI, says Bayham. The company has developed an Internet or intranet map server that acts as a broker between the Web server and the spatial data in the GIS system. That means that someone accessing the server through a browser can request the map server to grab spatial data and overlay it with information from a live dynamic database. The result: customized maps that include statistical and tabular information.

ITD plans to tie the geographic information system to Phoenix at Your Fingertips. A pilot project is underway to help citizens find out about community events. Through the Web site, citizens can access a community calendar, as well as seven specialized calendars, such as one listing arts events. Users can customize their own calendars by selecting which of 33 different categories of events they want listed. Once they find the event, they will be able to key in an address and GIS performs an optimum route analysis and delivers a map to their screen.

GIS administrator Bayham envisions a growing capability for citizens entering through Phoenix at Your Fingertips to browse the city’s map information much like employees can now do. For example, someone moving into a given area could find all parks within 1/2 mile that have swimming pools.

The possibilities will expand as intranet applications such as the Phoenix Education Youth System (and another shared database being piloted in the environmental management area) proliferate. Deputy Information Director McChesney predicts, for example, that parents will be able to download maps showing youth programs available in their neighborhood schools and youth centers.

Managing Performance

Perhaps the most important result of the GIS/intranet marriage is the ability it gives staff to manage performance. Right now, about 700 city staffers access GIS through a client-server application. When the Web front end is built, everyone can take advantage of GIS. They will be able to integrate statistical and tabular information from relational databases with spatial data from GIS. The upshot: maps that illustrate trends and patterns in community outcomes.

Dillon and the rest of the staff in the Youth and Education Programs Office are excited about using the GIS to analyze youth programs.

"We have a lot of ideas about what we do but we don’t know how much we can say about cause and effect," says Dillon. "For example, we have a program called Operation A.I.M. for Truancy. It is based on the assumption that keeping kids in school reduces property crime in an area. We are digitizing crime grids and overlaying school attendance boundaries. We hope to track performance indicators like juvenile property crime and see if we can make any connections between indicators and the programs that address those problem areas."

City staff are also looking for ways to use the geographic information system for creative problem solving. "Let’s say a certain school has a high rate of teen pregnancy," says Dillon. "You could begin to look at schools with a lower rate and ask, ‘What is going on in that area that is positive that might be impacting that rate?’ "

Dillon cites a prototype: a map of domestic violence service calls overlaid by school attendance boundaries. It has people discussing ways to address the problem as it affects youth. Someone suggested initiating girls sports programs in those areas with high domestic violence rates, based on national studies that show that participation in female sports is a good way to break the cycle of violence.

For another taste of what’s to come regarding ways to improve performance, Bayham offers the following scenario: A water service truck responding to a break in a water main brings up a map on a laptop or handheld computer, locates the shutoff valve, and speeds to the next crisis.


Bill Bayham, 602-534-9799; Deborah Dillon, Education Program Director, 602-495-0518, fax 602-495-5650, e-mail: ddillon@ ci.; Kristine McChesney, Deputy Information Technology Director, 602-256-3393, e-mail: kmcchen@ci.phoenix. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s NTIA program office, which provided some of the material and description on Phoenix at Your Fingertips in its Networks for the People profile, can be reached at 202-482-2048, fax 202-501-5136, e-mail:, Web site:

Copyright(C) 1998, The New Public Innovator magazine, published by the Alliance for Redesigning Government. Reprinted with permission. For subscriptions and Alliance membership information, contact the Alliance at 202-347-3190.

About the Author:

Lora Engdahl is the editor of The New Public Innovator. You may reach her at (202) 347-3190 or

Related Links

Worldwide Trends on Geographic Information Systems by Sally Matthews, General Services Administration

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