Schools & GIS

Over the past several years much discussion linking GIS technology to the educational community  (i.e., K-12, middle and high school, Community Colleges, and universities) has focused mainly on integrating GIS concepts into the classroom environment.  While industry leaders such as ESRI and Google have contributed significantly and helped advance this effort, there exist several other pertinent program areas in school systems which on many levels overlap and can benefit by integrating with traditional, or “nearby” government GIS programs.  Ironically, the rational for the government/school GIS collaboration – if not justification – is that school based geospatial-based programs are often competing for the same tax dollar, in the same municipality or county, traditional GIS programs are feverishly trying to secure.  Illustrative common areas include:

Transportation Systems:  For the unknowing, local school district transportation budgets can often be eye-popping totaling into the hundred thousands, if not millions of dollars.  Illustratively, a  quick survey of online school district budgets in Westchester County, New York found several transportation budgets in excess of $3 million, others in the neighborhood of $6 million, and one as high as $9 million.    (Comparatively, similar budgets will vary greatly across the state depending geographic size and location of  district).  While much of the transportation budget money is for buses, maintenance, personnel, fuel, and other assets, many New York State school districts are actively utilizing GIS-based software for routing, scheduling, and leveraging GPS technology to track and locate buses for both fixed route and Paratransit systems.   Geocoding, address verification, and even the need for the production of hardcopy maps are also common in most school transportation offices.  One of the more popular bus transportation software packages in the state is Transfinder which has a broad statewide school district client base and access to updated address databases through the NYS Data Sharing Cooperative (via their client, school districts, as members of the Cooperative).  Another Albany based company engaged in student/bus transportation systems is Versatrans (Tyler Technologies).   Interestingly, as of July 2013, approximately half (nearly 45%) of the 535 listed members in state data sharing cooperative local government category are school districts.

Demographic Analysis/Statistics:  Census data, population statistics, live birth figures, and similar datasets have long been a staple of government GIS programs to map and distribute. It is these same datasets school districts often use in concert with a plethora of planning and engineering consultants, to support a wide range of administrative, facility planning,  capital improvement, and long range strategic plans.  GIS software provides a powerful analytical tool in visualizing demographic-based datasets with other relevant district wide features such as public transportation systems, traffic patterns, critical infrastructure, parks/athletic complexes, location of educational service providers, and district ADA compliant buildings.  Local tax parcel boundary data, building footprints, and related assessment data,  which are in the stewardship of local government GIS programs, add a further level of analysis and visualization.   All combined – with the input and support of local GIS programs, GIS “mash-ups” can be created and made available to school district staff, school boards, and other community groups involved in school district programs.  Similarly, Westchester County GIS online mapping applications are used by the City of Mt. Vernon school district for address and residency verification.  Also, GIS software is increasingly being used to redistrict school district boundaries and individual school catchment areas.

Facilities Management/Safe Schools:  While many readily available software products such as Google Maps, Bing Maps,, and even Yahoo! Maps offer aerial views of school facilities and campuses, this imagery is routinely “leaf-on” and therefore can have important ground features covered or obscured.  Local government GIS programs are uniquely positioned to collaborate with schools in offering more detailed and higher resolution “leaf-off” imagery used in local base mapping projects.  Similar opportunities exist for local governments to collaborate with universities and colleges which are using GIS as a framework to support comprehensive facilities management plans.  Three  illustrative efforts in this regard are the  University of Rochester,  SUNY Albany and SUNY Cortland – each providing a basis for neighboring communities or organizations to cost-share in geospatial products such as orthophotography, LiDAR, or planimetric mapping, all of which are used in compiling campus facility base maps.  GIS data and mapping is also used in the development of school security plans.  Recent incidents at public schools and on college campuses have led to both federal and New York State initiatives which increase the opportunity for the GIS community to work with school administrators and local law enforcement agencies in developing security plans and related mapping products.

Many opportunities currently exist for GIS professionals to reach out to the educational community and identify joint geospatial programs and applications.  Building such strategic alliances with schools is budget wise and can result in the valuable cost sharing of applications, coordinating procurement of similar products such as aerial photography and planimetric features (building footprints, visible infrastructure features, topography, hydrology), or the effective design of common hardware and software infrastructure.  Looking forward, such proactive efforts on the part of the New York State GIS community will help nurture and build an important statewide partner and user constituency.

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