GIS for Accountability

By Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal • August 29, 2013

  • August 29, 2013
  • GIS

This post is part of the Regulatory Reform for the 21st Century City project.

Despite years of considerable economic growth, India continues to suffer from massive corruption. Furthermore, while the country has a plethora of social and infrastructure projects to help redistribute some of this wealth to the sizable impoverished population, funds and materials meant for these programs often tend to dissipate as they move across the country’s vast geography. ‘Favors’ and ‘fees’ inappropriately levied by individuals wielding power keep what is already a limited supply of resources from reaching the populations it is meant for. At the ESRI user conference last month, Sam Pitroda, an advisor to the Indian Prime Minister, described the government’s effort to eliminate the country’s widespread corruption with a data-driven approach: an integrated GIS system. Mr. Pitroda believes that GIS databases combined with a national identification number given to every citizen and bound to every relevant record pertaining to them can fix this system that has so long resisted remediation. Only time will tell, but the transparency of geospatially tracking populations and funds holds definite promise of solving this seemingly intractable problem.

GIS holds a unique power to create accountability and transparency, combating corruption and mismanagement in much-needed ways. Storing information in geocoded databases makes that information concrete and bound to reality. Statistics and tabled data often simply remain abstract and less easily communicated and understood. With such agency, GIS can create change and alter relationships between governments and governments, governments and businesses, and governments and their citizens. Maps and geodatabases directly align with the geographies that communities inhabit, gaining credibility. Information becomes power. Maps are innately understandable, and usable - to create fairness and to right wrongs.

GIS holds a unique power to create accountability and transparency, combating corruption and mismanagement in much-needed ways.

On a smaller scale, the town of Battle Creek, MI used GIS to resolve a backlog of complaints about non-working streetlights. Even though the streetlights were managed by an extra-governmental partner, flickering and blown-out bulbs created the impression of an incapable government and an area slowly creeping towards disorder. Not good for morale, civic spirit, attracting investment, or safety. In response, the city embarked on a multi-phase project to create a GIS database of the city’s streetlights and their functionality. This information allowed the City to hold the operator accountable and to track repairs. Since then, the number of non-operational lights has waxed and waned but the city has been able to secure refunds for non-operating lights they’ve paid for, ultimately incentivizing better performance from their operating partner.

GIS can provide the analytical tools to understand impacts of development on different groups and meet the requirements of laws created to secure equity and hold governments accountable to their entire citizenry when undertaking projects. For example, when the Southern California Association of Governments was developing its regional transit plan, it turned to GIS to run the analysis to meet a federal requirement to minimize impacts on minority and low-income groups. Without, this would have been incredibly difficult - and probably would have involved quite a bit of conjecture and guesswork, reducing the quality of the data and its analysis. Instead, regression models using current demographics and health risks along with growth models and future transit plans were used in conjunction to understand the impact of planning on future populations. GIS provided the tools to allow local governments to respond to laws meant to hold them accountable for equity with due diligence rather than as an ineffective formality.

GIS isn’t just about maps, it’s about data - and rather importantly it can provide a tool to ensure that the reality of what’s happening with government money and initiatives on the ground matches the intentions of policy and the requirements of laws put in place. There are still many more opportunities for the strengths of GIS to build in accountability and transparency where it’s lacking. Budgeting departments could have their activities enhanced through logging the spending of funds geospatially both for the sake of guaranteeing equal investment across different areas, as well as finding opportunities for departments’ money to go farther together. Reporting requirements for funds distributed under the ARRA act required this kind of logging, with maps of projects and funds available online. Such a system should be the norm.

GIS isn’t just about maps, it’s about data.

When combined with demographic data, issues of equity can become concrete, and shortcomings can be revealed and remediated - if the will is there. The huge amounts of open data now available make this analysis possible, but it is in the layering and analysis of this data that we can gain real accountability. For instance, campaign finance data has been available online for years in searchable databases, but what if that data were routinely layered with other government datasets to ensure government allocations of resources aren’t being skewed by implicit or explicit promises made through politics and campaigns? However, this isn’t just about technology and data - both of which are available for this task of enhancing accountability and equity. There also must be the mindset and the desire to pursue these lofty goals, as well as the technical talent and the leadership to apply human resources to these goals, translate the results to be actionable by less tech-savvy officials, and maintain the intentionality to follow through.


About the Author

Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal

Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal is a joint MPP/MUP candidate at the Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Design at Harvard.