5 Innovative Ways Government and Agencies Can Use Mapping
February 06, 2020

Olivia Vahsen and Robert Dyball

Government agencies and NGOs gather information about the communities in which they operate. This often includes location data that provides insights and information valuable for effective programs and planning. One aspect of community planning that isn't frequently discussed is collaboration with app developers. That may not sound like a natural partnership, but open data sources, frequently used by government agencies, can be used to improve civic life, along with the APIs and SDKs developers can use to power applications with this open data.

So, how exactly is mapping data used, and why? In this article, we'll examine five innovative ways governments and agencies are using mapping data to improve civic life and operate more effectively and efficiently while raising their profile with the communities they serve.


Governments have a great opportunity to increase the health and well-being of the communities they care for by providing parks near where people work and live.

The Pennsylvania Land Trust Association notes studies that show some of the many benefits of parks, including lower air and noise pollution levels, enhanced financial status of communities near parks, with growth in sales tax income to government from increased spending by tourists and park visitors, and the ability of a nearby park to attract and retain homebuyers as well as to increase land values. The NY Times reported that urban suburbs with more parks can also have average temperatures as much as 20°F lower in summer months, with associated benefits to residents' health and resilience, in addition to power savings to constituents.

The 10 minute walk initiative was launched by the JPB Foundation with the goal of giving 100% of people in the US safe access to a park or green space within a 10-minute walk of their home by 2050. Many US cities have joined the program, with San Francisco the first to reach 100%.

For government, the challenge is not only how to create more parks, but how to best locate those new parks. See, for example, how San Francisco's DataSF open data initiative created a map of current parkland. Some cities are finding innovative ways to increase parkland, including repairing old, run-down parks and converting schoolyards to community playgrounds for use after school hours or on weekends.

In the US, the Urban Land Institute (ULI), the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) and, in particular, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) could assist developers with data. TPL created ParkScore to track the progress of parks in cities, including the number and type of park facilities and access across age, ethnic groups and income levels.


Food trucks are mobile marvels, but too often, even for locals, there's a lot of luck involved in finding the right one at the right place and time. Why not make it easy for visitors, tourists and "foodies"­food explorers seeking new horizons ­to find food trucks in your city?

Although you could try and engage food trucks directly, more reliable links to data sources can be gathered directly from city records of permit information. With this permit information and a little creativite ­adding ratings, reviews, and locations­ you could help food trucks and hungry customers find the perfect match. The Open Data Network can help you find existing data sources for permits, inspections, and locations.

San Francisco's DataSF is ahead of many cities in providing mobile food permit information and schedule information. Although the raw JSON API data is regularly updated, there's likely still an opportunity for a well-written web app or smartphone app to bring together food truck schedules with client locations and food preferences.


What if your city could attract a more consistent flow of tourists throughout the entire year instead of settling for the highs and lows based on seasonal events and celebrations?

Sites like Visit the USA are great, appealing to many different interest groups on their home page, though, sadly, their reach might be too broad and miss your city altogether. Why not build your own specialized tourist information site to attract people to your city?

Your city tourist map could include locations of museums, art galleries, historic buildings and landmarks, as well as locations of famous historical events. You could provide links to help people trace their roots by hooking up with local family history groups. Perhaps some restaurants in your city already have antique cuisine, specializing in food from yesteryear as a further attraction.

Several cities already have raw data sources, such as Open Data Philly with its list of Registered Historic Properties or the Miami-Dade County Open Data Hub, which lists local historic sites.


Homelessness is a complex problem with many causes and risk factors, so a comprehensive, integrated approach is necessary. Governments and NGOs could use mapping to help link people at risk with available social services and details of nearby low-cost housing.

San Francisco's DataSF initiative created an Affordable Housing Pipeline as well as a map showing curb ramps to assist with accessibility planning.

Mapping could also help city planners identify parcels of "lazy land," public land that may be vacant or underutilized, such as a former military base or a community center that might also provide space for low-cost housing developments. Care needs to be taken to locate new developments away from pollution sources, near to workplaces to provide employment opportunities, and near, also, to amenities and social services to offer the support necessary to bring about long-term change.


Enormous cost savings and performance increases for governments are becoming possible with smarter use of both online and automated reporting. At the same time, tech-savvy constituents wish to be well governed, to have government be more accountable, and to be assured their tax dollars are spent wisely.

Call center costs can be reduced by actively engaging resident feedback using online forms or apps and by making greater use of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors. As an example, Los Angeles is already providing real-time parking meter occupancy data. Houston has initiated the Smart City Vision, which includes installation of smart water meters that also provide real-time water leak alerts, as well as installation of air quality meters and flood detection sensors.

With regard to accountability, governments can automatically report data to constituents, such as the City of Chicago potholes patched report or its 311 request status report.

There are many opportunities to extend existing data sources. For instance, the bicycle rack maps from either NYC OpenData or Chicago Data Portal could be extended with a smartphone app for reporting broken or vandalized bike racks.


Where next? For governments, how can you embrace open data? As you've seen, open data is the springboard to enable your work to be more efficient, more effective and more transparent to the public. For developers, now is the ideal time to partner with governments and agencies to improve civic life. Your APIs and SDKs matter more to improving communities than you think.

Olivia Vahsen is Developer Evangelist, and Robert Dyball is Application Developer at TomTom