Geographic information systems (GIS) are imposing applications.

Designed to render a comprehensive, multilayered description of natural and built environments, GISs have found a multitude of uses over the years. But sometimes even they can still go above and beyond the call.

The GIS odyssey of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., presented Wednesday at a Smart Cities conference in Toronto, is an example of how municipalities can leverage the technology.

Tom Vair, the executive director of the city’s Innovation Centre (SSMIC) described how a joint initiative by the local municipal government and Sault Ste. Marie Public Utilities Co., the local power and water utility, to implement a GIS quickly became a groundbreaking initiative.

“The city and SSM PUC were considering a GIS implementation in 1999,” Vair said. “SSMIC, which was set up that year to provide business incubation, support services and market development projects, suggested that the two develop a shared platform rather than go about things separately.” Both organizations liked the idea and embarked on a five-year project that concluded in 2005 with the establishment of the Community Geomatics Centre (CGC).

Completed on scope and on budget, the multi-enterprise geomatics solution quickly won international recognition as the most comprehensive municipal GIS solution on the continent, Vair said. The CGC staff of more than 20 now work on projects across the country, and the centre has won numerous awards, some while it was still in development.

Vair presented a list of dozens of CGC clients including municipal, regional and provincial governments across Canada, public agencies, first nations communities and private companies. Under the rubric “Big Data – Small City” the CGC operates according to the Community Information Utility (CUI) model which applies the paradigm of an energy or water provider to the provision of information.

This approach to information is made possible by the complex detailed and layered nature of the geomatics solution itself, Vair says. “Practically everything you can see in the community is captured and maintained in the database, as well as demographic information.” Layers include addresses, zoning, water and electrical utility data, residential, commercial and industrial buildings, census and demographic data, transportation, businesses, natural features and more.

The uses this mix of data can be put to are varied. For example, because the system included the age of the water infrastructure, the city was able to determine where lead was most likely to be present in water pipes. It was able to cross reference this information with the postal codes of pregnant women who had recently registered with public health authorities to make up a priority list for water testing.

In 2006, when West Nile virus concern was at its peak, mosquitos were tested across Sault Ste. Marie to determine disease vectors. At the same time, municipal workers discovered that underground transformer vaults were favorite mosquito breeding locations due to the presence of standing water along with a heat source, with the addition of lawn cuttings from ground level. The ensuing treatment program drew interest from as far afield as the U.S. and South America.

The data in the CGC has applications for crime management, early childhood health interventions, education outcomes and more, Vair said. “The CGC has become a provincially recognized agency for social innovation. Nearly every activity related to social development, early childhood development, crime reduction, poverty reduction now involves the CGC, not just as a data provider and data analyst but as a driver and leader in initiatives to improve the socio-economic conditions in SSM and Algoma.”


Vair told IT World Canada that when SSMIC compared the CGC’s achievements with five other communities, it found that it produced and handled about ten times the data as the others for roughly half what they were paying. And while there’s overhead involved in keeping all the information up to date, that process is efficiently managed. “We equip field crews with ruggedized laptops,” Vair said. “When they enter data such as street names, we provide drop-down lists that offer preselected alternatives, to cut down on entry errors.” CGC data editors vet all incoming data and make corrections as required.





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