Interactive Cartography for Interactive Government

Brandon Plewe
Brigham Young University Geography

Geographic information and analytical applications are often of use to regular citizens, especially in geographic issues at the local government level.  Large numbers of citizens are interested in what is happening in their neighborhoods, and often have strong opinions.  However, they usually do not have the information or tools to provide rational, useful input to the governance process; these have traditionally been the secret of specialists in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  The Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) standard has a great deal of potential for bringing geographic information and analysis tools to the general public.

The city of Provo, Utah, like many other governmental units, was required by law to adjust the districts of its municipal council and school board following the 2000 census to balance their residential population.  This can be a laborious and very data-intensive procedure, developing a possible solution, calculating the statistics, making adjustments, and repeating the process.  This generally limits the number of options that can be efficiently explored, and also effectively excludes citizens from the developmental process, relegating them to an ineffective reactionary role.

To aid the council, school board, and citizens of Provo, a map-based website was developed using SVG.  Using the interactive map, users could explore relevant information, such as census figures and voting patterns for each voting district (the basic building block of each district), locations of schools, land use, and homes of current council and board members.  They could also review existing proposals developed by the council and other citizens.  Most importantly, users could interactively create their own district proposal; if it met the basic legal guidelines, they could submit it for consideration by the council.  They could also submit detailed comments on the merits of existing proposals, to be considered with the same weight as comments given in a council meeting.

The project met with mixed success.  It was not used by a large number of people, largely because it was difficult to make citizens aware of its availability given the minimal cooperation of the local news media.  However, those who used the site were very emphatic on its immediate and long-term potential, and the proposal that was eventually enacted was developed using the site.  Currently, Provo and several other entities are considering using SVG and interactive cartography in related applications.  This type of application has great potential in any issue that is inherently geographic, requires creativity as well as objective procedures to find a solution, and is based on relatively simple rules, and is of great interest to the public.

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