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SoCal Association Offers Data Resource to Local Governments

The Southern California Association of Governments — a planning organization that represents six counties, 191 cities and over 19 million residents — is offering access to a resource made to power data-driven decisions for even the smallest cities.

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) is offering tools and collaboration opportunities to help localities in the region work together and leverage data in new ways.

The association has had a long-term role in regional planning, primarily focused on transportation. This sort of regional planning cannot be done in a vacuum, and that effective planning must take into account regional factors like land use, equity, sustainability and climate action, SCAG Executive Director Kome Ajise explained.

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“We kind of think of ourselves as a catalyst to create a brighter future for Southern California,” he said. “What that means is we don’t really own or operate any of this important infrastructure that’s out there that people rely on; that’s done by local government. But our job, then, is to catalyze that and make sure that they have the tools to do what they do better.”

This collaborative mindset led to the creation of the Regional Data Platform (RDP), powered by Esri’s ArcGIS software, which allows members of SCAG to access this data-sharing environment for more informed planning and communication purposes.

The tool has been in existence for just over a year, explained SCAG Chief Information Officer Julie Shroyer, and has already gone through an initial cycle of adoption, promotion and education.

Through what has been a very intentional outreach process, SCAG is working to engage with localities of different sizes and sophistication levels to help them adopt and leverage the resource.

“It’s very much been a process in using the best of what technology can do to help planners and help cities and to do that in a way that … makes it a more equitable experience across the region in terms of GIS capabilities and data,” Shroyer said.

Ajise underlined that in a year’s time, SCAG has been able to work with cities to implement what is referred to as liquid data exchange, meaning that data on the RDP is editable by member cities, which has drastically increased data integrity.

The RDP has also enabled a major transformation in the way of compiling data, Ajise said, explaining that while some cities had files that could be easily shared and downloaded, others had Excel spreadsheets or even hard copies that required a manual process to translate into a digital form for use.

“We also want it to create an environment in which planners at the local level actually have access to a tool that they didn't otherwise have,” Ajise said.

Jonathan Holt, department manager for application development with SCAG and technical lead for the RDP, said that this tool levels the playing field in terms of GIS experience needed to work with data related to regional issues. Now, even cities with smaller staffs, fewer resources or lack of a GIS system can manipulate their data in a way they could not do before.

SCAG has member cities of various sizes, including Los Angeles, with a population of around 3.8 million, and Santa Fe Springs, with a population most recently counted at under 20,000.

Jimmy Wong, associate planner for the city of Santa Fe Springs, explained that as the associate planner for a small city without a designated GIS staff member, he was assigned to work on GIS data. With his director’s support, Wong engaged with the SCAG tool and took to modernizing the city’s GIS system, which included the creation of a new map to replace a 2011 version made by a company that no longer exists.

The outdated PDF map gave way to an interactive version that offers layers to show different data sets relevant to city planning, related to things like zoning and oil locations. The resource has also proved useful across other departments — the fire department being one of them.

At the regional level, the mapping tool has been helpful in communicating and coordinating on larger issues that affect several jurisdictions. For example, the system has streamlined efforts to locate transitional housing for the unhoused.

In addition to improving communication between departments and cities, the public will soon have more data available through a public-facing version. Wong hopes this will increase transparency for residents in the largely industrial city and potentially ease concerns about traffic related to new developments. That tool will likely be accessible this summer.

The city of Yucaipa, with a population of around 54,700, is another member of SCAG and user of the RDP resource. Associate Planner Madeline Jordan said SCAG’s free data licensing for partner cities has helped the city expand its technological capacity to compile information in a way that is more accessible to the public.

“I think the goal is to engage with one another — learn from what other cities are doing and how they’re able to receive data, collect data, compile data and create better communities with more public trust,” Jordan said.

GIS mapping has helped the city create visualizations for things like new developments.

“This creates kind of a resource that’s not only nifty for our department when we’re getting calls or questions about certain things, but then also kind of outside of the city,” she said, referring to builders and other stakeholders that benefit from this information being accessible.

This is especially helpful as Jordan noted that the city is growing with commercial development off the I-10 freeway. The technology has also been helpful for less pressing uses, like creating a story map of Yucaipa Valley Wine Country.

This story first appeared in Government Technology magazine, Industry Insider — California’s sister publication.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.