May 14--School systems have used computerized geographic-information systems for years to manage student transportation, predict demographic changes, and make decisions about where to locate new school buildings.
Now, the use of geovisual software to improve back-end operations is taking off in new, more sophisticated directions. The rapid evolution is due to the rise in the use of mobile devices, vendors' adoption of Web-based mapping tools and development of more high-powered algorithms, and the increasing technological savvy of school district administrators.
"The power of this [technology] is the ability to tie data to spaces," said Jess Hudson, the director of the newly created GIS department in the 58,000-student Garland Independent School District, outside Dallas. "Once you do that, it's just a question of what information do you want to see, and who do you want to see it?"
In school districts around the country, officials such as Mr. Hudson point to improved decision-making and millions of dollars in savings as they deepen their use of GIS in traditional fields and expand the software into areas such as facilities management, safety, and emergency planning.
With the new technologies at their disposal, the volume and quality of data being generated have exploded. At the same time, vendors and districts alike are putting that information not just in the hands of GIS experts, but also everyone from superintendents to parents to school bus drivers. And in some districts, spatial databases are becoming the foundation of complex data infrastructures encompassing an enormous range of operational information.
A geographic information system offers a way to reference, store, manage, and visualize information based on location--essentially, merging maps, software, and databases in order to allow users to see and analyze information in new ways.
The dominant player in the GIS field is Redlands, Calif.-based Esri, which supplies mapping and GIS technology, platforms, and tools to a wide range of government agencies, including school systems.
"Nobody wants to make decisions by the seat of their pants anymore," said George H. Dailey, Jr, the GIS in schools program manager for the company. "As people really begin to see what's possible, the flood gates will open."
Currently, a stable of about 15 company partners use Esri's technology and extensive base maps to build tools specifically geared toward addressing schools' needs in transportation, public safety, and other fields.
Take U.S. Computing, a Columbia, S.C.-based software-development firm that helps about 100 school districts find the most cost-effective school bus routes. The company moved about three years ago to make its maps and related databases available via Web-based browsers, and use of its route-optimization software has been booming ever since, said Kerry J. Somerville, the company's director of business development.
The firm's largest education client, the 314,000-student Clark County, Nev., school system, has saved at least $12 million annually since fully implementing the software during the 2012-13 school year, according to school officials.
"We had to find a way to sacrifice 200 bus routes and cut our office staff in half and maintain the same level of service for students," said Raymond Negrete IV, a GIS coordinator for the Clark County district, which serves Las Vegas.
To get there, the district, which had been using an older routing software for the previous 18 years, used its high-powered new tool to suggest adjustments to the morning bell schedule at many schools, shortening many bus routes and eliminating the need for others. The new software also allowed Clark County to automate what had been a paper-based system for processing special transportation requests (for special needs children or those with injuries, for example). And its more advanced algorithms have allowed the district to respond to community complaints by keeping its largest buses off small roads and out of some residential neighborhoods.
The level of analysis the district is able to conduct has also advanced by light years, Mr. Negrete said. For example, Clark County officials are now able to use real-time location data generated by buses to analyze the time it takes to complete each bus route at different hours of the day.
As a result, the Clark County district is now able to provide families with bus pick-up times that are 90 to 95 percent accurate--a huge improvement over years past.
"We can be a lot more proactive, instead of waiting for things to bottleneck and then scrambling to respond," Mr. Negrete said.
The Garland district in Texas is also expecting to find significant efficiencies after using geovisual software to overhaul its transportation operations.
But Mr. Hudson, the head of the district's GIS department, is most excited about the effort to georeference every classroom in the school system.
That project has involved importing digital floor plans for about 80 facilities into GIS software, allowing for the creation of a spatial database that can be merged with other data sets already in use. Such an integrated system, Mr. Hudson said, can then be queried almost endlessly--for example, to determine the location and total square footage of all the floor tile in the district that is more than 20 years old and thus in need of replacement.
Previously, Mr. Hudson said, "there were so many floor plans from two, three, ten years ago floating around that we never knew what someone might be using." Problems included difficulties tracking the use of bond funds, out-of-date information on how portable classroom spaces were deployed, and disputes with building-cleaning vendors over the square-footage of buildings in their contracts.
The two efforts have come at a total cost of just $40,000 or so, mostly for server licenses and new hardware to support implementation of the routing software, Mr. Hudson said.
For both established and new players in the GIS-for-education field, emerging points of emphasis include better integration with existing software, such as student information systems, automated nightly updates, and expanded access to more users.
"GIS tools have been around for a long, long time, but they have been the purview of highly trained GIS experts," said Charles P. Amos, the CEO of GuideK12, an Eagan, Minn.-based firm that now works with districts in about 30 states. "Our approach is to put a visual tool in the hands of administrators."
The 13,000-student Iowa City Community School District, for example, recently adopted GuideK12 to support its 10-year facilities master plan, citing the software's capacity to allow district officials to run their own boundary-change scenarios without relying on consultants.
U.S. Computing, meanwhile, is involved in a pilot in which "mobile data terminals" offering route information, navigation, and stop-by-stop student lists that have been automatically updated each night are provided to school bus drivers in the 131,000-student Philadelphia school district.
The Los Angeles Unified School District might be making the most advanced use of GIS of any district in the country, observers say.
The 641,000-student system has built a giant geographic database covering all 78 million square feet in its 13,000 buildings. And now, the LAUSD is in the process of integrating that database with everything from work-order processing and equipment-inventory systems, to environmental survey data, to external data sources, such as the U.S. Geological Survey's tool for predicting earthquake damage.
Among the results are the ability to track the location and condition of thousands of pieces of heating and cooling equipment, to provide contractors with digital maps showing all the asbestos hazards on a work site, and to engage school staff in submitting repair requests with their smartphones.
"Anyone who we show it to loves it," said Tchie Tao, the director of information technology for the LAUSD's facilities services division. "Now, it's just letting people know it's there."
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