Municipal GIS

Municipal GIS

Why develop municipal geospatial data when we all have Google maps?

Need driving directions? Use Google Maps, absolutely.

Looking for the nearest grocery store? Use Google Maps, very likely.

Trying to find the nearest fire hydrant? Using Google Maps, probably not.

Looking for which part of town has trash collection on Tuesday? Using Google Maps, no way.

When it comes to finding things on a map we all rely on what is the closest thing at hand, our cell phone. The dominant player in mobile mapping is Google Maps. They’re on every device that you’re already using and have some of the most current road and business data available. Google Maps market dominance isn’t confined to the mobile market, it dominates desktop browser mapping as well. But when it comes to conducting the day to day tasks of municipalities you’re out of luck. Google, or any other internet mapping/search company, is focused on building data sets that generate advertising revenue. They have put maps “online” so that people can find and do business with their advertisers. Not too many people are looking to advertise the location of polling places or designated redevelopment zones and as a result you won’t find Google developing those types of layers.

If you want to use maps of your municipality to enable ongoing operations, you are going to have to build the maps (and the data shown on them) yourself. At first this will seem like a daunting task, but you can start faster than you expect. For now, don’t focus on the “how” let’s focus on just the “why”. (We’ll address “how” next with the first step in municipal GIS.)

Below are five reasons why you should collect, develop, and use your own municipal geospatial data:


By building your own geospatial data you decide what goes on the map and what doesn’t. You decide who has access to the underlying information and how it gets passed along. You won’t have to worry  about violating data licensing agreements or complying with copyright laws because as the creator you hold these rights you can do anything you want with the data. Your municipality will become the centralized authoritative single-source for local data, as it should be.


If you rely solely on data available from outside sources, you are limited to the information that they feel is worthwhile to publish. This is often a very limited set of  features (data classes or objects) because they are collecting information over a very large geographic area. As a municipality, you can decide what is important to your community. You can develop an extremely rich and broad palette of features that relates to everything that is of concern to your agencies and citizens. Google doesn’t have a layer for local parade routes, but you can have one for your town. Bing Maps isn’t publishing the location of parking meters in every town, but you can have one for your borough. Yahoo Maps won’t show you which blocks have been marked for road improvements next year, but your township can map this with very little hassle. Apple Maps won’t show you which shade trees were replaced last year but your city mapping system can do it.


When you create your own municipal mapping data you can collect as much highly detailed information as you desire. Google Maps just doesn’t provide the specificity that your municipality is looking for in geospatial data. Data collection at a national scale is very expensive, so the number of attributes (characteristics) are often limited to a small number. But with a focus on your municipality alone,   the list of attributes collected can be as numerous (deep) as needed. Municipal park locations are shown on most online maps, but they don’t regularly include helpful information for users about park hours, facility rentals or whether dogs are permitted. You municipal map can include that information as well as protected data for municipal works about the number of parking spaces, types of play equipment, acreage, and maintenance status.


Google Maps provides you with a limited set of mapping tools and you can only use them as dictated by Google’s terms of service. When you develop your own municipal geospatial data you have no limit on how to transform or repurpose the information. When you develop the data, there won’t be any hassles if you want to export municipal geospatial information to CAD for your engineering department or exchange fire hydrant locations with the 911 center.


Google Maps will always look like Google Maps. When you make a special-purpose map showing vendor locations during the local festival it shouldn’t be cluttered with extraneous labels unrelated to the event.

Google Maps is designed for on-screen use. If you want to print their maps you have very few print size options. For a poster showing voting precincts and polling places you won’t be able to do that from Google Maps. When it’s time to update your official zoning maps or assemble your next comprehensive plan you’ll be happy that the data can be formatted to multiple page sizes form within your own municipal geospatial system.

Already started your municipal geospatial project or have some questions? We’d love to hear about it, add your thoughts in the comment area below.

Municipal GIS