When Lynchburg Police Department Detective Kenneth Gavin became a police officer 30 years ago, cell phones were not widely available, and the internet was barely on the horizon.
This month, his department is rolling out digital mapping technology that will allow officers to instantly access maps showing where crimes of different types have occurred in the city, locations of “hot spots” of criminal activity and other information to help police cut down on response times and solve crimes more quickly.
Powered by a Geographic Information System — or GIS as it is more commonly known —LPD’s new application combines crime data and a comprehensive map of an area with data from multiple sources like public works, community development, zoning and the city assessor’s office.
The application is the latest evolution of the city’s GIS system, which got its start more than 25 years ago.
For the police department, the ability to input crime data into the digital mapping system allows them to alert officers to the locations and nature of crimes that have occurred overnight before their shift, as well as learn more about neighborhoods where they are patrolling.
“Basically what it will have is a map the officer can see on their laptop in their cars or on their phones where they can look at things like the burglaries map, and it shows you where they’ve occurred, and every pin in red is where individuals live that have been arrested for burglaries,” said Gavin, whose intelligence unit has been working with the GIS software to develop the maps for use in policing and data analysis.
“It can give them a starting point as someone to go [to] and interview.”
While only police will have access to the department’s specific appon the GIS system, anyone can access the GIS data that is compiled from multiple city departments and available on the city’s website.
“We all work together to put this data together and put it out there in a visual way that people can understand and see data from other systems spatially so people can see patterns,” said Lynchburg GIS Manager Allison Johnson.
By representing data on a map, people can more easily see how locations relate to each other instead of just giving street addresses, Johnson said.
The division of three employees maintains the system that maps data from all of the city of Lynchburg’s departments so employees and citizens can search for things like a property’s ownership history, building permitting information on specific properties, the nearest city park, or demographics information. All of the data is presented on an interactive map like Google Maps, but users can look up information specific to a locality and download data on more than a dozen different topics.
GIS mapping has applications beyond municipalities; it is used world-wide by governments of all sizes, scientific researchers and private businesses.
“Lots of folks use GIS from cities and counties and the federal government all the way to Starbucks, [which] has a GIS technician who helps them figure out where to place their stores,” said Robert Kolvoord, dean of the College of Integrated Science and Engineering at James Madison University. “It’s also used solar system-wide. GIS is on Mars, Venus and different moons for researchers to use.”
Starting in 1991, Lynchburg began developing the basis for the system currently in use today. In order to start transforming the paper maps of the past into a digital map of the future, the city used aerial photography of the city and compared that to paper tax maps to start building the early GIS.
In the beginning, GIS was mostly just a map.
“There were lines and points of data, but there wasn’t a lot of data behind the information,” Johnson said. “We started making those improvements and adding that information to the data and integrating with different systems. The GIS today is not perfect, and it’s not intended to be perfect, but it’s a representation of what’s out there.”
Until the early 2000s, the map did not contain any information from the city assessor’s office, which handles property ownership, taxes, values and sales.
Before computers, each taxable parcel had an index card that showed which land parcels were all together, who they were owned by, and what the tax status was. In order to add the information to the GIS, the staff of the city assessor’s office spent several months cleaning up the digital map, making sure it was true to surveys and every parcel — along with the correct tax information — was represented.
“There were two of us making the GIS corrections, so when it was all said and done, everything else was a one-to-one match with what’s in GIS,” said Steve Boyer, a GIS analyst with the City Assessor’s Office. “Making the system represent what’s on the tax maps improved our accuracy and our efficiency an incredible amount.”
In order to increase the system’s accuracy further, Boyer addressed every empty lot in the city between 2003 and 2005.
“I worked with community development, and I went through and addressed all of the vacant lots, which was a little over 3,000 lots,” he said. “Even the owner unknowns have an address point now.”
Putting addresses, and thus GPS coordinates, to every location in the city has proven especially helpful for emergency services.
“When you’re dispatching someone, it is much easier to give them a small area where we believe the person is instead of an entire block,” Lynchburg’s Director of Emergency Services Melissa Foster said. “What we’ll see in the future is that each lot will have a GPS coordinate, and that helps us to be able to narrow down that location even further.”
As more departments have connected through GIS, the system’s accuracy has increased.
Since 2006, Lynchburg’s GIS mapping information has been connected with the 911 response system to locate those who use cell phones to call for help, determine the closest crews to the location and validate addresses provided by callers. Previously in the city, GIS and emergency services each maintained their own digital mapping system, which led to inefficiencies and the potential for out-of-date maps being used to locate callers.
“The city is receiving a lot of information from a lot of departments, and it keeps those updates coming through more frequently so our data is more current,” Foster said. “Previously we had one person here who would make some changes to the map, but it was for our department only, but this is something that is shared citywide using the same information.”
Now that the system is 25 years old, the GIS division is focusing on analyzing everything it has collected to help the city plan programs and serve more people effectively.
For LPD, the analysis has already changed how policing is done in the city.
Previously the city was split into eight “beats.” or patrol areas for officers. According to Gavin, the areas were divided up before crime analysis was available, resulting in an uneven workload for officers across the city.
“Guys that are working certain beats are getting worked to death and other beats don’t have as much to do,” he said. “[There was] one beat with 11,000 calls for service per year and others had about 6,000. This showed there was a need to adjust our beats and rearrange it, but how do you rearrange it?”
Over the course of two months, Gavin inputted all of the crime data from the last five years into GIS and began moving the boundaries until he created a system with 10 beats that have the same average calls per service annually. The new system he developed was implemented in mid-January. Now he and his department are working to roll out the mobile GIS mapping app to the entire department and will begin training soon
Gavin hopes once the system rolls out to the vast majority of officers in the coming weeks they will take advantage of it and suggest new ways to use the information.
“We’re trying to get the officers to see the benefits and we hope they come to us in the future with suggestions and ideas for analysis,” he said. “It makes it so much easier for us to analyze crimes and see where they occurred.”