Using Maps to Better Address California’s Most Complex Problems

November 4, 2021

California’s Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) has released an updated version of CalEnviroScreen, an innovative mapping tool that uses geospatial information – data associated with a particular location – to identify communities in California with the highest pollution burdens and vulnerabilities. This project exemplifies the type of multi-agency, collaborative work the Commission called for in its 2019 report, Mapping a Strategy for GIS.

Through CalEnviroScreen, state policymakers can analyze indicators of environmental, public health, and socioeconomic conditions down to the census tract level. They may also use an interactive map to compare findings across communities. Since it originally debuted in 2013, CalEPA and its boards and departments have used CalEnviroScreen to strategically direct programs and funding to help communities disproportionately impacted by pollution, including to:

  • Identify the state’s most pollution-burdened communities for funding and projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Prioritize enforcement of hazardous waste laws, environmental complaints, and groundwater investigations.

At least five other state agencies also use CalEnviroScreen to help target their resources, including to:

  • Fund projects in disadvantaged communities that make cycling and walking safer and encourage public transportation use.
  • Provide low-income households in communities burdened by pollution with energy efficiency upgrades and rooftop and community solar to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

California needs to facilitate more of this type of work.

Our study revealed that California’s state departments largely use GIS independently, to solve specific problems within their own agencies. We also found that the state lacks a coordinated GIS strategy. There’s no statewide policies on what types of data should be collected or how and no oversight to limit duplication of work. As a result, California is missing out on opportunities to better use data and leverage resources.

To help strengthen California’s approach to GIS, the Commission called for the appointment a State Geographic Information Officer (GIO) responsible for creating and executing a statewide GIS strategy. This state GIS leader could look at California’s geospatial data from the statewide perspective – identifying gaps in data and finding ways for agencies to work more collaboratively.

California is moving in the right direction. Last year, the Commission applauded the appointment of a dedicated GIO in the California Department of Technology. This appointment marks an important first step toward implementing the vision of a strong, centralized, and coordinated approach to GIS across state government. However, we hope to see this position elevated to develop geospatial data standards and coordinate GIS projects across the state enterprise, as well as manage state-level GIS contracts to cut down on costs.

Collaboration will be critical to successfully develop California’s GIS infrastructure. The state still should formalize a GIS Advisory Council, made up of government leaders and key stakeholders, to advise the State Geographic Information Officer. The Council should work with the GIO on developing and executing the statewide GIS plan – from policies on GIS data standards to technical plan implementation across departments.

Lastly, all state agencies should use GIS technologies to help make data-informed assessments about the efficiency and effectiveness of their programs, and to assist in ensuring that any disparities across regions are addressed.

Greater use of GIS poses a tremendous opportunity for California state government to get a more holistic understanding of how various policies and programs actually impact Californians in a wide range of policy areas - from education to economic development and environmental concerns. The Commission’s recommendations for improved GIS leadership and policies will help lawmakers make more data-driven decisions to more equitably serve all Californians.

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