In Idaho Republican Sen. James Risch’s office, staffers log every letter, every phone call and every online submission from constituents into a database.
That database becomes the foundation for creative maps that can help the senator learn what citizens care about in different areas of his state.
Such use of GIS — short for geographic information systems — is exploding in both the Senate and the House. As Esri’s Lauren Lipovic told FedScoop, in the last two years, more staffers and members of Congress have started taking advantage of GIS in their work, with more than 500 staffers currently using it. There are even plans for the 115th Congress to receive formal training on using GIS in their Hill work, she said.
A pair of Senate staffers gave a demonstration Wednesday at the Library of Congress on their current uses of GIS. Here, in their own words, are a few ways they’re using geographic data to help their lawmakers better reach and understand their constituents:
1. Gauging constituent opinion on legislation
Tim Petty, deputy legislative director for Risch, said the senator uses GIS to better understand what communication is coming into the office, “so the senator can communicate back out in these areas.”
“We can actually take almost any issue based on upon our response… track those different areas and where specifically they’re coming from,” Petty said.
Risch likes seeing things visually in maps versus a chart or report, he said.
“We’re getting 9,000 people talking about like a banking issue or an education issue,” Petty said. “So when you get 9,000 literally individual, unique pieces of information you can get a pretty good idea of what they support or oppose from that information.”
He added: “When you’re getting up to those numbers, you’re getting pretty darn close to what your community is really thinking about and wanting to know about.”
Petty noted that Risch usually wants to know who supports a legislative issue, who doesn’t, why and where they are from.
“So he can start putting his own visual mind together of why the different people oppose it or support it,” he said. “That gives him the ability then to ask better questions when he’s out and about with his constituents.”
He added: “This is really helpful because when he goes into an area, he has an understanding of really what he has received through constituent services, areas that are a really high priority to him. And that just gives him a framework to work at.”
Rebecca Steele, digital director for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said people who have been on the Hill in a particular office for awhile sometimes think they know anecdotally who cares about what issues.
But she said, “mapping really enables you to kind of put those biases aside and look at it and say, ‘oh no they do actually really care about’” something.
2. Helping people understand legislation
Sometimes legislation can be better explained with a map.
Petty’s office worked on a bill related to public land, so they created a map with layers on hiking issues, snowmobile issues, what would be considered wilderness and etc.
“He used this visual image to go to a lot of his meetings and specifically talk to constituents about the boundaries and what the different issues look like, for him to get feedback from those small regions in basically town hall meetings,” Petty said. “And so it was a very effective tool.”
The map also tied in data from the geospatial team at the governor’s office of Idaho, “so we were all on the same page together because we were using basically the cloud for these different data set layers.”
3. Providing information visually to constituents
Congress can also use GIS to provide information as a public service to its constituents.
As an example, Steele noted her office created a map of wildfires, a huge issue in Oregon, that showed where they had occurred in the state in 2015 and how much area they had burned.
Risch’s office also created a map of active wildfires in Idaho.
“We gather information and data straight from the executive branch, and these have become extremely popular for our state and our constituents,” Petty said.
4. Showing where the senator has been
Steele uses GIS to show where Wyden has been recently, so his constituents know what he is doing when Congress is not in session. Steele uploads smartphone photos — which are already geotagged — into the software, which then maps out Wyden’s movements.
“We’ve used story maps… to take photos of where he was in the state and to really show who he was meeting with in those meetings, where they took place, to kind of give constituents an idea of what exactly their senator is doing when he’s on recess from being in Washington, D.C.,” she said.
As an example, Wyden traveled last year around the state to talk with businesses about tourism and boosting the economy. His office mapped those visits out and shared it online with constituents.
5. Better communicating with constituents
Wyden’s office also uses the software to see if it is reaching all of its constituencies, Steele said. After mapping out where people are from who opened the senator’s correspondence, like a newsletter, the office can see if it is only reaching people in large cities, for example, or not reaching certain counties.
“It just gives you a better picture, especially in a large state, of what your constituents really look like,” Steele said.
Petty estimated Risch’s office’s database has about 60 percent of the whole state logged in some way. And having that information gives them the power to communicate with people in a faster way than public authorities can.
“Can we communicate to people who are having issues if there’s a fire going on?” he said. “We can actually communicate out because a lot of times the Forest Service cannot or they don’t have the database resources. So I’ve gone in and actually pulled out like general areas and then said we have the communication and sent out kind of a newsletter of like, ‘Hey there’s issues that are going on with the fire in the region. Please stay in contact with your local national fire service as well as the National Forest Service community,'” along with other resources.
He added: “Those are things that constituents really like.”