School & District Management

Geovisual Software Use Expands in K-12 Schools

By Benjamin Herold — May 13, 2014 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Proactive Approach

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.

Expanded Access

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.”

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 14, 2014 edition of Education Week as Use of Geovisual Software Evolving Quickly in K-12 Districts


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial
Jobs January 2022 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Schools Are Desperate for Substitutes and Getting Creative
Now in the substitute-teacher pool: parents, college students, and the National Guard.
10 min read
Zackery Kimball, a substitute teacher at Bailey Middle School, works with two classes of students at the school's theater hall on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, in Las Vegas. Many schools have vacant teaching and/or support staff jobs and no available substitutes to cover day-to-day absences.
Zackery Kimball, a substitute teacher at Bailey Middle School in Las Vegas, works with two classes of students at the school's theater hall on a Friday in December 2021.
Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP
School & District Management 3 Ways School Districts Can Ease the Pain of Supply Chain Chaos
Have a risk management plan, pay attention to what's happening up the supply chain, and be adaptable when necessary.
3 min read
Cargo Ship - Supply Chain with products such as classroom chairs, milk, paper products, and electronics
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management Vulnerable Students, Districts at Greater Risk as Natural Disasters Grow More Frequent
New federal research indicates the harm from fires and storms to school facilities, learning, and mental health is disproportionate.
4 min read
Helina Thorp, right, 14, expresses frustration while unsuccessfully trying to log in to her school distance-learning classes in Placerville, Calif., after Pacific Gas & Electric intentionally shut off power to prevent wildfires amid high winds in September 2020.
Helina Thorp, right, 14, expresses frustration while unsuccessfully trying to log in to her school distance-learning classes in Placerville, Calif., after Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to prevent wildfires amid high winds in September 2020.
Daniel Kim/The Sacramento Bee via AP
School & District Management Opinion What It Takes for Universities to Conduct Useful Education Research
Many institutions lack the resources to make research-school partnerships successful, warns Thomas S. Dee.
Thomas S. Dee
3 min read
Illustration of coworkers collaborating.