Data-Smart City Pod: Making Dynamic Data Accessible - GIS in Maryland

Episode Summary

In the third episode of Data-Smart City Pod, Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews Maryland’s Geographic Information Officer ​Julia Fischer, and Maureen Regan, a deputy director at Maryland's Department of Health.

Episode Notes

In the third episode of Data-Smart City Pod, Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews Maryland’s Geographic Information Officer ​Julia Fischer, and Maureen Regan, a deputy director at Maryland's Department of Health. In this podcast, they discuss how a centralized GIS system prepared the state to handle the dynamic and rapidly changing COVID-19 pandemic in order to best protect Marylanders, and how important it is to have a reliable and authoritative source to combat virus misinformation.

About Data-Smart City Pod

New from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the Data-Smart City Pod brings on top innovators and leading industry, academic, and government officials to discuss data, innovation, and government. This podcast serves as a central resource for cities and individuals interested in the intersection of government and innovations, the adoption of data projects on the local government level, and how to become data smart. Hosted by Stephen Goldsmith, former Deputy Mayor of New York,  Mayor of Indianapolis, and current Professor at Harvard Kennedy School.

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Music credit: Summer-Man by Ketsa

About Data-Smart City Solutions

Data-Smart City Solutions, housed at the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School, is working to catalyze the adoption of data projects on the local government level by serving as a central resource for cities interested in this emerging field. We highlight best practices, top innovators, and promising case studies while also connecting leading industry, academic, and government officials. Our research focus is the intersection of government and data, ranging from open data and predictive analytics to civic engagement technology. We seek to promote the combination of integrated, cross-agency data with community data to better discover and preemptively address civic problems. To learn more visit us online and follow us on Twitter

About the Ash Center 

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Episode Transcription


Steve Goldsmith: Hello. This is Steve Goldsmith, Professor of Urban Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School. And you're listening to Data-Smart City Pod, where we bring on top innovators and experts to discuss the future of cities and how to become data smart.

Steve Goldsmith: Hello. This is Steve Goldsmith, Professor of Urban Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and you’re listening to Data-Smart City Pod, where we bring on the top innovators and experts to discuss the future of cities and how to become data smart.

One of the most powerful drivers of innovation is spatial analytics and GIS tools. And we have one of the country's leaders in geographic information systems with us today, Julia Fischer from the Maryland Geographic Information Office as part of the CEO's Office. And with her as the Deputy Director of Maryland's Department of Health, which is a very well-recognized department across the country, Maureen Regan. Thank you both for being with us today.

Let me start, Julia, with you. We've written a lot about Maryland and your work. Help us think a little bit of not just how you're using GIS tools, but how you think about the centralization of those tools as a way to help other leaders in Maryland government make better decisions. How have you set yourself up, well, let's say, as a service agency, in addition to an agency that does the actual work itself?

Julia Fischer: I really appreciate the opportunity to discuss this further and the opportunity to share all the good work that's going on in Maryland. I have to give a lot of credit to my predecessors. They really had the vision to centralize GIS a number of years ago. And that was the successful launch of what is known as MBI map. That's Maryland's integrated map. From there, we have created a centralized geographic information office and we are a service agency. And by centralizing all of those resources, we are able to have a core group of the best and the brightest. That was how the office was originally created, was pulling people who were very passionate about GIS, very knowledgeable in various background and bringing them together in a centralized group.

And one of our roles was to, and continues to be, is to serve as liaisons, one in different sectors and the other through different regions of the state. For example, we brought representatives for natural resources to work with the environmental agencies. Myself, I came from the Department of Business and Economic Development, which is now the Department of Commerce. And I worked with housing and education and other related agencies. And emergency management was another group. Public safety was another group. Health being an other group.

The idea being that those were GIS professionals that had specialized in providing GIS solutions for those sectors. So we brought all of that knowledge together. And so right off the bat, we were able to engage with a number of different agencies, having those specialties, that background, that understanding of the mission and the potential of applying this tool in all these different sectors. So I think that, again, our predecessors, my predecessors, really set up the team for success from the very beginning.

Steve Goldsmith: Maureen, Julia has explained a little bit how she's organized the GIS operation. Your department, as I mentioned earlier, is a highly professional department. Help us think a little bit about how you help translate Julia's services throughout the department, A, and B, I've been interested particularly in Julia's work because I think it has a GIS platform throughout government, which provides the opportunity to link the vertical agencies around a space or a place. So you've been in the COVID storm obviously, but talk to us a little bit about how those tools have helped you make better decisions in your department.

Maureen Regan: Of course. So I think two of the most important things that come to mind first are this use of spatial data and also this being an incredibly dynamic and fluid situation. So I think what's exciting to me about using spatial data to talk about how both the pandemic and our response to the pandemic has evolved in Maryland, is that what we're doing every day with our dashboard is really showing Marylanders how changes in situation relate not only to themselves and their immediate sphere, but also to their fellow Marylanders and all the spaces we move within.

And so with a tool like GIS, with our dashboards, our multiple dashboards, in fact, we have a dynamic tool at our disposal to be able to more efficiently and effectively and more quickly, I think, share information. And so that's what we're really striving to do with what we're putting out there every day is to help people understand the dynamic situation and the impact, not only in their immediate sphere, but statewide.

I think related to what we've developed, in terms of developing our processes and the dashboards itself, are these really incredible partnerships that may have been perhaps untapped or not used in the way that they were used to address this particular event. So we really had to look at how do you use this tool, not only to centralize, but also to streamline and organize resources. So whether that involves our staffing and training day to day to support the dashboard around the clock as we do, or identifying decision-makers and content drivers. And content drivers are not only the people, but the situation within the pandemic itself, right?

So the way that we created and structured what we put forward on our dashboard and what we put forward with our data from the first reported cases, to the first test administered, and now to putting the first vaccine in arms, we're continuously having to evaluate what we have available and what we can put forward.

So we're asking these questions on a daily basis. "What's happening with hospital capacity? What's going on with fluctuation in positivity rates? How is that looking county to county? What's that looking like in particular zip codes?" And then right on down to the data visualization aspects of everything, right, so it's like, "What do we lead with on the board? What gets a tile versus a chart? What trends do we have available based on the data that we've been putting forward over days, weeks, months?" To be able to tell a more meaningful story and address the types of questions that the public and leadership from the governor's office, to our local health departments and local leaders, to all of the constituents in Maryland, really, these are the types of things that we're considering day-to-day to help tell that story of how the pandemic has unfolded and what our response has been as everything has unfolded.

Steve Goldsmith: Thank you. That was terrific. Julia, give us an example, if you can think of one, where Maureen calls you at 6:00 in the morning and says, "We really need data on Anne Arundel County's PPE." Or just some data set that will make their decision making better, but it needs to be spatially organized. Does that happen, those sort of requests?

Julia Fischer: Yes. Absolutely. I think we've tried throughout to be very proactive. And I think that we've gotten better at that, obviously, as the pandemic has gone on. And so, although we are still continuing to work around the clock, as Maureen mentioned, my team, as well as Maureen and her team, have just always made themselves available.

We did encounter some of that earlier on. We would definitely get variables that were being requested by the Governor's office in particular. And that was because they were listening to the constituents as we originally put information out there and trying to be a leader in getting that information out there. Some of the unknowns of what was going to really resonate with the community wasn't totally known. So we would get some data out there, and then we would hear from the constituents back through the Governor's office, "This isn't clear." Or, "We need this additional information." Or, "Have we collected information in a different way? And can we get that out? And can we get it added to the dashboard or modified within the dashboard?"

And so we've had to be very agile from the very beginning. And as has been mentioned, we're on a 24/7 support shifts, my staff. And so day or night we’re monitoring to make sure that everything stays up. We are on call to address any additional concerns, questions. We had one recently where Montgomery County had indicated that something appeared to be stuck in the data layer, the GIS data layer they were sharing, from us as the authoritative source. And so, we went in and we troubleshooted and we got that cleared up.

So not only are we hearing from within state government, but all of our partners within local government. I receive emails from people who know us to be the authoritative source. And they're really helpful. They're like, "Oh, this number looks a little off." Or, "This isn't what we are collecting locally. Can you look into this?" And so it's a very community oriented, collaborative type of relationship now. And I say that because I think there was concern at the beginning that people are just going to go, "ha, ha,” try to call us out, that we were sharing misinformation. And I think that we've worked really, really hard to be known as the authoritative source, the reliable authoritative source, accurately, currently, and everyone has really come together in order to ensure that message is solid, reliable, and thorough.

Steve Goldsmith: So Maureen, it feels to me like there's very few cases more classically involved in GIS than public health. So if you look at social determinants of health and the drivers of the morbidity in COVID and then vaccination rates it would feel like you would be tracking, in your department, a lot of things, geographically. Not just the outbreaks themselves, but I would assume that eventually vaccination take-up rates. I know a number of cities are doing that. So could you give us any examples of how you're using the GIS platform for either prevention or treatment or vaccination?

Maureen Regan: Certainly. So currently within our website,, we have four distinct dashboards. And we also built into the platform a testing locator tool. Which I think it has been incredibly helpful in terms of making sure that Marylanders have the authoritative source. I mean, this is a list of testing providers that we maintain, that we are regularly updating, that are pushed out with updates, and again, incorporated through our platform and through our website.

So in addition to our cases summary dashboard, we have our newly implemented vaccine dashboard, which does track some of the metrics you were just mentioning. But we also have a congregate living facility cases dashboard and a schools outbreak data dashboard. So all of those dashboards combined with the testing site locator, I think really provide a robust picture of, again, how COVID is evolving within the state and also how our response is evolving appropriately.

And one other point I'd like to make too, having one authoritative source for all of this information really helps from, not only operationally our response, but also our outreach and communications. It's so critical to our broader strategic planning capability. And as I've been saying, it's so essential to be able to have something that is as dynamic and responsive to be able to make dynamic and responsive decisions as things develop.

Steve Goldsmith: Just a couple more questions then I know you have to get back to the important issues of Maryland State government. And maybe one for each of you. First to you Julia. I've been thinking a little bit about the importance of your department. And I've talked to a lot of mayor's offices where we think about the use of tools to ask what if questions. So how do you and Maureen think about the allocation of sophisticated data analytics that might be done on a GIS platform, perhaps in your office? And what I'll call the query acts or the what acts, how do you think about it allocating those resources?

Julia Fischer: So still related to the COVID response for Maryland, we do have some work that is ongoing behind the scenes. We are working with sensitive data. And so this is not something that we will be sharing directly with public. But the results, to your point, will impact potential actions of Maryland Department of Health. We're looking at the virus in a very spatial manner.

To Maureen's point earlier in the conversation, how are people just living their lives? How are they interacting with the space around them? How are they interacting with the other people in the space around them? So, yes, talking about contact tracing and looking at GIS as a platform to find trends within the data, to find hotspots that have occurred, learning through technology to then instruct the algorithms to suggest where other similar hot spots may form so that we can be proactive in the measures, more targeted in the measure.

So Maryland Department of Health is also running statistics, running trend analysis, taking a considerable number of actions in order to try to minimize and lessen the impact of COVID by adding that spatial component and being able to show them the trends and the movement of the virus through the movement of the people and the places. It's adding a completely new dimension in the decision-making process. We are really excited. We are working directly with Esri, again, ensuring privacy of information, but that information in the decision-makers hands, in the right people's hands, is really going to continue to support Maryland in fighting this pandemic and saving more Marylanders lives. So it's hugely humbling to see that GIS is a tool and not just here, we also work in public safety sector, 911. GIS is saving lives. It's hugely humbling to be a part of that.

Maureen Regan: I think it's also important to note that these platforms also help make very complex epidemiological data accessible. And it really helps make things understandable and digestible. And I think particularly when there is just so much information out there pointing to one authoritative source, as we've mentioned, but also really helping to demystify what some of these numbers mean. It's just so instrumental in helping us, as I say, make decisions, but also maintain communication with the public.

And I think ultimately what it helps us to do is to also maintain and cultivate a sense of empathy for those who use and view our data. We're always striving to make sure that it's as meaningful but as demystified and as clear as possible. And I really think that this is the tool that helps us to do that in addition to all of the complex algorithmic analytical things that we can do on the backend. So it's been really invaluable in that way.

Steve Goldsmith: Maureen, one last question and then I promise you both can go. Right before we started, you were telling me a little bit about human centered design. Could you just give me a thought or two about the intersection of GIS tools, data visualization, human centered design, as it relates to the utilization of these tools to solve important problems?

Maureen Regan: So I think that's just it, right. I think what we're talking about in terms of maintaining and cultivating empathy for users especially that, to me, is the big takeaway there. And I think what we've been striving to do day to day, not only in terms of what we're putting forward, but as Julia mentioned, thinking about how to build on what we have and trying to anticipate and be proactive about what more we can put out, these decisions aren't made in a silo, right? They're made in consultation with multiple agencies. We're listening all the time and working with our constituent services teams to assess and understand from the public what they're taking away from the dashboard. And so I think it's the convergence of those things. It's really listening. It's constant analysis and evaluation of what we're dealing with presently. And then taking a combination of those two things and being able to anticipate and be proactive about how we can work in a more collaborative and empathetic way to produce and put forward meaningful information.

Steve Goldsmith: So thank you very much. The State of Maryland has a wonderful intersection between one of the country's leading GIS organizations led by Julia Fischer and the Department of Health is long recognized as one of the top in the country. And we have with us today it's Deputy Director, Maureen Regan. Thank you ladies for your terrific insights and for your commitment to public service. I appreciate your time.

Maureen Regan: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Steve Goldsmith: If you liked this podcast, please visit us at, or follow us at Data-Smart Cities on Twitter. Find us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. This podcast was produced by Betsy Gardner and hosted by me, Steve Goldsmith. We're proud to serve as a central resource for cities interested in the intersection of government, data and innovation. Thanks for listening.


Steve Goldsmith: If you liked this podcast, please visit us at, or follow us @DataSmartCities on Twitter. Find us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. This podcast was produced by Betsy Gardner and hosted by me, Steve Goldsmith. We're proud to serve as a central resource for cities interested in the intersection of government, data and innovation. Thanks for listening.