Honolulu - A High-Tech Pacific Jewel

By Joe Francica

Interview_MayorJeremyHarris_Honolulu One of the keynote addresses at the ESRI Senior Executive Seminar was given by Mayor Jeremy Harris of the City and County of Honolulu.Rarely before has a politician spoken with as much clarity on the applications and potential for GIS as Mr.Harris.This is a city official who not only believes in the technology but can lead with vision from a position of understanding of how to "think spatially." The technology has obviously paid off for the city as well.Mayor Harris pointed to the fact that the city has seen a 20% increase in the number of work orders handled via their online work order management system.In addition, the city has also realized a 50% reduction of the drafting staff because these functions can now be addressed by the city's enterprise GIS system.

Mayor Harris has been instrumental in revitalizing Waikiki Beach, the famous tourist resort area that drives the island's economic prowess.He has also made it easier for his resident constituents to communicate with local government authorities in the areas of crime, traffic, and road repairs. Much of the interaction with city departments can be via the city's internet, which is replete with maps of traffic camera locations, an interactive property locator, and parcel and zoning information maps.  A key player in a pubic-private partnership is the Honolulu Board of Realtors.

Mayor Harris' keynote was succinct."In the past, most of the decisions were made haphazardly because decision-makers didn't have access to all the data; or even if they had all the data, there was no way they could interact with it.There was no way to possibly grasp it; no way to visualize it.And there was certainly no way that they could share it with the public so that the public could understand it and participate in the decision-making process.Before GIS, we lacked the fundamentals for good decision-making and good urban governance.And all that has changed with the invent of GIS.And so we have it deployed in an enterprisewide operation of the city. Everything we do in the city takes advantage of GIS.Every decision that we make really affects every other decision ...GIS gives us the opportunity to see our city; to understand it; and to understand how it works."


Direction's Editor-in-Chief, Joe Francica (JF), sat down with Mayor Harris (JH) and Mr.Ben Lee (BL), Managing Director for the city, for this exclusive interview.You will find that the Mayor more often uses "business" terminology to describe the city's operations.Another rarity.I found his perspective refreshingly astute from a technological perspective, especially in his ability to take a proactive approach to GIS as well as other technology to help his government run more efficiently.As such, the mayor is also actively engaged in promoting the Mayor's Asia-Pacific Environmental Summit, held every two years in Honolulu for Pacific Rim local government leaders to engage in discussions of:

  • Advancing protection of their urban environments
  • Promote sustainable development in their cities
  • Share information and best practices
  • Build partnerships with donors and other organizations
I think you'll find his comments insightful and you will appreciate how he has been able to move city government to effectively utilize geographic information system technology.Read below:

Joe Francica (JF): The first thing I would like to ask you is that, on a daily basis, do you feel like you use GIS technology?

Mayor Jeremy Harris (JH): Oh yea, Oh, it's our main decision-making tool.In fact, Ben was instrumental in catapulting this.We started in 1988.It was a slow start and a difficult sell.In fact, I was the managing director then; I was in his position (referring to Mr.Lee).The Managing Director is sort of the Chief Operating Office of the city, appointed by the Mayor, who is the Chief Executive Officer.And the former Chief Executive Officer, the Mayor, didn't understand what this was about; told us to cancel the project.We just went ahead and did it anyway, without telling anyone we were investing $1.7 Million.He wasn't all that involved in the actual operations of the city.But, it was tough because it was using a lot of resources, and it wasn't showing any return.Because at first it doesn't. Its all effort in..and not much back.Back then the managing director's office; sort of the cabinet room; sort of the nerve center of the city where all the department heads are coming in and were working on projects; making decisions about everything from resurfacing to dealing with police issues.

JF: You have a centralized, enterprise geodatabase that is shared by public works, planning...?

JH: Well it's actually shared by they whole public because it's on our web, and we're getting just under 3 million hits a month on our GIS.We're getting almost 19 million hits a month on our website, so we are getting lots of our data.

JF: I interviewed Governor Martz (Wyoming) and one of the things I asked her was how you push the technology down to other legislators: city council members.And what type of city government do you have?

JH: It's a strong mayor government.So the council has limited...they are part time and they basically pass ordinances and vote on our budget that we submit.We've had some problems with them.There was an effort a few year's back to cut out all the funding for GIS and we actually had to get people to go and lobby and hold signs and rally.But, that's unusual to get people out lobbying, in a protest mode, about saving this infrastructure. So, I think it was telling.It worked.We saved the funds.

JF: Do all of the department heads have a basic understanding of the technology at this point?

JH: Yes.In fact, every department is using it, some more than others.
BL: Transportation, Design and Construction, Civil Defense.

JF: Have you eliminated the typical problem of "call before you dig" where someone is ripping up the pavement one month; they finish the job  and a week later another department needs to rip up the same segment?

JH: Oh, yes.That's not a problem.In fact, we have the reverse problem, where people are calling up and saying, 'can't you tell that that street needs to be repaved; how come its not repaved.' We have to explain, 'you don't understand, see, we charted all this out; there's going to be a water line job in there in six months, and then we're going to have a fiber optic (job).' We have exactly the opposite problem.The problem we used to have before, which was one agency would go in, repave something, and the next agency would come back in a month later, tear it up.We don't have that problem anymore.We have the reverse...of being to smart!

JF: That is really unusual.You feel that you have a pretty good management structure and enough control where you can push projects fairly easily? Because I can see that it wasn't as difficult for you, politically, to do something like this; to get the appropriate funds.

JH: Well it was at first, because we did not have the support of either the council or the mayor.And so we started under the radar screen.

JF: But now as mayor...

JH: Oh, now, I think everybody now recognizes the value of it. One of the big helps, I think, was putting it on our website and getting it out there as a tool for public use.Because as soon as you do that, they see the benefit, and they have invested in it, and they have ownership. And so if there is a threat to the funding, it is not just city department people that are objecting to the potential loss or diminution of this vital tool; its the real estate industry that was using it; its the other general contractors in the community; its the AE (architecture/engineering) firms that were using it.So, you build up too big a constituency base for politicians...

JF: So you see a "private push" to utilize the city's database more? Do you charge for the data?

JH: There is some data that is for city purview only.But most of the data is open.We had a bit of a foray into advertising on our website to pay for costs, but we abandoned that for a number of reason.

BL: It is free to the Board of Realtors; there's no charge at this time.

JH: We've gotten enormous interest in our economic development website where you can call up any piece of property; find out the demographics within any radius of that property; facilities; utilities; virtually everything.

JF: Are you trying to sell the city for certain economic development projects?

JH: Right.We want to make it easy for an investor to come to put in their 'Starbucks' or shoe store or whatever it happens to be in our city.And they can do the evaluation of the feasibility of their enterprise in our city, without ever having to leave their office.Virtually any information that they can possibly want.They can even track their permit.

JF: Is that run by the chamber of commerce?

JH: No.That's us.

JF: Because I have seen other cities wrestle with the chamber, and not sharing data with the city.

JH: It's phenomenally successful.An we have other things that are helpful.We have traffic cameras on all the key arterials.A couple of them in Waikiki.A few we have turned directly to Waikiki Beach, and specifically toward the Duke Kahanamoku Statue right there on a part of Waikiki Beach.And so a lot of people who are visiting Hawaii, make arrangements with their family to tune in at 6 o'clock and they'll be live waving back to the family in front of Waikiki.Those little things are important little marketing devices.And if you just want to turn in and see what the beach is like and whose out on the beach today, what the surf looks like; its not a major thing...but that one page gets like more hits than any in the world.

JF: You mentioned that many of the cost issues are up front and certainly the maintenance fees are costly, but where do you see the cost savings in using GIS technology? Almost like an ROI?

JH: We have not done a definitive ROI because it doesn't make sense for us to waste the time.It's so self evident that it would be a waste of time to justify to do; we realize that.The obvious things: the reduction in the number of drafts people we need.We've been able to cut that category in our city employment in half.And then the efficiencies in all the operations.There is not a department in the city that can't tell you how much more efficient they are; how much more they are able to deliver in services with fewer people and fewer costs as a result of the system.

We are also putting a lot of effort into the Asia-Pacific region trying to promote the idea of building sustainable cities.We see that as partly our responsibility; sort of a gateway between the east and the west; in the multi-cultural, multi-lingual community that we have there.We are heavily an Asia-Pacfic city.We are sort of the "capital of the Pacific," if you will.And we see it as a great opportunity also to be more than just a tourism center; to be a place where Asia-Pacific turns for knowledge-based industries; for technology; for GIS systems; and environmental technology;  a whole variety of things.We've reached out to all the Pacific nations and focused on cities and building alliance with all those cities.So, every other year we bring all the mayors from Asia to Honolulu for this Mayor's Environmental Summit.And the goal is to help each city leader develop a plan for making their city more sustainable, so as they grow, and they are growing at enormous rates, the urbanization is incredible; that they are not ruining their air and their water and destroying their natural resources.And so, we see GIS as a central nervous of 21st central urbanization. These cities are going to be able to go through this urbanization process without following all of the mistakes that we made.They need to be able to use 'leapfrog' technology.To be able to do that, they need to be able to instantaneously be able to manage this complex urban ecosystem that they've got there.And they have to have GIS tools to be able to do that.

Part of the program that Jack (Dangermond) has been so helpful with has been in helping with working with these mayors.Basically we bring all these mayors together; we help them build a sustainable plan for their city.They get to interface with world experts.And then at the end of each summit it starts the process.Each mayor gets up and makes a specific commitment of what they're going to do in the ensuing two years (each summit is every two years) to move their city towards sustainability.It could be that they are going to increase the treatment of sewage in their city from 25% up to 100%; or they are going to deploy a hybrid electric bus system; or they are going to institute a GIS system.Whatever it happens to be; they make a commitment.And then in some cases we send technical advisors to that city  to help them along the way.We've created an Asia/Pacific urban institute in Honolulu where the mayor and other leaders can come and interface with environmental engineering firms or GIS firms or whatever to figure out how they are going to get there and meet their commitment.After one year, there's a symposium where they come together and roll up their sleeves; and its just the "nuts and bolts" of how they are going to get there.Then after they two year period they come back and report on did they make their commitment or not.And those that meet their commitment then receive the international recognition.This past September at the Summit, twenty-eight mayors had met their commitment. Some substantial things, and each of the mayors that met their commitment won a full GIS package that Jack provide free of charge plus training. Each mayor won a master's scholarship to the Royal Institute of Sustainability in Stockholm for one of their best and brightest.

JF: You have seemed to have established a center of excellence in the city.Have you thought that maybe Honolulu is now a center for technology in the Asia Pacific region?

JH: Yea, I mean, we have the altruistic goal of, first of all, we're all in it together.We're picking up particulate matter in our observatory from the coal-fired plants in China.I mean, so, Hawaii is not safe from the environmental catastrophe that awaits us.But there are the altruistic reasons.But our underlying goal is to change the basic economy of Hawaii so its not so dependent on tourism so that it becomes known as a center for, we call them, knowledge-based industries: such as environmental technology, urban infrastructure, and things like that.And that's one of the reasons we created the Asia-Pacific Urban Institute.We want people to think that if they are in Asia, and they are dealing with some urban problem, whether it is transportation, or waste water management, or potable water systems, or IT systems, to think first that Honolulu is the place to turn.And we want international technology firms to think that there is a huge market in Asia; we ought to set up an office in Honolulu, because that's where Asia turns for all its expertise.That's the dynamic we're trying to create.

JF: Mayor, Mr.Lee, thanks so much for your time and insights.

Published Saturday, August 21st, 2004

Written by Joe Francica

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