Dr. Steven Steinberg: Making Ten Million Lives Better with GIS

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Dr. Steven Steinberg: Making Ten Million Lives Better with GIS


Ever wonder why a library is located where it is, how polling station locations are picked, or why MY street wasn’t paved even though they did the road on the other block? I think a better question is how can the government effectively deliver these services and who makes it happen. Let me introduce you to Dr. Steven Steinberg, who seems to be involved in just about everything going on at the County of Los Angeles.

After receiving his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Steinberg joined the Humboldt State University’s Department of Environmental Science and Management from 1998 – 2011 as a professor of geospatial science. There he taught a variety of courses, supervised 18 graduate students, and served on 28 graduate student committees involving geospatial science. Dr. Steinberg continues as an adjunct professor today. In March 2018 he brought his knowledge and experience to the people of Los Angeles County.  I had a chance to sit down with him at this year’s Esri User Conference and talk about his role and responsibility as a Geographic Information Officer, or GIO. He helps coordinate and strategize the implementation of geospatial technology GIS across all of LA County’s departments in service of over 10 million residents across the county.

What is a Geographic Information Officer anyway?

“I’m responsible for defining the vision and strategy for GIS. I meet with people across the organization from forty different departments and groups that use geospatial data and software.” Since government services and decisions occur across space, place and time, he works with people involved in environmental management, healthcare, infrastructure, economic development, planning, and more. Any time the county is doing a significant project or implementing a policy somewhere GIS has a role.

That's right, they have their own logo!

As GIO, he needs to be everywhere, all the time and I don’t know how it's possible. I’ve worked in local government for the last five years as a GIS consultant, and I’m currently working with four smaller cities here in Southern California. That comes close to 250,000 people, and sometimes the variety of projects I work on makes my head spin-imagine forty times that! He has also spent time helping to continue building out the GIS capacity for the county. They currently have nine job classes that help employees progress from training to a job, then advancement. Departments need specialists in GIS to be effective in building solutions for location-based problems. The county has approximately 150 GIS professionals that help wrangle the ever-increasing data, applications, and business processes of location technology.

The challenge of ten million people and four-thousand square miles

Let’s look at a few examples of GIS in action that Dr. Steinberg shared with me. First, what is the purpose of a county in the first place? “We have a massive task of understanding where the population is. It comes down to people needing a service in a community, and we help deliver that need.” Delivering critical services like public works, public safety, and economic development is the core of what any government agency does. Since everything occurs somewhere, location is the fundamental component of understanding where services are required or should be delivered. You want to have the most impact with the available resources.

Mapping ten million people across a large area may seem untenable, but that’s where the US census comes in. An accurate census is the basis for service delivery around the country, and that’s why it’s so important. Some places have low response rates that can affect their accuracy due to factors like language barriers and populations located in rural areas. 2020 marks the first time an online census is being conducted to address these inaccuracies, where people can submit their information using the internet.

Going online presents new problems, however. Not everyone has access to a computer and the internet, and this affects specific communities more than others, like communities of color. Working with the County’s Census 2020 team, Dr. Steinberg is assisting with locating census kiosks where people can visit and submit their information. However, where should these kiosks be placed and how many? You want them to be close to communities with low response rates and lack of access to the internet. However, you also want to serve as many people as possible, so a kiosk shouldn’t be placed where only ten people will use it. I won't list all the variables considered in this kind of analysis, but he has a plan. The county will deploy several hundred across its jurisdiction. By using the latest in spatial analysis and geographic data, you can bet people will have their community represented accurately.

Once this foundational data is collected, how can we use it? “If a healthcare clinic needs to close for budget reasons, which do you choose? An analysis has to be done to reduce the impact on people,” Dr. Steinberg said.  This makes sense; you want to be strategic about how access to healthcare is going to change for people that rely on that clinic. It’s not as easy as identifying locations that serve the fewest constituents. Other factors need to be addressed like where vulnerable populations live (e.g., the elderly), income levels, alternative care access, and more. Healthcare clinics play an essential role in making communities healthy and vibrant. By taking a data-driven approach, we can ensure that those who are in need are taken care of. Moreover, when those who are in need are taken care of, we all do better. We’re starting to get high-resolution data at the parcel level which can enhance the value of census tract data. Understanding our world at this level of detail wasn’t possible just a few years ago. So, the next time you see a healthcare clinic while walking down the street consider the thought, care, and purpose that was used to put it there.

Let’s switch from healthcare to the environment. How can the county help in the fight against climate change and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions? Dr. Steinberg met with a stakeholder who wanted to reduce commute times for employees. If someone can drive to an office that’s closer to their home address, then fuel usage and traffic congestion can be reduced. It starts with mapping where employees live, and luckily, this address-based data was readily available from the human resources department. Then, by identifying county-owned properties, we can layer the two together. Finally, network analysis can be done to figure out the shortest routes for each employee. It gets a little tricky, though. Not all buildings are suitable for alternative work locations. Some might be operations yards that hold equipment or community buildings that hold events. To enable an effective policy, all these variables need to be analyzed together. It starts with a simple question, but it quickly gets complicated.

Another important use of GIS is increasing public safety. The GIS team is looking at how to make wildfire readiness inspections more efficient and effective. The current method requires firefighters visiting individual properties and checking if they comply with defensible space requirements. If you’re unfamiliar with that term, it’s a fire mitigation tactic that creates a certain distance from a structure that’s entirely free of flammable material like dry or dead plants. It plays a vital role in reducing structure losses during wildfires. These inspections require fuel, time, risk to firefighter safety, and reallocation of resources. Every time they drive around, there’s a possibility of them getting into an accident or their equipment getting damaged.

While inspections are being done, it means fewer resources for other important activities. How can this situation be improved? Dr. Steinberg is exploring the potential to use satellite imagery to map out defensible space around structures in the wildland-urban interface. The method will likely leverage vegetation mapping and health (NDVI) and image processing approaches to measure the location and condition of plants around a structure. With this data-driven approach, firefighters can directly target locations that aren’t in compliance. Alternatively, a letter or phone call can be used to notify the property owners rather than driving there. Less fuel burned, less time wasted, and more time for saving lives. Let’s move from mitigation to recovery.


When the Woolsey Fire broke out on November 8th, 2018 the county jumped into action. GIS played a crucial role in mapping the fire and helping the fire department with data analysis and communication. When the fire was finally put out, recovery operations began. For people that lose their homes, they need help rebuilding their lives. A recovery center was established to support these efforts. Again, where should a center be placed that’s close to the affected populations, but also at a facility that can support a massive operation? The great thing about GIS analysis is sometimes you can reuse outputs from other projects. With the analysis to reduce pollution you read about earlier, the county had the data and applications needed to identify the nearest employees that could help support it. Data from different projects can be reused, and lessons learned elsewhere can be applied to something entirely different.

Census data collection, healthcare clinics, greenhouse gas reduction, and disaster response; these are just a few examples that we discussed. We didn’t have time to get into mapping crime, prioritizing infrastructure improvement projects, open 311 analysis, or a thousand other things. It’s a big responsibility to do things right and it can affect millions of people over time. Dr. Steinberg has found an approach that works. “You have to understand your market area where services are being delivered; something government doesn’t always think about.” Just like a business, you have a service that you want to deploy and need to understand who will be using that service, how will it affect them, where are those customers, and how might that market change over time. It starts with identifying the market, delivering the service, and responding when unexpected things like wildfires happen.

How the county makes it happen

Back to the question I posed earlier. How can government manage all these things effectively? You bring in someone that understands the fundamental science that relates everything government does: the science of where (thanks Esri). Then, you craft a strategy and vision that utilizes a powerful technology that can bring everything together with the right people and the right data. This is what it takes to manage a complex system like Los Angeles County. Dr. Steinberg’s background as a professor is a huge component of the success of the county’s efforts. Not only does his in-depth knowledge of space and place guide his work, but his teaching skills also help educate stakeholders on the technology and science of geographic information. Stakeholders have a deep understanding of their business area, and if they better understand what’s possible, they can help identify problems that can be solved by using GIS.

I ended the interview by asking what’s something unexpected that he has seen over his career. One thing that stood out is that we’ve moved from maps being the product to tools and services. Interactive maps now make it easier for stakeholders to see where their employees live, people to check if a census kiosk is nearby, or helping the fire department identify homes that can be better protected by following mitigation policy.

The county also has an impressive data portal that allows others to apply real data to their projects. Data powers geographic tools and services. By opening its data, more people can create solutions that the GIS team might not have time for. If we’re going to solve the challenging problems of our time, we need to collaborate and tap into the creativity of different perspectives and experiences. It never ceases to amaze me the variety of things that can be analyzed and improved with GIS. Dr. Steven Steinberg is making it happen for millions of people every day. I’m writing this from way down south in San Diego, and I look forward to the good work ahead and continuing innovation from my neighbor to the north.