GIS and Local Governments: Spotlight on Peterborough

By Dean E. Shankle, Treasurer, NHLoGIN

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

Recently, the Center for Digital Government released a special report titled “GIS and the Rising Importance of ‘Where’ in Government.” (Retrieved from on 09/10/2014.) This report included a section on “5 Reasons GIS is Transforming Government.” The reasons listed were:

  • Cost Savings and Increased Productivity
  • Mobility, Location-Based Services and Citizen Engagement
  • Intelligent Decision-Making
  • Increased Inter-Agency Collaboration
  • Accountability and Transparency

For these reasons, many towns in New Hampshire are building up their ability to visually locate their assets and service delivery systems. This makes perfect sense since nearly everything local governments do has a spatial component. But few towns in the state have been doing it for as long, or as consistently, as the town of Peterborough.

Peterborough has been building up its mapping capabilities for over 15 years. Using a federal grant for hazard mitigation the town received in 1997, town administrator Pam Brenner decided to use some of that funding to begin building a GIS system. That original grant allowed the town to inventory critical assets and potential hazards. It has been building on that system ever since.

Brenner, who has been the town administrator in Peterborough for nearly 20 years, believes very strongly that the investment the town has made in the system over the years has been cost effective, although the direct benefits can be “hard to quantify.”

“This system saves the town departments time and money and allows residents and developers to have access to mapping that they would otherwise need to pay for. This increases transparency and encourages development,” said Brenner. Developers looking to work in Peterborough can use the maps for initial site design and to avoid paying for costly initial engineering surveys. Many towns are looking for a way to be more “developer-friendly” and Brenner has found this to be a service developers appreciate.

Brenner also touts the benefits the mapping system has brought to town’s departments, especially public works. Recently the town has started providing iPads to public works employees who need to find things such as underground piping, buried shut-off valves and public rights-of-way. “Having instant access to detailed information in the field is a tremendous help, especially if a worker needs to address an emergency situation after normal working hours,” Brenner explains.

Brenner gives much of the credit for the development of the system to Fash Farashahi who came to the town as an intern (Environmental Studies at Antioch New England) 13 years ago and has been there ever since. As the GIS/IT Director, Farashahi oversees one other full-time employee and a variable number of interns. “Some of the interns do general work for us, but whenever I have a new project I try to find an intern that can help make it happen,” he explained.

Farashahi said that one thing he always keeps in mind when developing a system or adding functionality is to make sure it does what it is supposed to do and that it is easy to use. He says that it is important to maintain “a good rapport with the staff” and feels that over the years he has done so. Brenner pointed out that boards and committees find the information helpful. “The Planning Board has come to expect that the information given to them will include our digital mapping.”

Peterborough is also using its mapping systems to gather and provide important information to the public. The town’s Parcel Viewer, found at, provides access to an interactive and user-friendly map of parcel data and assessment information. In addition to the parcel application, there are two recent projects that demonstrate the usefulness of the system: an invasive species project and a walking tour of downtown Peterborough.

Invasive species are becoming an increasing problem in New Hampshire. Determining how big the problem really is, and the best ways to address it, can be done only if accurate data are gathered. Peterborough is using its mapping capabilities to gather, and visually present, these data.

Volunteers are enlisted to go to specific locations with an “Invasive Species Data Form.” On one side of this form is a map of the area to be covered and on the back is a chart that can be filled out with information including how much of the areas are infested, what habitat within the area is infested, abundance of the infestation (scale of single plant to dense monoculture) and the species. These data are then transferred to a map of the town. Eventually, a clear picture will emerge that may help conservationists determine how to eliminate the greatest threats.

The walking tour, called “Explore ‘Our Town’: An Interactive Journey Through Time and Place,” is something that both residents and visitors find interesting and useful.  It is an interactive website that includes maps, a list of over a hundred places of interest, and pictures. The web address is Since it was developed to facilitate walking tours of the town, the site is designed for mobile devices (it is spectacular on iPhones). Brenner pointed out that even though she had been in town for two decades, there were places on the list whose significance she had not been aware of.

Brenner and Farashahi plan to continue to move forward as they have been. They have a number of projects that they are presently working on and others they would like to undertake. But as Brenner pointed out, “We will continue to find ways to do them in a cost effective manner. We will use interns when possible and make sure that what we do benefits the town and prepares it for the future.”

Dean E. Shankle, Jr., Ph. D, is treasurer of NHLoGIN, an affiliate group which has helped government officials and employees from all over New Hampshire collaborate with each other for over 13 years. Mr. Shankle also serves as town administrator in the Town of Hooksett.