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Mapping the future—State & local governments make progress on enterprise GIS strategies

This article appears in the issue May 2010, [Volume 19, Issue 5]
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Like most public sector organizations, the city of Memphis, Tenn., has taken advantage of geographic information systems (GIS) for almost 20 years. As the technology gradually became more sophisticated, departments such as planning and public works purchased their own mapping software and hired their own GIS staff.

But four years ago, city IT leaders realized that the movement toward adding spatial data to departmental applications was uncoordinated and inefficient.

“We realized that the 13 agencies using GIS were not on the same page,” recalls Della Adams, the city’s GIS program manager. There were no common operating procedures, which led to duplication of effort. For instance, several departments created and maintained their own files of the city’s streets. “There was no accountability, and there were lots of inaccuracies,” she says.

So Memphis joined the growing movement toward what is called “enterprise GIS,” with a centralized GIS department responsible for policies, procedures, quality control and support of departmental efforts.

The challenges

But while enterprise GIS efforts can lead to cost savings and efficiency gains, the transition can be painful. First, it requires a strong internal advocate to explain the project’s importance and sustain the vision. Cost is also a roadblock. As governments face budget shortfalls, the investment in a more robust GIS system can be a hard sell. “The biggest challenge is usually that there are turf battles and organizational entropy to overcome,” said Craig Gooch, VP of geospatial and information management services in the Riverside, Calif., office of consulting firm Psomas.

Usually there is a challenge in moving from siloed departments of GIS usage to an enterprise, shared approach, agrees Christopher Thomas, government industry manager for vendor ESRI, whose software is popular in the public sector. “There is sometimes mistrust to overcome as you centralize,” he adds.

Adams found that the hardest part of the shift in Memphis was cultural. “Engineering and public works see this as giving up control of their data,” she says. “We had to go department by department talking with stakeholders to get buy-in. We had to assure them that they would be maintaining their autonomy. They would have control over the information, but they just had to abide by a few rules.”

Adams stressed to departmental leaders that they were the experts needed to maintain the data and how it could best be applied to their needs. “We don’t understand about sewer maintenance and management,” she says. “We can’t tell them what’s needed.” She also explained to them that the enterprise approach would give them access to state-of-the-art software and to other departments’ data, which was difficult to access before.

“Our big goal,” she explains, “is to get GIS in the hands of a lot of city workers—not just GIS analysts, but users in human resources, fire, police and planning.”

In Memphis, sewer system workers now have a mobile application to track and note where they have done repairs, and it is updated in real time. Adams describes a tool for city council staff members to map out information such as the location of community organizations as it relates to city council district boundaries. “Secretaries are creating these reports for city council members,” she says.

Integration with workflow

Adams’ vision would be music to the ears of ESRI’s Thomas, who says enterprise GIS really should mean working toward having GIS involved in the entire business process and workflow.

“If I go to a conference and ask a few hundred users if they have enterprise GIS, all the hands go up,” Thomas said. “But it turns out they all mean something slightly different by that term.” Some may mean the central GIS group does all the work for every department. In other cases, a combination of a centralized GIS group and a handful of departments have GIS expertise.

But Thomas looks for a much deeper level of integration. For instance, customer relationship management is a hot topic right now. Most cities or counties start by using it to feed data to a worker who is answering questions for citizens who call in. “But is it integrated into other applications?” Thomas asks. Can GIS route the worker to the source of the call? Can the application that the public works person uses enter changes that are reflected and updated in real time? “That type of support of operations is where the real return on investment comes in,” he adds, “and it has to be part of the fabric of the operation.”

Gooch, who previously served as GIS manager for San Bernardino County in California, believes that most local governments have a long way to go in developing their enterprise GIS strategy. “The term enterprise GIS is thrown around loosely, but there is a gradation of effectiveness,” he says. “You might ask how many non-GIS analysts are actually using GIS tools every day. That might tell you how enterprise the solution is.”

At the state level

Just like in the city of Memphis, GIS at the state level in Tennessee evolved from stove-piped efforts in six or seven agencies to an enterprise effort supported by a GIS Services division of the Office of Information Resources. The catalyst for the transition has been the creation of a statewide base map, the Tennessee Base Mapping Program, which sought to collect high-resolution aerial photography, elevation data and parcel features for the state.

“It was a massive undertaking,” says Dennis Pedersen director of GIS services for the state. His office initially received funding from the state in 2000 to map 10 of Tennessee’s 95 counties a year. That funding was accelerated in 2004 and 2005, with the base layers completed in 2007. “So we had the data and the organizational framework for enterprise GIS,” he says.

Power users and stewards

Pedersen’s office is developing a service model in which it helps agencies develop applications and hosts them. “Agencies themselves don’t have to buy hardware and software, and they don’t need to hire GIS analysts,” he says. “They acquire those GIS services through us.”

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