How well do you know GIS?

Otto Doll

Most government officials would agree that geographic information systems are used heavily in the public sector. But states and cities have only scratched the surface of GIS' potential for delivering services to citizens and businesses.

Government agencies must integrate GIS much more deeply into their operations. I've come up with eight concepts state agencies should understand to successfully use GIS and pursue the funding it requires.

  • Potential users need to see the differences between data presented in tabular format, such as spreadsheets, and data presented in visual format by a GIS. So show them.

    Visualization is a powerful method of articulation. Many people do not readily understand concepts or see cause-effect relationships unless they can visualize them. GIS lets people easily visualize in many forms, such as 2-D and 3-D maps and images.

    Convince GIS users they can measure, analyze, manipulate and integrate information into knowledge.

  • Most everything a state or local government does can be tied to a locality. Users can derive value from knowing everything they can about a given location.

    For instance, agencies collectively know the soil type, groundwater level, surface structures, distance to emergency services, access to roads, tax rate, permits issued and a host of other details for a given locale. They can make use of some unique combination of that data to solve a given challenge.

  • GIS leverages data residing throughout state agencies'a power not easily achieved by data warehouses and enterprise resource management systems. The key element of a GIS is that it is not simply storing data from various sources but integrating it to synthesize better information and knowledge.

  • Adding the spatial element to GIS expands your ability to view changes over time. With spatial data, a government can more readily measure and visually present cause and effect.

    Agencies can apply it to track myriad conditions, such as city boundary movements, housing stock changes, forest areas, flood effects or whether roads have been plowed of snow.

  • GIS allows modeling. You can pose what-if questions for concerns such as economic development, water levels, urban sprawl and livestock or factory sitings. Successive models can produce simulations that show the effect of various factors on an area.

  • You can open a new channel for public access by implementing GIS applications on the Internet that include interactive visualizations. GIS can foster collaboration, communication and insight about conditions affecting government workers, citizens and local businesses.

  • States must realize that their data is far more useful when leavened with digital map segments and satellite imagery'in other words, the lay of the land. The more granular the scale, the more viable GIS becomes.

  • Nowadays, government workers must collect and acquire GIS data in the course of their data-to-day activities. Agencies can use Global Positioning System devices and digital image capture to align data and information to a location.

    Workers systematically collect the coordinates or images, saving the calculation and integration for later at the office. Adding wireless data transfer enables real-time applications on the Web, such as road condition reports during snowstorms.

If state employees can understand these eight GIS principles, then they can make data into information, which leads to knowledge. You can declare success when your government's organizations widely understand and consider the use of GIS during day-to-day decision-making.

Otto Doll, South Dakota's chief information officer, formerly worked in federal information technology and is president of the National Association of State Information Resource Executives.

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