8 steps to smarter government GIS

8 steps to smarter government GIS

Whether your government is a GIS amateur or veteran, it can make the communities it serves smarter by following these principles:

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1. Start with good data: GIS is changing rapidly, but the need for data is constant. “The first thing is to make sure you have the data you need and that it’s of a quality that’s actually useful,” Austin, Texas, GIS Manager Ross Clark said. “If I were starting out, I would consider managed services for some of the data creation and management.”

2. Adopt a base platform: Esri is the market leader with its ArcGIS software, but it’s not the only option. John Bilderback of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department in Hamilton County, Tenn., for example, uses Community Commons, which provides public access to community health data and visualization tools. There’s also Google’s Fusion Tables or GE’s Smallworld, which is designed for GIS in communications and utilities. For maximum flexibility and affordability, look for a cloud-based solution like ArcGIS Online; Esri cloud alternatives include MangoMap, GIS Cloud, Mapbox, CartoDB and OpenGeo Suite.

3. Train analysts: If GIS is in the hands of IT practitioners who lack geospatial expertise, it’s wise to connect them with experts who can help them think like a geospatial analyst. “Too often, an agency throws data at [IT people] and asks them to produce a map, but producing a map isn’t the same as understanding GIS,” Mitch Bradley, Accela’s vice president of sales programs, said. “When we run into that, the first thing we do is find the local [GIS software] account rep and get them introduced. Because the more educated they can get on GIS, the more they’ll be able to actually use it.”

4. Build champions: IT departments can’t build GIS in a vacuum. They need satisfied customers to be evangelists, according to Alan Shark, executive director and CEO of the Public Technology Institute. “If you’re frustrated by people not appreciating all that can happen with GIS, you need to build champions,” he said. “The way to do that is to show and tell. Don’t wait for people to ask; show them what can be done.”

5. Prioritize: “There are so many opportunities,” Todd Sander, vice president of research and executive director of the Center for Digital Government, said. “Picking things that are really valuable and that people care about -- not just things that government thinks is cool -- is a first step toward building support.”

6. Be agile: “You’re never going to check all the boxes or identify all the requirements up front," Bradley said.  "But if you can stand something up, show value and educate folks on what can be done, then the ideas will come and you can evolve.”

7. Compare notes: “There are pockets of innovation around the country -- cities, counties and states that may be the first to address a need and exploit it,” Sander said.  There is opportunity to transfer knowledge, “and governments are usually really good about sharing with each other. GIS has come a long way; nobody needs to feel like they’re starting from scratch.”

8. Reuse and recycle: Mapping applications’ many data layers make building them uniquely time- and resource-intensive. The best strategy, therefore, is one that embraces efficiency.  Clark recommends a “build it once, use it everywhere” approach to GIS development. “The goal is to reduce custom coding, which takes so much longer than reusing or recycling other apps,” he explained.

Thanks to challenges like budget constraints, stakeholder resistance and data siloes, the path to GIS success is rarely easy. But “the value is there,” Chris Thomas, director of government markets for GIS software company Esri, stressed. “Whenever you’re able to make data-based decisions in real time, as you can with GIS, it changes the dynamics of cost savings, efficiencies, productivities and public engagement. … And that’s really exciting.”

About the Author

Matt Alderton is a Chicago-based freelance writer.


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