Governor, Turned GIS Advocate

By Joe Francica

ESRI recently announced that former Wyoming Governor, Jim Geringer, had joined the management team.During his two terms in office from 1995 until 2003, Governor Geringer served as the co-chair of the E-Governance Task Force for the National Governors Association and Chairman of the Western Governors' Association (WGA), which includes the 21 westernmost states, territories, and commonwealth.Editor-in-Chief, Joe Francica caught up with the governor at the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) conference in Nashville.

Joe Francica (JF): Governor, what was the impetus for going into private industry after you left office and specifically GIS?

Jim Geringer (JG): Well the impetus for going into private industry was that I never expected to stay in the public sector as a permanent activity. So, I've always pointed toward the private sector at some point along the way.And, I had been quite taken over the time I was in office by the ability to integrate disparate information into, in this case with GIS, into imagery; to visualize the situation; visualize the problems that you wouldn't see any other way.

So many decisions that a governor has to make or a legislator, or any public policy official, is not just focused on one set of data or one issue by itself; you are always aware that any decision that you make will have direct or indirect impact on something else.And so you would like to see what are the collateral damage, what's the unintended consequences, as we know it.

So, with that in mind, I kind of stumbled across what GIS was.And I think what turned on in my mind the most, other than being able to visualize it, was the ability to layer data, and if you click on a point, you could bring up all the data related to that point...and I said, "Wow." You mean anything that anybody knows about that point on the map...and what's going on there, that's what appealed to me.I said 'that's a powerful tool for a decision-maker.' More decision makers need that.

So in the process of discovering what GIS was...I didn't really know what or who ESRI was or really what GIS was...I knew what I thought it could do, so I had great expectations.And then, over time, discovered more and more about how it could be used.So, as I transitioned out of office as governor, I looked around at the various things that I could be involved with; and the energy patch and education were two very strong draws, as well as technology. And I ended up going with the technology side and in this case GIS with ESRI, because I could still be involved in all of the policy areas that I had a keen interest in like education, energy, any of those things because of the ability to resolve issues and develop public policy through this very powerful decision making tool.

JF: One of the issues that came out of this meeting was that a lot of this technology has not percolated down to the rural counties, and being from a rural state, how do you see that being facilitated?

JG: Actually, the counties are taking quite a bit of the initiative ...You have to have a lot of flexibility for a small organization in our rural areas.And it is not that different than the challenges in our inner city urban areas.You have challenges of getting people together; challenges of funding; challenges of keeping people and retaining them.Those issues are not that much different between rural, and say, inner city urban.What is different is the impact that the information has and the application. You are much more apt to get to the policy decision makers more quickly in a rural area than an urban.And that can ripple on into the legislative chain at the state level.The key thing to implement at any level is that the policy makers have to see how it impacts a decision in a positive way. The discussions that are being held here at the NSGIC conference on standards and interoperability and all that...that's nice to talk about but that's not the way you get a policy makers attention.The way you get their attention is to deal with the issue and say this is going to help you solve better, grasp better, understand it.And take some action from it.

So anything that results from the efforts of NSGIC or GIS at any level is what problem can it solve and can I show that in very real terms...put a face on it.If we can't put a face on it...that's the gap I'm trying to bridge.I'm very fond about what GIS can do.I have a platform to talk about it.I will be more an advocate of the industry than just one company. That's how powerfully I feel about it and its ability to enable decision makers and the public to make better decisions.This is a tremendous way to engage the public.But there has to be a direct understanding of what it can do.

JF: In this type of budgetary climate, will it be a difficult "sell" to the legislature to fund these kinds of technology initiatives?

JG: It will be if it is portrayed as "here's a new requirement that is going to require new resources, both financial and people." If it is viewed that way, it will have a tough time.If it is viewed as, "I'm going to allocate resources to this and get my overall job done..." Now if you look at the top issues that the state governors are going to have to face and are facing, the budget is the overall issue.But within the budget...education, health care, public defense including homeland security...are the key issues. And at certain times of the year, energy is a powerful issue as well.But if they see that those issues can be more effectively dealt with, and in the long-term, money can be saved...and even in the short term, you can reallocate money; then they're going to understand that this is not just an add on. This is a very powerful substitute from what I'm currently doing and its going to be more efficient.So the challenge, for those who are in the GIS industry will be to say to the policy maker, "this is not an add-on; it is a new approach to an older problem, but this new approach will allow you to re-direct resources and get more benefit for the same money."

JF: Do you think the development of the Geospatial One-Stop is going fast enough and will it fill the need to get geospatial data into the hands of people who need it?

JG: In terms of what needs to be done and why the "one-stop" exists, that being the integration of data or accessing data so that all data doesn't have to be replicated.Under the older concepts, of say homeland security or say, disaster recover, or funding for any kind of governmental activity, the governing entity felt that it had to have all data, related to all its issues and then had to hoard it to itself.We can't do that anymore. The powerful lesson learned in New York after 9/11 was that many agencies need to contribute their data and for the most part, I'd say in many cases, all data is local.Not all data is locally generated, but in order to take action you have to have local information.Well, that locale is going to be impacted by what's around it and vice versa.So you can't just look at the data I have; you have to have access to other data.

The "one-stop" will allow that type of integration of data so that we don't have to duplicate each other's efforts.So its most powerful application is being able to recover from a very difficult situation or to be able to plan for impacts like West Nile virus; able to allocate education dollars so we spend them more efficiently.So, the efficiency that comes out of shared data can only be achieved if we have standards that we go by and the ability to be interoperable.Interoperable systems; interoperable use of data.So the challenge that the "one-stop" will have is to be able to encourage people to share data and not feel like they have to own everything. There is a powerful feeling among anybody in charge that 'I need to have it in my possession.' Well, they can't.It's just financially impossible to do that.

JF: At your level as governor, do you see that this technology can be applied routinely, or rarely, or a lot, based on the fact that much of the business of government is spatially oriented?

JG: I don't think it has come to the surface yet with any level of the top policy makers.It's the exception rather than the rule.Yet, as the public drives those officials, and the pubic is using more and more (spatial information).We're all using location aware equipment; we're using cell phones; we're using GPS equipment.Some of the most powerful lobbies are NASCAR and sportsmen.Well, they're all using things like spatial data. That tends to drive the mainstream.If you drive the mainstream you tend to push government the same way.Government will become aware either by design or by accident you might say.So, the senior policy makers will be led that way over time.The question is will they be able to respond quickly enough in a time like this when everybody's budget is strapped. GIS has a tremendous potential to ease everyone's budget crunch.In all the major issues of the day, homeland security will dominate the application of GIS, yet its greatest application is going to be in other high cost area; education and health would be my two choices there.

Now how do the policy makers understand that? When a governor or legislator at any level sees how it is solving a problem and the light goes on, the say, "Ah, I get it...I can see what's happening."

JF: You obviously see the power of GIS because of its visual nature. But for us who have been in the business a long time, we understand that visualization may be the "sizzle" and not the "steak" and yet that's what sells the technology.How do we make a case to the policy makers about its true potential.

JG: Well, so many of the GIS conferences that I go I see that the pride is in the maps.And that's great, but what's missing on these map displays are 'people.' These are all people-oriented issues but we're not drawing attention to the person impact.We're displaying to the technical audience.

Now, Hurricane Isabel is sitting off the coast.There is a tremendous potential to affect a lot of people, a lot of livelihood. Natural disasters, in a given year, are the single most expensive impact of governing because we have to recover from those.

...So, the sell, the 'sizzle' if you will, so people grasp it, will be in the timeliness in how you present some of that data that shows how to avoid it or manage the risk of a natural disaster or how we made a good economic decision as a result of it...this map is powerful because this happened.That second step is missing.

JF: So, as a policy maker, as governor, did you use maps on a regular basis? Were you making decisions based on GIS technology?

JG: It was evolving into that.I could see far beyond what we were able to do.My impatience with government was that I, like many others, was ready to move at a much quicker pace than government could move.So, I could see the potential of GIS far beyond what we were able to apply.But I could see over time how it was going to evolve.

JF: Governor, thank you very much for your time.


Published Friday, September 26th, 2003

Written by Joe Francica



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