Navigating the Road to GIS Success: Key Components of the Montana Department of Transportation’s Strategic Plan

By Marlin Sander and Don Kiel

_For many transportation agencies, the prospect of implementing or expanding enterprise GIS capabilities or applications can trigger more questions than answers. Where do you start? What are your current capabilities, and where do you want to go? What will work at your agency? How do you set realistic deadlines?

The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) GIS Section tackled those important questions in its efforts to expand its GIS. Enhanced GIS capabilities would streamline and support MDT's asset management, environmental studies, safety analysis and intelligent transportation systems (ITS).

MDT Goals
MDT officially began its strategic planning process in June 2006 when it partnered with GeoDecisions, an information technology company specializing in geospatial solutions.
In the project's early stages, MDT and GeoDecisions identified the following goals:
  • Build high-level buy-in and budgetary momentum for advancing GIS as an enterprise solution
  • Update and replace existing legacy data management systems
  • Incorporate new spatial management technologies, approaches and tools into IT initiatives
  • Promote GIS awareness, education and training
  • Streamline and upgrade the department's GIS organizational structure
A Step-by-Step Approach
With its goals established, MDT initiated discussions on the scope and budget, benefits, expectations, risks, roles and procedures involved in the strategic planning process.

MDT decision makers sketch out their vision for their future GIS at the visioning workshop.

A visioning workshop with key MDT personnel helped to set GIS policy, vision, goals and objectives. This workshop developed consensus among the participants and stimulated support from, and visibility to, upper management.

A needs assessment task then followed, including internal and external interviews, data gathering and evaluation, and consideration of MDT's current GIS capabilities. Throughout this stage, various staff members held discussions to determine what internal business systems worked and which ones needed increased functionality. GeoDecisions reviewed MDT's existing systems, data and infrastructure, identified the needs of its current and future customer base, determined priority efforts for the next five years, and explored the factors likely to affect future success, given MDT's specific needs.

These needs were then addressed with specific recommendations for GIS actions and applications. Each recommendation was assigned a priority for implementation based upon available budgets, personnel resources, schedules, complexity, agency impact and usefulness, and ease of use.

MDT's GIS Needs
For MDT, the highest priority challenge was to refocus its management and staff structure to support expanded GIS initiatives. GeoDecisions recommended the creation of a GIS staffing plan and the appointment of a GIS coordinator and steering committee.

It was also important to identify projects that were "early winners" - projects with a high probability of success and usage. For MDT, these shorter-term, lower-cost initiatives included:
  • Automated Road Log Book (Straight Line Diagram) application
  • Summer road construction viewer
  • Data locator and integrator application.
MDT also defined foundation modules needed to support actions and applications. These actions would help to support streamlined field data collection, location referencing and relational database management. These foundation modules included:
  • Updating the location/linear reference system (LRS) environment
  • Evaluating (and improving) GIS data storage methods
  • Developing formal data collection processes and standards
Finally, enterprise modules were defined that would provide longer-term, more comprehensive benefits as a result of integrating GIS with MDT's existing management systems. These recommendations included:
  • Update TIS (Transportation Information System)
  • Integrate GIS with environmental mitigation tools
  • Integrate GIS and ITS
  • Integrate GIS with the Maintenance Management System
  • Develop a Safety viewer/reporting application
Another important benefit realized early in the strategic planning process was that GIS could assist MDT in addressing the requirements in the federal Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) legislation. Greater GIS functionality would help MDT promote data integration/sharing between state and metropolitan planning organizations, enhance visualization techniques, and provide Web-based public access to transportation information. A GIS/LRS-compatible road network inventory would also provide the basis for SAFETEA-LU target areas of asset management data integration, analysis and decision support.

Pulling it All Together
These prioritized GIS actions and applications formed the basis for a multi-year action plan that included a modular, integrated work plan. All of this information was incorporated into a final GIS strategic plan report that featured discussions on practical keys to success, organizational and administrative recommendations, and plan update strategies. The project concluded with a high-level management presentation that served as a transition point for implementing the recommendations.

Practical Recommendations
From the start of MDT's GIS strategic plan project, it was important to the agency that the actions and applications generated by the plan be realistic and achievable. This goal was achieved by modularizing and/or phasing projects, and offering practical ideas for cost-sharing among business units or external agencies. It was also essential to provide specific and early milestone targets and tangible results. Benchmarks were established to measure and document progress. Spreading out these milestones maintained buy-in and support at high levels during the planning period.

Looking Ahead
At the conclusion of the project in January 2007, MDT had a customized "game plan" of detailed recommended actions and applications. To date, the organizational recommendations have been approved and implemented, and the focus has shifted to foundational modules. When MDT has studied recommendations for upgrading its location referencing environment and the actual upgrades are complete, the emphasis will shift to developing GIS-enabled applications and GIS integration with MDT's enterprise business functions and systems.

MDT's comprehensive strategic plan for GIS is already helping the agency perform business functions more efficiently, save time and money, and integrate data for improved sharing and understanding. Following the strategic plan, and keeping it current, will enable MDT to meet changing agency business needs in a responsive, agile manner.

Published Thursday, November 1st, 2007

Written by Marlin Sander and Don Kiel

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