Ten Suggestions for Those Who Write About Local GIS Implementations

By Adena Schutzberg

Isn't it great when the local paper highlights a local (town, city, county, even state) GIS project? The unsung heroes of GIS get a bit of recognition and the locals get enticed to visit a website or otherwise explore the technology and its use.

But let's face it, you, the GIS professional, don't have the time or energy to walk the reporter through everything. And, that reporter or citizen journalist may have anywhere from a great deal to no familiarity with technology in general, let alone geospatial technology, in particular. The result? Many, many well intentioned, but less than stellar articles about our community's work appear every day. Another result? Many technologists (yours truly included) write e-mails or leave comments to correct one or more errors within the articles.

Below, I've compiled 10 suggestions for anyone involved in writing "local GIS" articles.

1) Write it Out Correctly

Be sure GIS, geographic information system, and GPS, global positioning system, are written out and defined correctly. Don't get confused by global information systems or graphic information systems. And, don't get trapped thinking that GPS receivers send out signals! (They'd not be called receivers if they transmitted, now would they?)

2) Include a Link

If the website is public, be sure to include a URL (Web address) for it. These long and ugly strings are not always included in print editions, but they are all too often missing in online versions (where their ugliness is nicely hidden in that blue clickable text).

3) Detail the Data

If there are aerial images, discuss when they were taken - ideally month and year. Nothing is more exciting than shiny new data! If there's a new road centerline database, mention when it was last updated. Oh, and include who to contact if visitors to the site find errors. That information is not always easy to find on the website itself and it shows the team behind the site really wants feedback.

4) Highlight the Most Valuable Tools for Different Users

Make the app compelling to different kinds of users by illustrating what types of questions can be answered. For example:

"Residents can use the trash pickup layer to learn what day trash is collected in their neighborhood."

"Those involved in real estate can see the assessment of each property. They can search properties by location, block and lot number or owner's name."

"Those familiar with GIS technology can download datasets in shapefile format for use in their own maps, so long as they follow the license provided."

5) Mentioning the Underlying Technology is Optional

Unless the real goal of the article is to highlight the underlying software or programming, there may be no reason to mention the local consultant or the software program that powers the application. If you choose to mention either, be sure to get company and software packages' names correct. The companies behind the technology are generally not household names (yet) and the product names can be even more obscure.

6) Screen Shots are Great

A colorful picture of a valuable and aesthetically pleasing map is eye-catching and communicates quite a bit. While it's tempting to take a picture of the GIS team around a monitor or pointing to a paper map, an actual shot of the application in action is far more interesting. If the image is going online, provide either a link to that live "map" or be sure a larger version is available where all the text is readable.

7) Talk About the Future with Care

It's fine to speak about upcoming data additions or features, but be wary of hard deadlines such as, "The new interface will be up and running on June 4." Hedge a bit: "The new interface is expected to be implemented in June." On a related note: try to hold off on an "announcing a new feature" article until that feature is really up and running.

8) Where are You?

If at all possible include hints in the text about the coverage of the application. While the article as printed on paper relates to the area in which that paper is distributed, many local papers lose that sense of place when they go online. The Forsyth News Star has a market in and around Forsyth County, but online, it's a challenge to determine the state in which a news story is taking place (example). There may be few, if any, details in the header or footer to cue the reader about where you are, so if you can include it in the text, all the better. A great way is to note, if it is in fact the case, that data were provided by the state of Indiana's "Indiana Map."

9) Distinguish the App from Consumer Offerings

Because readers are very likely to be familiar with Google Maps or the maps in their GPS devices, it may be worth highlighting how this application is different. Is it aimed at a different audience? Used to answer different questions? Does it have newer or more detailed or more authoritative data? Are the data available for download?

10) Quote Costs

When quoting the cost of an implementation be sure to detail if the figure includes any pre-implementation studies (a needs analysis, for example), labor costs, software costs, data costs, hosting costs, data update costs and/or long-term maintenance costs. If only some of those costs are easily available, be sure to explain which ones are included in any figure in the article.

I hope these suggestions will help create more accurate and more interesting articles about local GIS implementations. The people building them and the people paying for them via their taxes deserve nothing less. And, of course, the overworked and underpaid reporters at local papers and blogs deserve our help and respect and the chance to write a crackerjack article about our favorite technologies.

Ed. Note: You can subscribe to All Points Blog's Local GIS Tidbits feed; it highlights just these sorts of articles.

Published Friday, June 4th, 2010

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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