The GIS Train: Cresting the Hill and Slowing Down

By Adena Schutzberg


When I started in this industry I had to think very hard about how I explained "what I do." When MapQuest burst on the scene, that task became easier.Today, I believe the majority of "regular" people to whom I mention GIS know exactly what I mean.

Further evidence of the state of GIS can be drawn from the local papers across the US (and some other countries).The results of a query for news about GIS suggest that the technology is simply part of the day to day business of many, many municipalities.On just a single day I found these reports:

Mohave Daily News (Arizona)
"The supervisors also approved an agreement between Clark County in Nevada and Mohave County for the collection of digital orthophotography used in the county's GIS program."

Iowa City Press-Citizen (Iowa)
"The board also plans to support a $150,000 allocation for three new positions in the GIS Information Service Department, Horne said.Harney said the board already made a commitment for more Geographic Information System staff before Pulkrabek's request."

Springdale Morning News (Arkansas)
"Crain said the planners will use GIS and topographic maps to determine which areas in the county will be designated as agricultural, residential, commercial or industrial zones, should the Quorum Court accept the ordinance's final draft."

Quad City Times (Iowa)
"The new budget of $63.6 million outpaces last year's $55.9 million plan and the double-digit increase is explained in part by the new $29.9 million jail and the $3.3 million Geographic Information System, or GIS.The GIS project began in 2000 and is expected to allow Scott County to catch up to other Iowa counties in offering improved public Internet accessibility to the county database and platting and mapping information."

Barre Montpelier Times Argus (Vermont)
"In Barre, the planning department takes care of all of that work, and the city assumes the cost of copying and postage.Capels said this is because Montpelier's GIS system is different than Barre's, and doesn't have the most up-to-date information on addresses.Staff had to go to land records and search for addresses there, which was time-consuming.(Baker said he updated the GIS system in Barre.)"

Jackson Clarion Ledger (Mississippi)
"Web-based position monitoring and the Geographic Information System provide an interactive map that displays the location and the routes of each bus in real time.GIS allows the final design to be scalable to wider areas such as citywide or even nationwide."

I suspect that these are good indications that GIS is not only used in local government, but that it's "nothing special" anymore.Coverage of local government use in our industry publications has shifted away from the "we implemented a GIS" stories (goodness knows we all read enough of these!) to "we enhanced our GIS with this other technology" or "we made the GIS available to more people via the Web or mobile devices" or "we partnered with neighbors to acquire data" or "we shared our data with the state" or "we made our system interoperable." That's all good news and indicates that users are trying to get more out of their systems in a variety of ways.The same developments can be seen in other areas where GIS is applied, though perhaps to a different degree than in local government.Still, I'll take local government as my example as I push ahead.

So, what's next? I fear we will be bogged down for a bit in some of those last topics mentioned above: sharing, interoperability, digital rights management.Here's why.Stop 1 on the GIS evolution train was making data.Back in the day (1970s and early 1980s) that was the big effort.Local government users had to figure out how to take what data they had (on paper or otherwise) into the new electronic form.Or in the worse cases, they had no data at all and had to start from scratch (without the inexpensive and more accurate GPS receivers and high resolution digital cameras of today).Data acquisition, accumulation or conversion was a time consuming and typically expensive project, it was also a brute force one.Throw enough resources at the problem, even with the limited technology and shiny new GIS users, and it could be done.

Stop 2 for the train was actually using the newly developed data.The trick was to work within a municipality and see how many departments could "sign on" as real users.While there is certainly some political intrigue in making progress there, whether one advocated centralized or non-centralized GIS, the various departments eventually saw that ultimately they were all playing for the same team.Today's more powerful and customizable viewers along with Web applications are making the distribution of tools to different departments for different purposes even easier.

That brings us to stop three, which I believe we are approaching.Stop 3 involves moving outside the local boundaries with GIS data and services.It means facing the challenges that come with having data and applications and having to sort out if, when, and to share them with outsiders.In the local government arena those outsiders might include peers (other municipalities), counties, states, the federal government and perhaps ultimately the global community.Now players must get beyond the municipality as "the team" and reset their understanding such that these higher level geographies are "the team." The next stop may also mean working to make data accessible in a standard meaningful way (with effective metadata, with known delivery interfaces or data formats) that may not be the way they are used inside the boundaries.These decisions may also impact existing and potential sources of income, changing the rules for cost recovery or data partnerships.While some of these are "brute force" changes, it's hard to see the requirements for them in the same way as "making data" was a requirement back at stop 1.Moreover, it's also perhaps harder to see the immediate or even long term return on investment in these changes at this point on the journey.Stop 3 is not a logical or easy step from stop 2.In fact, some players can't see stop 3 from stop 2.

And, that should not be a surprise.Quite a lot is different in information technology in 2005 than in say 1998, when it might be argued we hit stop 2.The Internet is different, as are digital rights management needs, as is metadata, as are municipal budgets, privacy issue and standards.The number technical things we can do and the squishy human policy decisions are both larger at stop 3.However the balance has shifted such that a higher percentage of the tasks and issues are in the human/political/policy side than in the brute force/technical side.

But that should not provide an excuse to stop the forward motion of the train.So, how do we ensure forward motion? Technical users need to keep an eye on policy and vice versa, despite one or the other being their "strong suit" or "preferred area of interest." Geospatial professionals need to be tuned in to privacy issues involving location information.Each of us needs to look at the world as GIS professionals, citizens of various geographic areas, and as consumers of information and technology.We need to broaden our view of ourselves, expand our responsibilities beyond the geospatial world.I'll suggest that such a change is necessary, but not sufficient, to get us to stop 3.It will be a slow ride for a while, but I believe we can make it.


Published Sunday, February 27th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg



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