3 Desktop Licenses and a Vision: Building a GIS program from scratch

May 24, 2023

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This story brought to you by Nearmap.

It’s January 2019 and you are hired to be the GIS manager of a 10-county-wide water resources operation. We’re talking water supply and distribution, wastewater collections services, hydroelectric generating dams, reservoir operations, and river diversion and canal systems in a rapidly growing area. And guess what? There is no existing GIS department. No other GIS employees. The extent of GIS in the organization is three Esri ArcGIS desktop software licenses . That’s it.

Are you running back out the door or are you itching to take on the challenge?

Lucky for the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA), they made a great hire. Mysti Downing was ready to rise to the challenge. As both a GISP and Certified Flood Plain Manager in Texas who had worked in GIS and water resources for over 10 years, she knew the value that GIS could bring to GBRA – to its operations, workflows, employees, and customers. And she knew from the start a high-resolution aerial imagery product from Nearmap would be a major key to success.

In under 4 years, Downing has transformed the organization’s relationship to GIS, making it a standard tool for everyday workflows. Today, 70% of GBRA’s workforce now uses their GIS portal on a regular basis (30% doing so at least daily or weekly) with typically 20 to 30 active mobile users working with data in the field.

So, how did Downing build such high adoption for a new GIS program?  What steps and tools were key to the process?

What do we have here? (aka Getting Started)

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority covers a large portion of central Texas and has influence along the entire river basin which extends beyond its county jurisdiction. Their district includes 5 water treatment plants, 13 wastewater treatment plants, 7 hydroelectric plants, and 4 parks. In addition to providing utility services to approximately 750,000 residents, they are also concerned with water resource management and sustainability. The initial impetus for implementing a GIS program was to implement an asset management strategy  that could inventory and monitor the thousands of assets in their operations, from manhole covers to dams.


Downing started with a needs assessment, talking to the various divisions and departments to determine the best way to set up the program for the organization’s users and operations. With no GIS analysts or any other GIS colleagues, she started out solo doing linear assets development, but had to hire consultants – at a significant expense – to be able to build the initial assets database in a timely manner. She also evaluated the available statewide Google imagery service to see if it could meet their needs. Both tasks were crucial and laid the groundwork for the product she wanted from the beginning.

Pushing for the Right Tools

Downing asked for Nearmap services as soon as she got the job, knowing that integrations between systems is powerful. She was familiar with it from previous work experience and knew it would be a game changing tool for GBRA. But it was a big ask – a 1/3 of the small annual GIS budget kind of ask. Going on record early emphasized her confidence in the need for high-resolution aerial imagery to support the program. As she started the initial work to build their GIS program, she simultaneously built the case for Nearmap, while avoiding  further consultant costs by utilizing Nearmap whose imagery would allow Downing to maintain linear assets on her own. This point alone justified the cost for the service.

One of the key factors in the decision process, was the need for better image quality and frequency. Statewide Google imagery just didn’t cut it because it is flown less frequently and offers a much lower resolution than Nearmap. While Nearmap does not provide total coverage of their 10 county area, it is flown 3 times a year over the I-35 corridor where the majority of GBRA’s facilities are located – covering most of their areas of work and concern. This capture frequency and high-resolution detail is incredibly helpful and is the difference between being able to see, or not, assets and activity on the ground in a timely manner and without additional trips to the field.

Downing got budget approval for Nearmap in the fall of 2020 and, as she predicted, GBRA immediately saw its value to their work. So much so that they budgeted to pay for expanding Nearmap’s coverage in 2 counties to capture more of their facilities.

Being Strategic Early and Often

In addition to requesting budget approval for Nearmap from the start, Downing created a strategic plan to set a GIS vision and mission. Such a plan is important for both guiding activities and justifying budget requests. What is GIS doing for the agency? What is the return on investment? Downing suggests to keep an organization’s strategic plan updated and meaningful. Don’t just make it a one and done management checklist task. The plan will help keep activities focused on established priorities and will stand at the ready to support those critical budget discussions.

Two goals foundational to GBRA’s strategic plan focus on maintaining a well-organized, central system of business and operational data and providing easy access to relevant data from any device anywhere. Meeting these goals is what make GIS truly useful for GBRA, especially given their large operations team and field staff. Nearmap again proved to be a great fit because as an imagery service, it could easily be dropped into GBRA’s portal and made available to users of all kinds.

How to Know it’s Working

You put in all the planning to set up a GIS program for your organization. You flip the switch so to speak, make all systems go, and then what? How do you know it’s working? Well, people use it. It’s that simple. You know it’s working if employees find that it works for them and people use the system – the data, the apps, the tools – without being heavily pushed to do so.

Quickly and consistently, Downing got the results she predicted. It wasn’t just a matter of the impressive user numbers, it was that Nearmap was becoming part of the workplace vocabulary and a go to resource. She routinely overheard her colleagues say, “Did you look at the Nearmap imagery?” From field crews to division managers, once GBRA staff knew the product – its frequency and high resolution – they were sold and instinctively consulted it in their work. Downing believes this natural and widespread use of Nearmap is the strongest evidence of the program’s success and the best proof to executives that it was the right choice. If Nearmap isn’t working, which Downing notes is usually due to something on her end that needs correction, she hears about it immediately from staff. It’s yet another way she knows the portal is getting used and used frequently.


The uses of GIS at GBRA are many. It extends into nearly all corners of operations and Nearmap is a service in almost every map viewer in the GBRA GIS portal. Historical imagery is used to assess waterways, lakes, and their change over time – monitoring draw down rates or gate issues at dams. If there is a request to dig, lines are located through available data and imagery, avoiding the need for an on-site evaluation. Easement encroachments are assessed via imagery as are proposed line relocations, saving the time and expense of sending out surveyors. And employees continue to find new ways to use Nearmap imagery beyond trained tasks. For example, to evaluate a budget request for right of way maintenance, a GBRA employee used Nearmap imagery to determine which rows did or did not require maintenance, and in doing so also noted some spatial corrections and shared those with Downing. This shows the buy-in of GBRA employees to the GIS program and Nearmap services. They find additional ways to improve their workflows and independently contribute to data upkeep and improvement.

A recent big moment for the GBRA GIS program was getting an ArcGIS enterprise agreement with Esri in Fall 2022. Redesigning for this is just another big step of many in rapid succession since the program’s start in 2019. Downing continues to offer training for employees, reminding them what is available, but she finds that people don’t need a lot of reminders to use Nearmap.

It’s quite incredible how far and how fast GBRA has come in its relationship with GIS. It’s evidence of the success that can come with thoughtful and practical GIS implementation and choosing the right tools for the job. How much will GBRA innovate their operations with their GIS strategies in another four years? The sky’s the limit.

Watch the story

Cover image: Guadalupe River Habitat Conservation


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