Municipal GIS Through the Ages

December 8, 2010

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Municipal Official, 1994: "Why would I pay for your GIS?"
Municipal Official, 2010: "Why would I pay for your GIS when I can do the same thing with Google Maps (Google Earth, Bing Maps)?"

I first digitized data (parcels) for a municipal GIS in 1991. I have been involved with municipal GIS implementations ever since. How have things changed in 19 years?

Change #1: Awareness
Then: We used to show VHS tapes (authored by URISA and ESRI, respectively) titled "What is GIS?" Audiences mostly agreed that this was exciting new technology with a bright future.

Now: Almost everyone knows what GIS is. "Google Maps on steroids" explains it to those who don't.

Change #2: Data
Then: In the early 1990s a municipality had to develop all its digital GIS data from scratch. These included aerial orthophotography, vector planimetrics, parcel base, etc. The process was lengthy, labor-intensive and costly. It required serious commitment. As a result, only a handful of municipalities embarked on a municipal GIS project.

Now: By comparison, today much (if not all) of the data required to start a municipal GIS is already available, usually for free. Occasionally the problem is *too much* data, for example, multiple road centerline datasets from various sources with slight variations in geometry and attribution.

Change #3: Platform
Then: In the early 1990s we developed GIS data using PC ARC/INFO (or "real" Arc/INFO, if we were lucky). End users got ArcView 1 ("Geographic Explorer") licenses to view the data.

Now: Today we compile GIS data from a variety of sources and formats and display them over the Web inside a browser or a thin client like Google Earth. "Arc"-something no longer dominates the end-user domain.

Change #4: User Base
Then: In the early 1990s you had to be a geek to use GIS, and an uber-geek to develop GIS. The GIS "department" was a one-man show.

Now: Web-based distribution and deployment have democratized the use of GIS. GIS is accessed by many users throughout the municipality, although still not enterprise-wide.

Change #5: Financing
Then: "Why would I pay for your GIS?" Translation: I don't think I need your system. Plus, it's not in my budget.

Now: "Why would I pay for your GIS when I can do the same thing with Google Maps (Google Earth, Bing Maps)?" Translation: I know a lot about GIS, and I am familiar with less-expensive and better alternatives. Plus, it's not in my budget.

Municipal GIS of the future?
The municipal GISs of the future will be nimble, scalable, technologically diverse systems. They will use a variety of data sources, both crowdsourced and proprietary. They will connect to a set of authoritative user-specific datasets maintained in near-real-time (e.g., parcels, ownership data, road closures).

Municipal GIS has gone mainstream, has gotten cheaper, and its utility is universally accepted. What hasn't changed (in my experience) is that municipal GIS is still considered a luxury. So, when faced with laying off police and fire personnel or cutting GIS budgets (as so many municipalities have been in the last two years), municipalities have almost always chosen to forego the "lux."


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