GIS vision fades at local level

If it were simply a matter of supply and demand, geographic information systems (GIS), already a staple in many state and local agencies, could become one of the core government information technology systems.

Rapidly falling costs of hardware and software, the realization of the technology's broad application, and the urgency of homeland security strategies have combined to make GIS the potential darling of many government managers.

So promising is GIS, it's considered an essential bond in the plans to build a compatible, interoperable communications network across all levels of federal, state and local government.

But there's a hitch. For smaller counties and municipalities struggling to find the money to pay for squad cars and school supplies, GIS is still a remote idea despite all its appeal. Without those communities' participation, a national network would be left with too much white space.

"I'm not aware of a large city or county that has not used GIS," said Randy Johnson, a commissioner for Hennepin County, Minn., and a former president of the National Association of Counties (NACo). "But many smaller cities and counties are in a different situation. We are dealing with some that don't have computers, even now."

Johnson is a leading enthusiast of GIS. Several years ago, he helped put together the Local Leaders for GIS consortium (www.llgis.org) an organization formed by NACo, the National League of Cities and the International City/County Management Association to expand the knowledge and use of GIS in local government.

He believes there is "no question" that GIS has risen to the top of the list of concerns of government IT managers, and that the situation is well beyond the missionary work that Johnson and his colleagues had to do in the past.

Nevertheless, he said, there's "still a lot of work to be done" before the message spreads to everyone who needs to hear it.

[sub:] Expanding Boundaries

GIS used to be secreted in the back offices of planning departments, tended to by experts in the technology who manipulated data on expensive workstations to render maps that could be used — usually in paper form — by others in government agencies. If they knew about it at all, government executives considered GIS a distant, "techie" concern.

That attitude began to change as desktop PCs became powerful to the point where they could handle the demands of the complicated GIS software. The evolution of the Internet and Web browsers also marked a shift, enabling different departments to click for access to GIS maps and products.

Governments also have come to recognize the ubiquity of spatial data. According to some experts, about 80 percent of data collected by government has some kind of spatial component — such as a street address or latitude and longitude — and so can be visualized using digital maps.

GIS has emerged as an important component of many online services that government agencies are developing, is key to online crime maps that law enforcement agencies often provide, and has environmental applications. And the current homeland security push has brought GIS further to the forefront, as state and local agencies turn to maps to analyze potential risks to critical infrastructure and to develop disaster mitigation and recovery plans.

Speakers at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers' recent midyear conference in Denver were unanimous in calling for a national mapping initiative to pull together data from all the separate data silos across the country. Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer said GIS should be considered for this initiative as being a parallel to the role e-mail played in the development of the Internet.

Given all of this, according to market watcher Gartner Inc., demand for GIS will only continue to grow. And much of that demand will be driven by the push of GIS into the enterprise, drawing data sets and applications from all levels of government.

"GIS has always been viewed as something important to some core business functions of government, though not all agencies felt they [needed] it," said Rishi Sood, a state and local government analyst for Gartner. "But since Sept. 11, with the requirements that disaster recovery and security are putting on all agencies in government, there's a growing understanding of GIS as an enterprise application."

That understanding will continue to expand throughout 2002, which Sood sees as "an awareness year" for enterprise-level GIS. The real impetus to building governmentwide GIS will come in the middle of 2003, he said, as additional funding is made available.

A key to taking an enterprise approach to GIS, said David Holmes, director of worldwide strategies at Intergraph Corp., is to move the technology away from the influence of specific government departments and into the realm of standard IT practices, where it can be managed by the same team that has the decision-making responsibility for the rest of government's IT resources.

"You have to stop talking about the kinds of proprietary approach to GIS that governed use of the technology in the 1980s and most of the 1990s," Holmes said. "IT people don't own or run anything; they just have to make sure that people across the government have access to technology."

And things are changing. Chris Payne, director of spatial data solutions for SD.I, a consulting firm that has done a number of GIS-related projects with city and county governments, says attitudes have shifted considerably in the past decade.

"Ten years ago, companies like SD.I had to go into government agencies and do a cost/benefit analysis before we could convince people of the worth of GIS, but not anymore," he said. "The culture now is almost that, if agencies didn't implement GIS, they know that their governments would be isolated from neighbors who did have the technology."

[sub:] Filling the Gaps

GIS in the enterprise, managed by central IT and MIS departments, will happen, Payne said, but for now "it's still very much an evolving model."

A lot of data that would feed the national geospatial infrastructure that some experts envision resides at the local level. Before anyone can talk about building a real-time, interactive GIS network to support homeland security and other initiatives, local agencies must learn to share data freely between departments and across local government boundaries.

In part, it's a question of educating government executives about GIS, observers say.

"It's not needed as much as it used to be, and they generally know they need GIS in some form," Payne said. "But they don't necessarily know what to use it for, and they don't understand that it needs to be a very open tool [for use in government], and that legacy databases in government have to be opened up. It's still an ownership issue."

"I'm optimistic in that this debate is at least raising awareness of the kind of issues that need to be addressed for this kind of data sharing to happen, and I do think local government executives are becoming more aware," said Lisa Warnecke, president of GeoManagement Associates in Syracuse, N.Y., a long-time observer of the use of geospatial technologies in government and a previous town manager herself.

"My concern is if they are indeed beginning to develop that enterprise approach," she said. "I do see more adoptions [of GIS], but not at the enterprise level. It's happening at the state level, but not at the local level."

The federal government may recognize the need for this, she said, but federal agencies tend to work primarily with state agencies. Local governments have their own governing functions for such things as water resources, fire and local utilities. Those are significant parts of the data infrastructure, "and no one has even begun talking to regulators about the level of compatibility that's needed at that level," she said.

Hennepin County's Johnson is nevertheless upbeat about the prospects for GIS. The renewed emphasis on public safety and health will help drive GIS into smaller cities and counties, he believes, a movement that will only gain credence as those governments are presented with the kinds of cost efficiencies the technology can provide for them.

However, until the use of GIS does grow at that level, local government will remain a block to the kind of interoperability and sharing of data that is now seen as so vital to the national effort, "so we will continue to evangelize," he said.

For a further examination of GIS, please see:

GIS: An inevitable evolution

GIS: An invisible evolution

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

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