Columns / Binge: Surveying GIS

Surveying GIS-Developing a new GIS, Part 2.

October 1, 2007
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Some of you may have heard the ESRI catchphrase “geography connects people.” Well, nowhere is it more true than in the world of Geographic Information Systems.

In the previous installment, we established that GIS is about the data. But it is also very much about the people. It’s about the people who provide the data, and about the people who use that data.

Typical map/permit workflow process in land development.

Who Are The People?

This is an extremely important question. Geography is a way of connecting people. GIS is like the phone company--it “reaches out and touches” people. In fact, just about everyone who has a name, address and phone number appears as a record in somebody’s GIS. To construct a GIS we don’t necessarily need to contact everyone in the phone book, but we do need to identify certain key individuals for our clients. Just as surveying encompasses many different activities and products for a variety of clients, geographic information services are also client driven. Before we select a mode of distribution, we need a profile of the user base. Market research is a very important step in plan development.

A Geographic Information System can be set up to serve different users’ bases. Typically there are two client bases, internal and external. Internal clients are the organization’s staff members. Conventional wisdom holds that analytical organizational research is most often best accomplished by starting with the internal client base. That is typically a two-step process. First, evaluate the existing process employed by internal clients. Then obtain and evaluate feedback from the users of the existing system operated by those internal clients.

It is often best to avoid getting overly technical during this evaluation period. Introducing the technology too early in the planning process typically leads to comments like, “It’s not user-friendly.” We want to set up our system to succeed. There are more than enough pitfalls in process development. We should use caution introducing any new products until the users are prepared for them.

Here are some sample questions used to interview internal clients.

• What are your job responsibilities?

• What are you expected to achieve?

• What work products are you responsible for?

• What do you need to know to be successful in meeting your responsibilities?

• What information can GIS put on your desktop to assist you in successfully achieving your goals and meeting your responsibilities?

You shouldn’t be surprised if even some of these basic questions are met with a glassy-eyed stare. I am frequently amazed at how little thought many people give to the reasons they are employed. But there is also the rewarding experience of talking to people who are nothing less than thrilled to actually give input. All too often, management implements systems provided by “experts” without performing any internal research. Those who have experienced that situation are usually more than willing to share their experiences. Listen to them.

Once you establish a foothold in the sometimes thorny process of getting the internal organizational staff identified and profiled, it is time to start working on the business model. The business model in this case means “What information products do we intend to offer to external clients?”

Public interaction is an important part of developing a Geographic Information System. The needs of the end user often define how successful your system will be. Let’s take a moment to review the levels of GIS involvement. We probably need to define the term “end user” with respect to the mission. The classic GIS staff/user pyramid is defined this way:

1. The end user. The end user typically works at the map browser level. This category of user views GIS data using either a standard browser, free downloadable viewer or a plug-in. He or she can make basic queries of the displayed data and generate simple reports. The end user level requires little or no GIS training,

2. The professional user. This category is represented by the full desktop user. The professional user requires a GIS software package and training. The professional user can view, create, convert and analyze data as well as create reports and hard copy maps. Some computer programming skills are also helpful at this level.

3. The GIS analyst. This is the professional GIS level. The analyst requires a robust GIS software package, high-end hardware to run it on and (usually) a network. He or she must be able to support the other two levels of users. The GIS analyst level requires advanced computer hardware, software and programming skills, in addition to some degree of expertise on the data contained in the system. (Each data set should have a designated subject matter expert to refer questions to.)

As more and more Web-based applications are developed and launched, the term “end user” pretty much now includes anyone who has viewing access to the proffered data.

Typical GIS schema and hierarchy.

Performing a Needs Assessment

After the players have been sorted out, the next step in the planning process is the needs assessment. Once again, we have some standard questions in the playbook to work with:

• Which of my functions needs GIS?

• What data is needed?

• What hardware do I need?

• What software do I need?

• Will existing procedures be changed by GIS?

Let’s examine the first two questions. After the initial staff interviews, the GIS planner should have developed a roster of those individuals who could potentially employ GIS applications to improve their business processes. It should be kept in mind that this is an iterative process. The goal of this exercise must be to match the job function with the proper tool.

Since some of the people connected by this geography are surveyors, for our example, let us use the case of the municipal clerk who is responsible for processing survey plats. What does he need to know? How should we set him up? How can he best utilize the power of GIS to assist the surveyor with this function?

I think we can all agree this individual needs some good, accurate base map data to ensure the interests of all parties involved are best served. Very often the only classification tool available to a recordation clerk is a book or ledger of deed recordings. From that, the tax assessor identifies parcels and fixes property values.

Can a GIS-based system do better? I think so.

A comprehensive Geographic Infor-mation System with data showing zoning, community planning, floodplains, fire and school districts can only benefit the surveyor’s client in his decision making with respect to the property being surveyed. Making all of this additional information available adds value to the end product. Many land development questions can be answered upfront without costly, time-consuming research.

But this added value is unlikely to be achieved unless someone can advise and guide our clerk in his mission to serve the public. This is where the GIS planner plays a key role. The reason the particular situation we are describing here is often dysfunctional is that the business process itself often lacks an advocate who understands both points of view.

We have the geography in map format. So how do we connect the people? The answer lies in understanding the available information. Our client wants his property surveyed for a reason. He may want to build a swimming pool, or he may have a dispute with his adjoiner. He just knows he needs a survey.

What does the surveyor know? Well, he knows he needs to serve the needs of his client and comply with state and local requirements to file his map and get paid for his work. But he needs to know something else. He needs to know what to expect when he files his map. But it would be even better if he could use the data the municipal staff has available to research his project, wouldn’t it?

What does the clerk in the city or county office know? Most of us understand in many cases he works from a script provided by his employers and isn’t often empowered to make decisions about projects offered for filing. In many cases, he is provided with poorly developed tools he isn’t properly trained to use. It is from this environment we can get those annoying “Your map doesn’t fit the GIS” comments.

Yes, these things really do happen. But they happen less frequently when staff are properly trained and informed about their functions. Wouldn’t it be better if our friend the clerk actually understood the process and what the surveyor’s role is? Better yet, what if he were able to assist the surveyor with his work by providing easy access to searchable databases of survey records? These are some of the critical questions those in the business of developing Geographic Information Systems need to grapple with.

GIS is about the data and geography is about people. These are the two core elements that must be addressed to be successful in developing a useful, vital, working Geographic Information System. The hardware and the software are the ephemeral subtleties that provide the secular storage and distribution systems.

In my next column, we will explore some of those hardware and software options and address the musical question that inspired this opera: “How much does a copy of ArcView cost?”

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