In the following article, find out how you can make the most of evolving GIS technology and promote its use within your organization.

Historically, most organizations have used geographic information systems (GIS) for data management, mapping and analysis, and they continue to do so. But as GIS system capability has exponentially grown with the advent of big data initiatives, it is time for organizations to re-evaluate this decades-old system to see if they are getting everything they can from it.

“The change begins with GIS managers themselves,” says Adam Carnow, an account executive for Esri, a provider of commercial GIS systems. “Many GIS managers have worked in the GIS area for many years, and they have a background in geography and mapping. This is a background that doesn’t necessarily include much involvement with either the business at large or with IT, which is now a very important factor in maximally deploying GIS systems.”

Carnow says that, increasingly, he is getting questions from GIS managers on how they can best communicate with their IT folks. “I can advise them on that,” he says, “but what I also tell them is that GIS systems are changing to the point where GIS managers should also be thinking of themselves as IT enablers. This is a shock to many of the GIS managers whom I talk with, because they don't really see themselves as IT professionals.”

“GIS has changed from data management, mapping and analysis, and a suite of tools used by GIS specialists for a project, to client-server based departmental use and then to a fully integrated Web location platform that can be used by anyone, anywhere on any device.”

Leveraging GIS

Carnow says there are six areas of GIS functionality that organizations can put to use:

  • Location management, where maps can be shared anywhere and at any time so that they can be made and used.
  • Constituent engagement, where the GIS system can be used to facilitate and to manage collaborative communications with stakeholders.
  • Decision support, which relays critical map-based information to key executives and managers throughout the organization for decision-making.
  • Field-based communications from GIS that enable individuals in remote locations to gain access to the same GIS information that they would be able to obtain if they were at their home offices.
  • GIS-based analytics that provide new sources of business intelligence to the company for decision making and insight.
  • Location data management, which collects and organizes location data about a company's assets and resources.

“What has happened is that over time GIS has changed from data management, mapping and analysis, and a suite of tools used by GIS specialists for a project, to client-server based departmental use and then to a fully integrated Web location platform that can be used by anyone, anywhere on any device,” Carnow says. “GIS is also being used to perform spatial analysis, which is one of the unique benefits of the technology. In fact, the best return on investment (ROI) a GIS user can realize is via the application of spatial analysis to solve real problems. Unfortunately, most non-GIS users are unaware of the spatial analysis capabilities of GIS. Their understanding is that GIS are used to make maps. Therefore, there is an underutilization of GIS across most industries.”

Getting the Word Out

Carnow and others maintain that it is now the job of traditional GIS specialists to spread the word to others in their companies about all of the things that GIS can do that can positively impact their work. To do this, GIS professionals have to get out of their offices, circulate to different business departments, learn about the work others are doing and suggest ways in which GIS can help that work. This is very similar to what IT professionals do. They look at the workflows in the business and try to bring technology to them to make the workflows better.

For many GIS managers, this is not a comfortable role. They have been used to staying inside their own offices, often doing mapping and research work by themselves in a sequestered environment. Now, with the exploding analytics capabilities of GIS, they are being asked to regularly circulate among different business departments to discover new ways that GIS can be used.

Use Case Examples

How does expanding GIS use pay off in practice?

The city of Los Angeles is using its GIS-based Street Wize for road maintenance. In the past, the city’s roads and utilities departments might not have known what the other was doing, so the risk was being run of tearing up a street twice — once for road maintenance and a second time for a utility repair. Now, with shared access to GIS, that not only shows the street map, but all of the underlying infrastructure of utility lines, etc., beneath street level. Both roads and utilities can better coordinate road projects so that tear-ups are done only once. This cuts costs and also the inconvenience to motorists.

“Street Wize is an excellent example of how organizations can get the most out of their GIS data by putting it to work in applications that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere on any device,” Carnow says. “Initially, Street Wize was an initiative from the Mayor’s Office, so all departments are participating. The app allows anyone to view all present and future city projects in an easy-to-use app that works on any device. This is hugely valuable to the community. Now, all departments can see each other’s projects and can coordinate and collaborate to be more efficient. Anyone in the community can see what projects may affect them and where their tax dollars are being spent. Every city, county, regional, state and national government organization could use an app like this.”

In a second GIS extension example, Pinellas County, Fla. created a Flood Map Service Center Web to provide access to the latest FEMA flood zone data. With more than 50,000 properties in the program, Pinellas County has more properties participating in the National Flood Insurance Program than any other county in the U.S. By providing a GIS Web app to the public, Pinellas County has lowered flood insurance rates across the county, saving an estimated $5.3 million.

Best Practices for GIS

What can organizations and their GIS managers do to start stretching their GIS systems for better business results?

Esri’s Carnow and Keith Cooke recommend four best practices:

1. Promote the System

“GIS managers need to get out of their offices, circulate among business users and see other ways where GIS can be applied to help with these different business functions,” Cooke says.

2. Get a GIS “Health Check”

“A great analogy for this is when you get a home inspection,” Cooke says. “In a home inspection, you hire someone to inspect the drywall, the wiring, etc., so that you know everything about the home you are considering purchasing before you buy it. It’s the same way with a GIS. Before you move to expand its use, take a look at what you have. Is the system ready to be expanded? What might have to be done to improve its performance?”

3. Use a Best-of-Breed Approach

No one GIS configuration works for every organization, but increasingly a cloud-based, Web-deployed GIS offers the broadest range of access to the most users. If you are to succeed in leveraging your GIS system across all of your business units, cloud and Web access are the way to go.

4. Consider a Software as a Service (SaaS) Cloud Implementation

With SaaS, you get not only a cloud where your GIS is accessible via the Web, but also a service provider that is knowledgeable about GIS and can provide consulting on how to best deploy the system.

“In the end, you want to have as many people using your GIS data for different business purposes as possible so you can get the most out of it,” Carnow says. “Many organizations still have very valuable data like this hidden away in siloed databases that are not accessible to all. In order for data to have value, it needs to be accessible. This is part of the open data movement. … No longer should non-GIS practitioners have to go through a GIS practitioner for everything GIS.”