Jan 14 2008

GIS Guidance

The city of Asheville, N.C., offers a roadmap for deploying mapping tools that benefit the community.

The city of Asheville, N.C., offers a roadmap for deploying mapping tools that benefit the community.

Like a stray puppy, a geographic information system (GIS) is simple to adopt and can be high-maintenance, but once you’ve established a relationship, it’s a loyal and useful friend.

Any agency that has seriously explored GIS knows internal services would be hamstrung without it. Geographic data hold tremendous accuracy and planning value for emergency-services dispatch. The not-so-obvious value lies in the other ways you can deploy GIS in your organization. Councils, commissions and other boards rely on GIS to help them make decisions that involve millions of dollars and affect the quality of people’s lives. There’s no reason regular citizens shouldn’t benefit from GIS too.

In North Carolina, the city of Asheville’s community-based GIS, mapAsheville, has had its housebreaking moments, but also has earned praise from the community. Real estate agents, developers, neighborhood advocacy groups and other citizens have tapped mapAsheville to do basic neighborhood research and see what type of development activity is occurring in their area. Future applications will allow citizens to track crime trends in the community as well as pick out desirable places to start businesses based on demographics, distance from bus stops and so on.

Lessons Learned

Perhaps the clearest lesson learned by Asheville is that, even more so than internal applications, community-based GIS needs to be considered in the context of a lifecycle. That is, prior to investing a lot of effort and money developing a community-based application, do your homework and spend time with the various segments of the community to learn what they want.

Indeed, people and process must come before programming. To ensure long-term success of the GIS program, information technology (IT) or GIS departments need to face outward and engage at all levels of the organization.

Asheville’s answer to organizationwide engagement was to create a GIS steering committee that represented the entire city. Many organizations struggle with bringing multidisciplinary staff together to plan their GIS program — either because their IT or GIS departments don’t want to surrender any degree of control over the program or because executive leadership doesn’t understand the value of GIS. Asheville’s GIS steering committee, sponsored by the city’s top managers, brought departments together to discuss and plan around common as well as discipline-specific needs. Most important, it engaged people at all levels of the organization to commit to quality data.

Asheville also learned that centralization is sometimes a four-letter word. For whatever reason, people react strongly to calling GIS “centralized” or “decentralized.” When your central program offers to help with a given task, folks react well. Nobody on our GIS steering committee is concerned when we state that our spatial data infrastructure is centralized. But when you start to describe processes and tasks as centralized, people may think you have a hidden agenda.

Even outside the conference room, the partnership with line business units is essential. For example, our planning department and Office of Economic Development facilitated the needs assessment and community-based beta testing and feedback of our mapAsheville application. One key to our success was keeping applications relatively focused and simple. Average citizens simply don’t use highly complex screens with a lot of incomprehensible icons.

Tech Team

The GIS team decided it needed an application development framework to be able to deploy Web-based GIS applications. The group explained the need to the steering committee by likening an ADF to a Mr. Potato Head toy, with the focused GIS application the result of plugging in the various eyes and ears.

Two years ago, the mapping application we evaluated didn’t have its own ADF, so our group completed a reasonably simple and extensible ADF. It utilizes Asynchronous Javascript and eXtensible Markup Language (Ajax) to keep response time relatively quick on the client side.

At one point, we contemplated releasing the ADF as an open-source project, but resource constraints and other IT needs prevented this from occurring. Now that other ADFs are available (notably ESRI’s), Asheville will incrementally adopt a more universal ADF. “Standards, Open Geospatial Consortium in particular, are the target,” says Jason Mann, GIS and application services manager for the city.

Another lesson learned was the need for public agencies to support a reasonably diverse technical environment. Although our GIS team tested the Mac operating system with the Firefox browser, users of the Mac OS with the built-in Safari browser had some trouble with our application.

Finally, one necessary shift in the IT department was preparing to support the community-based GIS. The number of calls was relatively low as a percentage of use, but proper training and reframing of the help desk’s mission (external and internal) were necessary. Also, because one-on-one training was not feasible, the staff produced a training and orientation video and help pages.

Going Forward

No public agency will ever have the resources of Google Earth, nor do they often have the ability to easily add full-time employees to the payroll. To achieve a successful GIS program, you’ll need strategies to mix in-house developed GIS applications with value-added outsourced GIS activities. Measure the costs and timeframe of developing the application in-house versus outsourcing it.

For example, after project-scoping Asheville’s upcoming “Priority Places” economic development application for evaluating retail and manufacturing locations, Mann and his team outsourced the coding to a vendor who had successfully deployed cutting-edge GIS applications elsewhere. To have kept it in-house would have delayed the project by a year or more and would have been a poor investment of staff expertise.

One project we’re working on in collaboration with Buncombe County, N.C., and the University of North Carolina at Asheville is the Steep Slope Mapper. Each party brings unique skills and resources to the table. Asheville’s mountainous topography and steep-slope development regulations sometimes make it challenging for property owners to determine which classification of slope regulations applies to them, so this upcoming GIS application will help.

Finally, as Mann starts thinking about future community GIS applications, such as three-dimensional visualization, he emphasizes that data quality needs to be at the front of the process. Data quality can be as simple as making sure that a streetlight doesn’t appear on top of a building or as complex as co- incident polygon geometries.

Bottom line: Just as you trust your data center to the biggest alpha geek in the bunch, it’s critical that you find geography and GIS staff — rather than IT people who do GIS on the side — who live and breathe congruent polygon edits and other geospatial concepts.

Community Collaboration

When contemplating partnerships with other agencies that stand to benefit from deployed GIS applications, recognize that governance is critical to ensure there are no surprises. If it’s important to your agency, put it in the agreement.

Implementation Advice

  1. Do your homework and collect information about what represents a successful application in the eyes of the community.
  2. Keep applications simple and focused.
  3. Put people and processes before programming.
  4. Secure executive-level buy-in.
  5. Partner with business units on needs assessment, planning, testing, feedback and publicity.
  6. Choose a widely supported, standards-based application development framework.
  7. Formalize partnerships before working with other agencies to spell out expectations.
  8. Entrust GIS to GIS and geography professionals rather than IT workers who dabble in GIS.