GIS Called Key to California's Future

Industry and public-sector experts see enterprise GIS as critical component to Golden State.

by / May 12, 2009

Sacramento, Calif. -- As a state that commonly sets national trends, California can't afford to lag behind the technology curve. Yet the Golden State is besieged by annual budget crises and political stalemates that thwart innovation. This morning in Sacramento, Calif., leaders from the public and private sector gathered at the Conference on California's Future to discuss how GIS can help officials work around the problems crippling the state.

To successfully integrate comprehensive GIS solutions across state agencies, an enterprise GIS strategy, coupled with strong executive leadership, was deemed California's best hope for dismantling state IT silos and facilitating cross-agency data sharing. Also vital to the mission is getting the public to better understand the role GIS can play in the state's success.

"Consider ways to expand beyond the power-user base," said John Young, former CIO of the CIA and current director of enterprise solutions for ESRI. "Many organizations have now moved [GIS] into the mainstream, especially in those business areas where geography is important."

Moving away from serving only the hardcore GIS user base and toward an enterprise model, according to Young, means agencies need to focus on quality, timeliness, efficiency and community in their geospatial efforts. Young cited Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and his StateStat system as a model California should consider emulating.

Young also cautioned that enterprise technology is something fundamentally different than the siloed approaches of the past. He said recognizing all perspectives as legitimate and building a strong business case for enterprise GIS is paramount.

Larry Orman, executive director of the GreenInfo Network, a nonprofit advisory organization that aids government agencies in their GIS decision-making, said that for an enterprise GIS strategy to succeed, the complexity of GIS maps needs to be done away with since such maps tend to deter users who might benefit from them.

"If it doesn't make sense in three to five seconds, it's not going to get in the brain," he said. "It needs to unfold as a story."

The same philosophy should apply not only to end-users within an agency but also to the public that agency interfaces with, said John Moeller, senior principal engineer of Northrop Grumman Information Technology sector's Tasc business unit.

GIS, he said, is something people of all walks of life ought to be able to relate to and understand. It can cut across all different kinds of data and gives people "a way to see new relationships between people, places and things."

"The public has shown tremendous dissatisfaction with where we are," added Toby Ewing, director of the California Research Bureau. "But they've also shown tremendous interest. But they don't understand what we're doing [with GIS]. We need to think about the broad public audience and how to engage them."

From climate change to water management to broadband, if California is going to continue to lead the way on such issues, enterprise GIS is being perceived as the state's IT cornerstone.

But like any number of statewide IT challenges, there's no single answer. On the GIS front, Orman contended that California has and will struggle with bringing agencies into the enterprise GIS fold since each are at varying levels of IT maturity.

"It's a question of how to get going on this that will make the difference," he said.

Michael Byrne, California's newly appointed geospatial information officer, said adopting an enterprise GIS strategy will allow California to get out from IT's well worn ruts.

"We have these very large issues, so doing things the same way isn't an option," Byrne said. "GIS allows us to do something new and different."

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.