July 9, 2007 By David Raths
When a contractor in Marin County, Calif., is going to dig beneath the street, the local water district must go out and mark the location of the underground pipes. Before, utility employees spent hours pinpointing pipe location records and matching them to local maps; whereas today, those employees can view maps on their laptops specific to the area where they're working. Within 5 minutes, workers have pipe location and details, thanks to software that integrates GIS and enterprise resource planning data.
Like many public agencies that have developed strong enterprise GIS departments, the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) is taking the next step to get the most out of its mapping expertise by integrating its GIS software from ESRI and its enterprise financial software from SAP.
"The biggest improvement is that our workers can now update infrastructure through a map," said Gavin McGhie, GIS coordinator for the MMWD, which provides drinking water to approximately 190,000 Marin County residents. "To record where new pipes and valves have been added or other pieces of pipe abandoned, they can just click a button on the map, and that information is automatically added to the asset maintenance module of SAP."
This push toward greater integration resulted from CIOs moving beyond viewing GIS simply as a mapping tool, said Chris Thomas, state and local government manager for ESRI, a GIS vendor. "They started to realize they need a central repository so that the GIS data isn't sitting in silos, and so they don't have duplicative GIS efforts in different departments."
As more municipalities create enterprise GIS departments, Thomas said, the level of interest in combining GIS data with other systems is getting stronger. He gave the example of Philadelphia's creation of executive dashboards that combine GIS data and legacy financial systems. "It's exciting to see," he added. "The kinds of things we were expecting to see a few years ago are happening now."
If the potential for efficiency gains is clear, the path to GIS integration with enterprise software is less so. It usually involves hiring consultants to write and maintain customized interfaces.
GIS integration can be the catalyst -- almost unintentionally -- for business process re-engineering that can be painful but helpful, said J. Wayne Moore, a software architect with Manatron Inc., a Portage, Mich., maker of property-management software for local governments. For instance, he said, assessment and tax record departments might have different ways to update constituents' addresses. "Every one of these departments is a silo, and you have to get them to agree on how to do something like record addresses. Without integration," Moore added, "it's almost impossible to keep it all synchronized."
Although McGhie is pleased with the results of the MMWD integration project and excited about its potential, he admits the journey was time-consuming and difficult, with a customized-software detour along the way.
The MMWD had previously custom-developed an interface between GIS and its legacy billing system, which was being retired in 2001. When its SAP implementation began, the agency worked with a consultant to build a custom GIS/SAP interface. "It took almost a year, and there were lots of fiascos," McGhie recalled. "We ended up with something that was about 80 percent of what we wanted." McGhie also was concerned that maintenance and changes to the interface would require additional consulting work.
At a 2003 ESRI user conference, McGhie met with Waltham, Mass.-based Impress Software, which had worked on other types of SAP integration projects. McGhie agreed to be a pilot customer in the development of a GIS/SAP interface. In 2004, using McGhie's wish list, Impress built an interface for Marin that it could sell to other utility districts. The design and development process took about a year, he said.
"Now we are also benefiting from other agencies' feedback," McGhie said, "because their ideas for improvement are built into the product -- something we wouldn't have had with a custom-built product."
Mapping isn't the only way GIS data can be integrated with enterprise software.
In Indianapolis, when the Mayor's Action Center -- a center where citizens voice city-government-related issues or concerns -- adopted Siebel's customer relationship management (CRM) software in 2004, the GIS department recognized that its data could prove valuable for address validation.
When a customer service person types an address given by a caller, the Siebel software calls a Web service that brings back validated address information from a geodatabase on the ArcGIS Server and fills in fields in the data entry screen. The city employee can then view details such as the caller's trash pickup day and city council district.
"We did a study before the CRM implementation, and almost 60 percent of the addresses taken down were invalid," said Chuck Carufel, GIS manager for the city. With the address validation, 95 percent are valid, he added. "The real benefit is when these calls lead to actions by agencies such as animal control or the sewer department," he said. "Cutting back on all those bad addresses is a real savings."
As part of a service-oriented architecture, the IndyGIS data is available in the form of reusable Web services to be called up by other applications, Carufel said. For instance, the address verifier is also being used by a parole case management application. The city is also developing a mapping application for the public called My Neighborhood. When constituents enter their address, the application will call five Web services to locate information such as their trash pickup day and the closest park and post office.
Some public-sector agencies are realizing the value of integrating GIS data with business intelligence software.
Piggybacking on development work done by the neighboring state of Louisiana, IT executives in Mississippi have offered their food stamp fraud investigators a visual tool to help identify suspicious trends or patterns of purchases.
Launched in Mississippi just prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the application melds Information Builders Inc.'s WebFocus reporting tools and ArcGIS from ESRI. Adapters from IBI's iWay Software division allow users to display the business intelligence data in map form.
Using the development work funded with federal grants in Louisiana, Mississippi launched the application for $120,000, said Bud Douglas, chief systems information officer at the Mississippi Department of Human Services.
The state geocodes information about Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card recipients and the stores that accept them. It downloads a million EBT transactions a day from the state's mainframe into a data warehouse, Douglas explained.
Investigators can map 12 different reports labeled the "footprint of fraud." For instance, one scam called "discounting" involves food stamp recipients selling their food stamps for 50 cents on the dollar to retailers, who then keep the difference.
If food stamp recipients are continually driving long distances to the same retail location to use their food stamps, Douglas said, it raises a red flag to investigators that the retailer may be involved in discounting. "That distance between their home address and where they're shopping," he adds, "shows up much more obviously when it's mapped."
Other groups within the Department of Human Services are working to expand the GIS integration capability. Recently department employees equipped with GPS handheld devices recorded information about elderly people in three coastal counties. "They got details about who's taking meals on wheels, who is not ambulatory and who's on oxygen," Douglas said. This information will be fed into department databases and mapped for use in the event of another emergency evacuation situation. "The applications for GIS," he added, "are unlimited."
GIS integration can present data to employees and constituents in new ways and help organizations unify business processes. IT organizations are taking a range of approaches from custom point-to-point solutions and integration packages to developing their own GIS Web services.
The one thing these approaches have in common, Manatron's Moore said, is that the process often takes longer than people first think.
David Raths is a Philadelphia-based writer focused on information technology.
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