By Bill McGarigle | Contributing Editor

A municipal government in Canada had to overcome user skepticism in order to make GIS an effective tool.

Selling the capabilities of a leading GIS to municipal agencies that have had a bad experience with "Brand X" is not an enviable task, especially when the technology is still seen by many in management as overly complex and having little application in the day-to-day running of the government. In spite of this, the city of Calgary, Alberta, recently took on the challenge of reestablishing the credibility of GIS in the eyes of its 12,000 employees.

No stranger to electronic mapping, Calgary has had base-mapping utilities in a CAD environment since the late 70s. In the early 90s, however, the city decided that greater utility of GIS could save them a big chunk of the $28 million they were spending annually on creating, maintaining and using spatial data.

Although the GIS they invested in had a solid engine with all the relational-data capabilities of the day, it made front-end application development almost impossible. "We couldnt get any applications out, and there was a high degree of frustration within the city government because nothing was being delivered," recalled Bob Eason, manager of Calgarys new GIS Centre of Excellence. Eventually, Calgary closed down the GIS project office, and the program died out. With no central focus or source of expertise, individual departments were left to find their own solutions to spatial data management. GIS had left a bad taste.

By the end of the decade, however, GIS technology was changing public decision-making processes at nearly all levels of government. At the same time, drag-and-drop applications, greater functionality, interoperability and convergence were pushing GIS into mainstream information technology. The combination of these developments and the need for spatial applications prompted the city to re-evaluate the technology.

Rebuilding Credibility

In 1998, a complete review of the issues with GIS -- past and present -- produced three major objectives:

* build a viable GIS department to lead application development;

* find a vendor to assist the city in developing the applications it needed; and

* reestablish the credibility of GIS in city government.

To head up the effort, Calgary appointed a pro-GIS chief technology officer and a GIS manager. Starting with a budget of $1.5 million, the two selected an initial team of 12 to staff the new GIS Centre of Excellence (GISCOE) and outline the steps to be taken. Members of the group possessed both business and technical expertise.

"We had the right combination -- not only an excellent project team, but a key senior administrator who was very interested in GIS succeeding," said Eason. The GIS project team contacted selected departments, identified the citys GIS needs and followed up with a 600-page RFI to selected vendors.

After choosing ESRI technology in the spring of 1999, GISCOE focused on reestablishing GIS credibility in the city government. "Credibility is the biggest issue," said Eason. "We have to demonstrate to [city employees] that it does work, that it does have the ability to help them make some of their decisions."

Overcoming entrenched skepticism called for marketing and application strategies. "Thats why I hired business people with technical backgrounds," said Eason. "Their job is to go out and market this. They each have departments within the city government theyre responsible for. They go out and tell them what GIS can do, participate in facilitating plans and developing GIS strategies, show them how the new technology can help them make better decisions. Some of the people in those departments just arent aware of what the new technology can do."

The GIS group followed up with applications that had immediate utility for participating departments. "The idea was to first