Tackling GIS Credibility Issues

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

by / December 12, 2000
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 develop simple applications that fit easily into a departments existing environment, to prove that they could help them make some of their decisions. We had to do that to get people onboard as soon as possible and to make sure the city saw concrete evidence under way in the GIS office," said Eason.

The Need for Quick Results

The first application was a series of Web-based modules that enabled departments to pull up Calgarys base map and access a variety of information via the citys intranet. Module capabilities included address intersection location, buffering, thematic mapping, labeling and complex query support. The application enabled intranet-capable departments using the new ArcView to discover for themselves that the technology worked.

Another application with even more political impact linked census data to its spatial components down to block level and locked out address information to protect individual privacy. According to Eason, census data had been strictly tabular up to this time. "Now we were able to see it on a map."

Since the city was scheduled for a review of existing ward boundaries, the timing was perfect. Previously, redistricting was a manual, paper-based process that took 18 months to complete. Barbara Clifford, Calgarys returning officer responsible for ward redistricting, described it as tedious and time consuming. "You would start working on a map, trying to redistribute the population, get halfway through the process, find out it wasnt working, then have to go back and start over again."

The City Clerks Office took the application, factored in some census demographics, and worked up a demonstration of different ward-boundary scenarios. "We showed it to the politicians and the impact was immediate," said Clifford. "They saw how they could try different scenarios, move boundaries and almost immediately see the effects on the population; how they could analyze a wide range of low-level demographic and civic data to determine current ward boundaries, draw polygons and examine their statistics down to block level."

To enable the aldermen and their clerks to build their own scenarios, the GIS group added a polygon-processing program with a simple, rubber-band selection function that controls the underlying ArcView functions. Rubber banding involves moving lines or objects while one end remains fixed in position. The process requires no GIS knowledge. "This year we did the whole redistricting process in four months," said Clifford.

The city council has also benefited from the greater efficiency. Since the redistricting data is relatively fresh, they are using it in working out their annual budget.

The application generated spin-offs for other departments as well. For the first time, planners and long-range transportation people are able to project growth patterns by looking at the census data on a map. Planning assistant Brenda Etherington said this was the first GIS application she has been able to operate. "Before that, it was all talk and lots of demonstrations," she said. "But only the really technical people worked with GIS; you never actually saw it work. Im just medium technical, and I can actually push the buttons and make this work -- it really is here!"

Converting Complicated Data

The GIS group also used the technology to convert an awkward parks-management program. The parks department was using a CAD drafting functionality to draw spaces and amenities -- roads, greens, benches, buildings, baseball diamonds, etc. -- taking the information from a tabular inventory of park resources. Unfortunately, the tabular data never jived with the spatial. Using ESRIs Map Objects, the GIS group integrated the two, so that changes made to one automatically update the other. The application significantly reduced map-maintenance time for the parks department.

Helping departments convert legacy data into useable GIS environments has been another ongoing effort. Eason pointed out that, although the departments have good-quality CAD data, it is not useable for GIS analysis. "CAD doesnt have the level of quality needed for GIS analysis and decision-making processes; spatial analysis calls for a different quality level of data than a CAD environment provides."

Eason added that, because the CAD data is high quality, it can be converted to the current GIS without much difficulty. He also pointed out that considerable conversion work remained, particularly converting from paper.

A Bright Outlook

GISCOE projects on the board include continued decommissioning of the older GIS environment and an Executive Information System. This is a Web-based application that will deliver GIS and related information to key decision makers in city government and give council members and their assistants access to the information they need in responding to public inquiries. It will enable city managers, aldermen and staff to do thematic mapping, examine relationships and generate standard maps. Users will be able to enter an address, see the ward it is in, the police zone, the nearest bus stop or library and many other related facts. The application will also serve as a model for delivering Web-based GIS to the public.

GISCOE began with a budget of $1.5 million and a staff of 12. Today it has a staff of 17 and a budget of $2 million. Current levels are not expected to change. But Eason is projecting that within five years, Calgary will have 2,500 GIS data maintainers, mappers, programmers, developers, analysts and technicians in the various departments.

Although GIS credibility is gradually improving, a recent reorganization by the city government has slowed progress. "Right now, their priorities are getting their functional units pulled together," said Eason. "GIS is not at the top on their list. Our challenge is how to work with them where they are now, how to give them some information, let them think about it -- not burden them -- but make sure were there when they need us. If we see something that can help them, well let them know."

Bill McGarigle is a writer specializing in communications and information technology. He is based in Santa Cruz, Calif.