When Pennsylvania CIO Art Stevens appointed the state's first GIS director in October 2003, he became the latest in a growing number of state and local leaders to do so. Over the last few years, Gary, Ind., California, Tennessee, Kansas and others have hired or appointed GIS directors or geographic information officers (GIOs).

Agency GIS coordinators and managers have been commonplace since the 1970s, but GIS directors and GIOs, who primarily operate from a jurisdiction's IT office, are a fairly new phenomenon. Where coordinators and managers traditionally focused on eliminating redundant GIS efforts and establishing standards, GIS directors are charged with taking a broader view of their jurisdiction's GIS activities.

One theory behind the growing trend is that, as GIS transformed from a backroom technology understood by few to a more pervasive tool and a standard component of a jurisdiction's IT infrastructure, the need for an enterprise view has emerged.

"It's a basic recognition that GIS plays an essential role, and that the technology is important enough to require management at a significant level within the organization," said Dan Parr, president of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), a nonprofit association of government GIS professionals. "As government organizations realized GIS' real potential is as an enterprisewide system, they began looking to perform much broader applications. Once you start crossing functional boundaries, you really need to have someone looking at the big picture."

In Pennsylvania, James Knudson, the state's new GIS director, said agency GIS managers and coordinators had done well in their agencies, but enterprisewide leadership was missing. "The technology keeps changing while the needs we're trying to support keep increasing," he said. "It takes a full-time person to provide some leadership and coordination to meet the business needs."

Expanding Applications

In the past, GIS implementations often were spurred by the need for spatial information in agencies such as public works, public safety or emergency services. But the technology rarely moved beyond those walls.

Today, there is growing recognition that government functions are intertwined, and spatial information and GIS can be effectively used in many areas. For example, decisions and actions involving public safety often affect the environment and economy, according to Cy Smith, Oregon's statewide GIS coordinator.

"If developed with an enterprise perspective," Smith said, "geospatial information provides a shared framework upon which shared business processes can be built."

Coordinating the development of GIS information and technology across the enterprise can enable jurisdictions to build one information infrastructure for use by multiple agencies. In times of limited budgets, that coordination and leveraging of resources allows jurisdictions to do more with less, but it takes someone with an enterprise perspective to recognize cross-functional opportunities and facilitate data sharing.

"Data is expensive to generate and expensive to maintain," said William Johnson, president of the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC), an organization of states committed to using GIS for efficient and effective government. "The more you can direct cooperation among the agencies, the more value you can get out of your GIS system."

A comprehensive, coordinated GIS system can reduce service-delivery costs in multiple areas of government, including social services, environmental management and planning, but doing so effectively means reducing redundancies and maximizing efficiencies across the enterprise.

"Without a director, you have groups spending money with blinders on," said URISA's Parr. "These directors need to find ways to implement GIS into the enterprise information systems, because that's where you will achieve the economies of scale that justify costs of developing the enormous database to begin with."

Yet getting agencies to cooperate, coordinate and collaborate on the development of a shared geospatial information infrastructure is a task that "could be likened to pulling teeth from a whole herd of cats," said Oregon's Smith. "

Justine Brown  |  Contributing Writer