Can Your Mother Understand This? Former Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer and GIS in the Public Sector

"Everything you work with is somewhere and is connected to something. Geography is the science of our world, patterns relationships and processes."

by / May 10, 2005

Former Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer, a long-time GIS evangelist and now a consultant for GIS firm ESRI, keynoted a half-day geospatial training program at the Government Technology Conference yesterday. Geringer -- who has a degree in mechanical engineering, worked on the NASA Viking Mars Lander and was in on the ground floor of the Global Positioning Satellite system -- knows technology quite well. Nevertheless, he emphasized the importance of talking about purpose and mission rather than technology, at one point saying his criteria is: "can your mother understand this?"

"Start with the issue, not the technology," he said, when talking to officials, legislators and non-technical people. Once they catch on to what GIS can do, he explained, they will pose their own "what if" scenarios and they are on board. That helps avoid the danger of valuable technology being a separate budget line item -- the first to be cut.

That's important, he explained, as a survey revealed that while CIOs were relatively well informed about IT issues, CEOs were only 45 percent informed, agency directors 36 percent, budget personnel 28 percent and legislative bodies a mere 7 percent.

To illustrate not only how to communicate issues, but how well suited GIS is for that task, Geringer brought up some compelling GIS presentations. In one example, the year-by-year advance of West Nile Virus was depicted in color across the nation's 3,000 counties. The virus appeared, swept across the country and then something interesting happened. As Geringer pointed out, following the first wave of the virus, a sort of resistance appeared, slowing its further advance. Without GIS, he explained, that would be very difficult to see.

Geringer takes pride in his state's small population, and brought laughter as he showed a map of the state with each person plotted. "The happiest couple in Wyoming" were circled -- Geringer and his wife.

But the real power of GIS is in its ability to reduce tables of numbers and multiple complexities to a simple concept that can be grasped and understood easily. Geringer showed display after display that did just that: the West's power generation grid and a satellite photo of the nation with the Eastern half of the country lit up at night, and the West mostly dark except for a few major cities. An overlay of Alaska over the continental U.S., with the huge state stretching from Savanna, Georgia, to Los Angeles. "GIS gives a sense of place, a sense of interrelation," he said. "Everything you work with is somewhere and is connected to something. Geography is the science of our world, patterns relationships and processes."

Health planning, land ownership patterns, drug treatment, transportation, economics, job training and education necessities, public safety, homeland security -- anything and everything can be better illustrated and understood with GIS.

Geringer said there are 850 separate data elements in health concerns, that must be considered in sharing among various systems. In addition there are privacy and liability concerns. Nevertheless, he said, in a crisis, people do work together, share information and are successful. The challenge is to operate cooperatively in the much more prevalent non-emergency concerns of government.
Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.

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