The Rise of the GIS Director

More state and local jurisdictions appoint GIS directors to oversee GIS at the enterprise level.

by / March 26, 2004
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. "There has to be a lot of enlightened self-interest to get everyone moving in generally the same direction. Then a really strong business case has to be put together and supported by the key players. That's just one of the things an enterprise GIS director has to manage."

Sharing and Security
The duties and responsibilities of a GIS director or GIO vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but generally involve similar tasks, such as coordinating enterprise GIS strategies, fostering cooperative agreements among government entities, coordinating state map development, supporting homeland security GIS efforts, negotiating and managing enterprise GIS vendor agreements, managing data elements for critical infrastructure, and implementing standards and best practices for all GIS-related activities within a jurisdiction.

Homeland security and public safety are vital, said the NSGIC's Johnson. "There is renewed emphasis in making sure the best, most up-to-date and most accurate critical infrastructure and emergency response kinds of GIS data are always available. A lot of resources are now coming from that area to produce and maintain data for that community of users."

Developing GIS standards is also a high priority for many jurisdictions. "We need to share data, and we need to have standards and interoperability at the data level," said Pennsylvania's Knudson. "So even if I'm using different software than you, I can take your data and use it when I need it."

Knudson is focusing on developing a strategic plan to create common enterprise assets and technical resources to help reduce the load on individual agencies. At some point, each agency deals with an address, whether it's where someone lives or where a service is provided. Translating that address to a location on a map, a process known as geocoding, is performed at every Pennsylvania agency. "But we're doing it 10 different ways. It doesn't make sense to continue doing that. We want to come up with a consistent, efficient method for handling everybody's need for geocoding," said Knudson.

"We have multiple agencies creating the same data. Then it's difficult to know which one is the best one, which one is the official one, who's maintaining it, what state it's in, etc.," he said. "We want to create data once, have just one version, and then use it everywhere."

James Querry, GIS director for Philadelphia, also is trying to standardize the geocoding process in his jurisdiction. Querry has been tasked with creating a unified land-records system that connects disparate departmental databases. Information in those databases previously could not be integrated because it lacked common key fields and existed in different formats.

"You have very rich spatial data sets that don't have a lot of information attached to them. The information lies out in the departmental databases," said Querry. "Often the only time to connect them is through an address, but a single parcel could be represented by a different address in each database for a lot of different reasons. This project will standardize addresses, and through geospatial processes, allow someone to find the current and correct address."

This type of increased efficiency is what makes the director position so important, said Querry. "One person gains an understanding of what's happening across the entire enterprise and can leverage assets -- whether that means people, technology, programs or data -- to the highest extent possible."
Justine Brown Contributing Writer