Spatial Technologies: Software Strategy: Options for the Enterprise

31 Dec, 2004 By: James L. Sipes

Organizations increase efficiency by sharing resources and applications

In recent years many large companies, organizations and municipalities have switched from independent, stand-alone GIS systems to more integrated approaches that share resources and applications. The basic idea of an enterprise GIS is to address the needs of departments collectively instead of individually. The development of one comprehensive infrastructure minimizes potential conflicts and misunderstandings and can result in significant cost savings and performance improvements.

Benefits of Enterprise GIS

The basic mandate for any enterprise GIS application is to ensure that all agencies within an organization have access to GIS information so that they can operate at maximum efficiency. Some of the potential benefits an enterprise GIS can provide are greater consistency and accuracy from improved system-wide management, more efficient use and sharing of data, reduced redundancy of data across the system, better use of departmental GIS resources and reduced maintenance and support costs.

One of the biggest benefits of an enterprise GIS is that priorities can be established and decisions made about the best way to use company resources. Data is one of the most significant investments in any GIS program, so any approach that reduces acquisition costs while maintaining data quality is important. With so many day-to-day operations of municipalities requiring the use of geospatial data, a system needs to be in place for sorting and prioritizing the requests.

If funds are limited, acquisition can be geared toward data that fulfills the greatest number of needs. Many GIS goals can be accomplished by using commercial, off-the-shelf applications, but there are occasions where customized applications must be developed. With an enterprise GIS program, it may be possible to develop a custom application and then make minor revisions to meet the needs of individual departments.

Data Warehouse

Most enterprise GIS applications use some type of geospatial data warehouse that loads information from operational databases into a centrally managed and distributed system. When data is stored in a data warehouse, all users have immediate access to the most accurate and up-to-date version, so there should no longer be problems with departments using outdated information. A warehouse also makes it easier to manage GIS resources and protect the data from prying eyes.

One approach is to have one or more data stewards or custodians who are in charge of maintaining the data warehouse. These data stewards are responsible for updating, protecting and organizing all data. Instead of having each steward manage the GIS data for a particular department, it's much more efficient to assign them to different types of data. For example, one steward could be in charge of all land use data, while another oversees all water-related data. This approach encourages interaction between departments and reduces the possibility of redundancy.

Accessibility for Constituents

One reason that many organizations use Web-based enterprise GIS applications is because they make it easier to share information with constituents and encourage a greater level of community participation. One of the primary objectives behind the City of Vallejo's enterprise GIS application, for example, is to allow residents and business owners to access data that was previously available only to city staff (figure 1).
 Figure 1. The City of Vallejo implemented an enterprise GIS so that it could allow city staff, residents and business owners access to data.
Figure 1. The City of Vallejo implemented an enterprise GIS so that it could allow city staff, residents and business owners access to data.

VEDIS (Vallejo Economic Development Information System) is an online application that provides business and statistical information about the city. City officials wanted to improve the interaction between city staff and the public and thought VEDIS was an effective way to do that. The enterprise GIS provides immediate access to up to several data layers, including parcel maps, parks, fire stations, police stations and census data.

For organizations interested in making data available to stakeholders, one common mistake is to make GIS data available online before sufficient standards and procedures are in place to assure quality control. Another issue is what, if any, constraints should be placed on GIS data that is made available to the public.

If a system goes online before it's ready, there can be errors in accessing information. If members of the public form a negative perception of the online system, they won't use it and may potentially be less supportive of other city activities as a result. My company is currently working with a local municipality that provides online access to data from an enterprise GIS. The current problem is that users first have to type in their names and e-mail addresses, but then the system crashes. After a week of trying to access the information online, we finally just had them burn a CD and send us the data.

Staffing Issues

One decision facing organizations is how to manage support staff. One option is to use a decentralized organizational structure, in which GIS staff members are located in various departments throughout the organization. Most organizations that have developed an enterprise GIS program take a more centralized management approach. A core team works together to manage all GIS applications, and this team is responsible for working with all of the departments in the organization. Some organizations use a hybrid approach of centralization and decentralization to maintain a corporate-wide focus while also meeting needs of indivi-dual departments.

For cities, counties and other organizations that have historically centralized their GIS staff, the leap to enterprise GIS has been fairly straightforward. Those that focused GIS use at the department level have found the transition to be more difficult, primarily because the infrastructure and management approach is completely different.

Training and Support

The key to the success of any enterprise GIS is adequate training and support. With a good training and support program, the number of knowledgeable GIS users within an organization will expand. Without such a program, you end up with a handful of GIS experts and a failed effort at extending GIS throughout the organization. A training program can help potential users learn how to work within the enterprise GIS structure, develop new skills and keep up to date on technological changes. A common mistake is to assume that GIS users within an organization will learn all they need from other users. Individual users typically do things a little differently from their colleagues, and these differences are amplified as new users add their own idiosyncracies when it comes to using GIS. Formalized training will help ensure consistency in training across the enterprise GIS.

After users have been trained, they'll need sufficient support to enable them to do their jobs effectively. The key to user support is providing a timely response so that problems can be resolved and users can get back to work. Some organizations offer this support via a help desk, but many use an information Web portal that is accessed through an intranet or a password-protected Internet site. This type of online support can be particularly helpful for addressing common problems, publicizing training opportunities and listing appropriate contacts for specific types of support. Training materials and user manuals can also be stored online. Links can be established to all the departments in an organization so that everyone knows how others are using GIS.

Enterprise GIS Implementation

Most major municipalities have made the move to enterprise GIS or are in the process of doing so. San Francisco's enterprise GIS program maintains and provides high-quality spatial data to both city departments and the public. Residents of the city and county of San Francisco can access essential mapping services via the Web site. The Oakland County, Michigan, enterprise GIS is a multifaceted program intended to support and promote shared access and development of data across jurisdictional and departmental boundaries. The enterprise GIS program for Nassau County, New York, has been emulated by many other municipalities because of its well-established models for data and applications, users, networking and communications, and data warehousing structure.

The District of Saanich, a bedroom community of the City of Victoria, British Columbia, has been recognized as one of the more innovative municipalities when it comes to using GIS (figure 2). In late October 2004, it received an Award of Excellence from ESRI Canada for its innovative application of enterprise GIS technology. All of the departments in the district now have access to a variety of information via an intranet GIS that came online this past July. Saanich has also developed an Internet mapping application to make it easier for residents to obtain information.

Figure 2. The district of Saanich in British Columbia recently won an Award of Excellence from ESRI Canada for its innovative application of enterprise GIS technology.
Figure 2. The district of Saanich in British Columbia recently won an Award of Excellence from ESRI Canada for its innovative application of enterprise GIS technology.

Cities and counties are not the only ones that have discovered enterprise GIS. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Region 1 office has implemented eEnterprise GIS to help it administer migratory bird, fisheries, endangered species and wildlife refuge programs across six western states and the Pacific Islands. The GIS system, which was implemented by GeoNorth, was developed around ArcIMS, ColdFusion and MapOptix on a Windows NT server.

The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) in Oregon and Washington uses enterprise GIS to manage large expanses of land. BLM has been using GIS for years, but it also has numerous databases and other digital data that are not in geospatial format. The object is to integrate all of this information into one comprehensive system. BLM is using ArcGIS as the foundation for its enterprise GIS—it's the standard GIS software for the Department of the Interior and its agencies.

Most major energy companies have already adopted enterprise GIS or are in the process of doing so. Southern California Gas, South Carolina Electric & Gas, New York State Electric & Gas, Southern Company, Bonneville Power Administration and Colorado Springs Utilities are just a few that currently use enterprise GIS.

Enterprise GIS Help

Those interested in implementing an enterprise GIS can find many options. One source of information about enterprise GIS is PTI's Enterprise GIS Education and Collaboration forum. This forum helps governments and organizations make decisions about how best to use enterprise GIS services. PTI provides a series of Webcast workshops, case studies, discussions and white papers that discuss the merits of enterprise GIS.

A wide selection of GIS tools is available to build an enterprise application. The City of Charlotte uses a suite of ESRI GIS tools, including ArcGIS, ArcInfo, ArcView, ArcIMS, MapObjects, 3D Analyst and Spatial Analyst. RegGIS, an enterprise GIS for the City of Salem and Marion County, and the Oregon City enterprise GIS were both developed by GeoNorth using Visual Basic, MapObjects and GeoNorth's CityMap. Pictometry International, a software company that develops visual intelligence information systems, has provided digital imagery for many major metropolitan areas, including Atlanta, Philadelphia (figure 3), Baltimore, Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, DC. Users can access up to 12 different high-resolution views of any property, building, highway, landmark or other physical feature within each respective city.

Figure 3. Pictometry International provides digital imagery for numerous cities, including Philadelphia.
Figure 3. Pictometry International provides digital imagery for numerous cities, including Philadelphia.

Perhaps the simplest approach is to go with something like ESRI's ArcGIS EGIS (Enterprise GIS In-A-Box), a complete, integrated hardware and software environment that has already been configured and tested and is ready to install. EGIS, developed by INLINE Corp., is intended to help eliminate the time and effort it takes to implement an enterprise GIS system. In most situations it can be installed in less than a day. Four different versions of EGIS are available, ranging in price from $80,000 to $195,000.

Other options for enterprise GIS include Autodesk's GIS Design Server, which centralizes GIS data. Intergraph's GeoMedia product incorporates data server technology that promises to access common GIS and CAD formats without requiring any translation, a benefit to enterprise users that need to integrate legacy data from different systems. Bentley extends its Project-Wise product to help enterprises better manage their geospatial data.

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Taking the Leap

All in all, enterprise GIS programs are still relatively new, and many organizations are just now making the leap. Smaller communities and organizations are also starting to realize the benefits of implementing enterprise GIS. As with any new, rapidly emerging technology, the next few years should be interesting as we address current problems, find new problems and continue to push the envelope of enterprise GIS.

James L. Sipes is the founding principal of Sand County Studios in Seattle, Washington.

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