The Impact of GIS Technology Developments and Transformations on Local Government GIS Operations

Dale J. Morris, GISP, Director Of Geographic Information Services, Erie County, New York
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Dale J. Morris, GISP, Director Of Geographic Information Services, Erie County, New York

Dale J. Morris, GISP, Director Of Geographic Information Services, Erie County, New York

I have had the privilege, and challenge, of being in charge of digital mapping for Erie County, New York, for over 20 years. For the last fifteen of those years I have been the Director of the County’s Office of Geographic Information Services. In the world of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, those fifteen years span several generations, or more, of technology changes. These changes have greatly affected how we approach providing GIS assistance to the multitude of County departments and the residents of Erie County. Fifteen to twenty years ago GIS technology was difficult to implement at an enterprise level, and it was simply difficult to get people to understand how GIS could benefit their operations. Today, the scene is entirely different. GIS is commonly accepted and expected in most government and business environments, and people have developed at least a basic understanding of its benefits. Within Erie County government, GIS now plays an integral role in many departments, including Planning, Public Works, Health, Emergency Services, and Parks.

  One notable transformation has been the trend towards the development of targeted, single purpose GIS applications 

This transformation of GIS from a little understood and difficult to use technology to an enterprise system that has a multitude of staff and public users, has had a dramatic impact on our GIS Office. Formerly our focus was on direct service to departments to meet the mapping needs of their specific projects. Now, because of the growth of “GIS awareness,” the staff of the GIS Office focuses on providing and maintaining an enterprise spatial infrastructure where users in individual departments can build their own GIS applications. This requires close cooperation with the County’s Information Technology staff, who keep the GIS hardware “humming” along for us. The relationship between GIS and IT staffs has been critical to the successful implementation of GIS technology across County departments, and to making GIS/ mapping available to the public through Internet mapping services.

The challenge now for our GIS Office staff is to continue to raise awareness of the capabilities of GIS, as we have always done, while focusing on educating and training users in other departments so they can use GIS applications in daily operations. We’re breaking that former “cycle of dependency” of relying entirely on the GIS staff to meet routine mapping needs. We now provide the tools and spatial infrastructure that enable departments to develop their own GIS workflows and applications, which allow GIS staff to focus on more in-depth projects that require GIS professionals with a deeper understanding of the technology.

As the use of GIS has become more common in the public and private arenas, so also has the means by which users want to interact with the data. One notable transformation has been the trend towards the development of targeted, single purpose GIS applications. For example, fifteen years ago we focused on providing as much spatial data we could in our online GIS applications, a sort of “Swiss-army” knife approach to getting data into the hands of users. Because of that the user interfaces were often clunky and difficult to navigate. We have now seen the GIS industry shift to providing GIS applications that focus very specifically on what the user needs for individual tasks: Do you need parcel data? We have an app just for that. Do you need demographic information and maps? There is an app just for that. These task-specific applications make the GIS data easier to access and use, but they create additional development and maintenance demands on the GIS staff.

The growth of location-aware applications and services (Google maps, for example) has led to an additional challenge as a government agency—a demand for easily accessible spatial information on every desktop or mobile device. This demand or expectation that we will provide online access to spatial data drives some of our work program. It is not just a nice thing to do, it is expected that we will provide this service. As a GIS Office, we meet this challenge by providing online mapping services that allow access to some of our most critical data—property boundaries and attributes, street data, and environmental features. The way we do this is continually evolving, with concepts like cloud data storage, and spatial apps and map services hosted by other service providers becoming more prevalent.

Having been witness to many years of developments and transformations in the GIS industry, I believe we can all agree that geospatial technology has matured and evolved rapidly. I’m certain these transformations will continue and occur perhaps even more rapidly. This is an exciting industry to have been part of, with new challenges always rising up. Our task is to respond rapidly to these challenges in order to take maximum advantage of the power and the potential of GIS technology.

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