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Geographic information systems (GIS) have grown into a powerful medium for communicating information for and about local government. As a result, GIS managers’ power may be growing as well.
In many city and county governments, the GIS staff has been a partition of the information technology (IT) department. Because GIS has become a valuable way of communicating with the public, interacting with other jurisdictions, and a good decision-making tool, some governments are bringing the GIS staff out of the shadows of the IT department and elevating the role of the GIS manager. As a result, a new title is emerging in government: the geographic information officer (GIO).
In the past, the GIO’s duties fell to the head of the IT department, the chief information officer, for example. But as those duties have become more important to all government services, they have demanded more time from managers who can help use the information to make strategic decisions about services.
Federal and state governments have embraced the concept. In 1999 the U.S. Geological Survey created a GIO position in its Senior Executive Service. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California government also have created the same type of position in their top management. As the federal and state governments have invited GIOs to upper management, cities and counties also are beginning to recognize the value of a GIO-type position to help make strategic decisions for their communities.
Washington, D.C., for example, has created a role for its GIS director that reflects the high-level influence the technology has in the city. GIS Director Vicki Defries is responsible for technical, management, procurement and budget issues. She reports to the deputy director for e-government in the Office of the Chief Technology Officer. “The [new] position was created in response to the recognition of the importance of GIS,” Defries says. “The Office of the Chief Technology Officer was created in 1999 and so was the position.”
A GIO deals with more than GIS technology. The GIO looks at the big picture and knows how and where GIS can be best used. For example, a top GIS manager may determine the technology to invest in and how data may be used to solve problems and make decisions. A GIO’s influence may also involve data access, data integrity, local standards and interoperability between departments.
Steve Van Aartsen, GIS coordinator for Sioux Falls, S.D., says GIS managers must know more than the nuts and bolts, and also have good management skills to work with department heads, managers, fellow employees and the public. He also says that GIS is more than mapping. “Certainly the mapping component is important for users to visually understand geographic features and spatial proximity, but a better way to think about the system is to view it as a decision-making tool using any data sets with location attributes.”
The spatial presentation of data sets is used routinely as a decision-making tool to parlay alternatives and outcomes. “GIS is available with hundreds of layers of data that can be compiled to answer questions that once took weeks to understand, and can now be analyzed in a matter of minutes,” says Gabriel Bey, water services project coordinator and project manager for Phoenix. “GIS can evaluate data based on the criteria provided and [can] present a map that can help [managers] visualize what is possible, or even display alternatives that may not have been considered based on the results of the analysis.”
Making decisions based on spatial data also saves money. “Police and fire departments will be able to coordinate and use the GIS system for completing incident reports in a uniform, collaborative fashion,” says Tom Horness, a senior GIS specialist with Sheboygan, Wis. “GIS departments will see more money because all other departments will be more cost effective because GIS allows them to drastically reduce the repetition of duties.”
Future GIS managers will continue to connect GIS technology with multiple users. Being able to interact builds consensus between GIS users inside the government and beyond, according to Virginia Peterman, GIS coordinator for Howard County, Md. “In many cases, the GIS manager has little or no actual power over the user departments,” she says. “Instead, he or she must operate by creating win-win situations and making the users want to cooperate and share data with each other.”
The community of GIS users has broadened to include anyone with an Internet connection. For example, residents can use home computers to find answers to questions about land use in their state or local jurisdiction. Commercial entrepreneurs can combine GIS data about zoning and tax-incentive areas to determine what parts of a city are best suited for establishing a new business.
When GIS is networked through intranets and the Internet, the location of the user does not matter. “Municipalities like Greensboro, [N.C.], face a variety of management challenges to maintain geographically dispersed assets such as facilities, equipment, roads, bridges and extensive piping networks,” says Rick Fife, assistant building superintendent for Greensboro. “The inability to perform the proper service at the right location can decrease the quality of service demanded by our community and create a strain on budgets.”
Ensuring that the proper service is performed at the right location often requires the leadership of a quality GIS manager. That is the challenge that local governments face as they encounter a market where technical aptitude must be balanced with management savvy.
The GIS management market
“The trend to hire more GIS professionals at the city and county level is due to the increase and accuracy in technology,” says Andrew Ratzlaff, a partner with GISjobs.com, a Web site for job announcements in the industry. In the past, local governments focused on filling GIS vacancies with someone trained to use the technology. Today’s vacancies include managers as well as technicians.
“Good GIS managers, not users, are going to be more of a market,” says Scott Lieske, professor in the Agricultural and Applied Economics Department at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. “GIS managers are the ones that will tie all the decision making together between departments. They will do the administrative end so the users can concentrate on their work to create the layers for each of the different departments.”
The value of spatial information and the power that it provides is strengthening the career potential of a GIS manager as a strategic player in local government. GIS management jobs are becoming less of a staff function and more of a higher-paid position in the government’s management ranks. “GIS expertise is starting to be seen like IT expertise, where most people recognize that you get what you pay for,” says Shane Parson, a senior project associate at the Center for Geospatial Information Technology at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. “In larger communities with a big staff, the GIS manager’s salary can be justified and absorbed. In smaller communities where every staff member wears 10 hats, it is harder to justify paying the GIS manager more than the town manager.”
However, the expansion of the GIS manager position may be just a matter of time. “The market is growing as GIS starts up, matures and increases in complexity in many cities,” says Ron Reynolds, GIS manager for Plano, Texas. “I have noticed a trend of more manager positions, where in the past, a city may have had a GIS analyst or GIS coordinator as the highest GIS title.”
Because management positions offer high salary levels, some in the engineering ranks are crossing over to GIS positions. “Many GIS managers with a Master’s degree are making as much money as their colleagues with advanced professional degrees in engineering,” says Sam Shamsi, a consultant for Pittsburgh-based ATS-Chester Engineers. “Many civil and electrical engineers have converted to GIS managers and enjoy the financial benefits.”
The greatest prospects for the lucrative positions are in growth cities that could use the services of a senior-level GIS manager. “Developing areas of the country have good prospects for GIS professionals,” Shamsi adds. “In stagnant-growth areas, GIS jobs are very competitive — advertisements in these areas for entry level GIS positions can easily generate hundreds of resumes. Senior-level GIS management positions are relatively difficult to fill, so it’s a sellers market in many instances.”
While it appears that growth will be slow and gradual, the success with GIS management will breed more investment in GIS and the people who manage it. “Many cities and counties take a cautious approach to GIS,” says David Patton, a professor of GIS management at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich. “They start [using GIS] with a single project or a single department. Success with that first project or department increases belief in the benefits of GIS, and soon it’s in other departments. Eventually, efficiency demands that someone look at GIS as a whole, as opposed to a group of independent entities.”
James Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Va.
Do you have a GIS strategic plan?
Well, the state of California has one. So does Nebraska, Idaho and Oregon. And cities and counties are leaning that way, too.
Santa Clara County, Calif., began a GIS Strategic Plan to identify needs and opportunities for GIS among the county departments and define a near-term and long-term plan for its development and use. Major phases of the project include needs assessment, strategic planning and tactical plan development.
The Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania created a GIS Strategic Plan to evaluate the GIS needs of Lehigh County, Northampton County, Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, and the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission and to recommend a framework for cooperative implementation of GIS technology in the Lehigh Valley.
Charlevoix County, Mich., developed a GIS Strategic Plan to evaluate the use of information within the county, improve the technologies currently being used, and provide the structure for developing a productive, efficient, and cost-effective GIS. The county considers its GIS Strategic Plan “as a seed document that will require reevaluation and modification as implementation occurs.”
A GIS Strategic Plan is one way that GIS is coming of age, and the managers behind it are making their mark through strategic applications and databases. “It is natural that the people who deliver this level of information are going to gain prominence,” says Virginia Peterman, GIS coordinator for Howard County, Md. “Information is what drives government. The GIS staff is handing out the information. In the early years, our GIS efforts where all about educating our clients and building base data layers such as addressed centerlines, ortho photography and the parcel base. Now the base data is in maintenance mode, and most county workers know what ‘GIS’ stands for. Our time is now spent in developing specialized applications for accessing GIS data and creating specialized databases for those applications.”
— James Romeo