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Summer 2007
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URISA logo "Managing GIS"
A column from Members of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association

Redefining the "Killer App"

By Scott Oppmann, Oakland County, Michigan, Manager, Application Services Division, Oakland County Information Technology

As geospatial professionals, we are constantly searching for the next "killer app" that will showcase the benefits of geospatial technology and demonstrate clearly that this technology is relevant. Through these efforts and our passion for the unique value of geospatial technology, in many cases we have become isolated from our IT counterparts and erected barriers that prevent the technology from being more widely used like other business applications, such as finance/personnel management, e-mail, or content management. This independence has resulted in separate implementations of network and server technology, limited integration in government business applications, and constant struggles for funding and support from elected officials and decision makers.

The root of this GIS isolationist behavior can generally be traced back to the debate over who should be responsible for implementing geospatial technology within the organizational structure of one's government agency. This debate has been around as long as the technology itself. Many successful programs have evolved from operating departments (taxation, planning, public works, etc.), while others have evolved out of formal IT service organizations. In either case, I would submit their success can generally be attributed to having the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

In Michigan, this debate is being magnified by the one-state recession (a term used to refer to Michigan's unique economic issues). Officials are challenged by staggering revenue shortfalls and budget deficits. This is forcing governments to eliminate discretionary services, collaborate on essential services, and consider government consolidation whenever possible. As a result, geospatial programs throughout the state have been severely affected or, even worse, eliminated. Many of these geospatial programs were easy targets for elected officials and decision makers looking to address budget deficits because they were independent departments and/or agencies that were not integrated in critical government business functions and, at times, were supporting redundant infrastructure and professional skills. Michigan's geospatial community is probably similar to many others, and as such, we need to resolve this debate once and for all so we can ensure we will be relevant in the future.

So how does the geospatial community stop searching for the next killer app and ensure relevance within our own organizations? First and foremost, we must stop debating which department and/or agency we should be affiliated with and embrace being part of a larger IT organization and the associated expertise and infrastructure that already exists. In doing so, we will become "married" to our IT counterparts and promise that we will work together "in sickness and in health, till death do us part."

This new marriage will provide a host of benefits. For example, we will be able to leverage our position in the IT organization and focus on integrating geospatial technology in business applications so geography can be used to solve problems by a much larger community: the business problems most IT organizations hear about from their customers every day. In addition, we will be able to leverage the CIO role in the organization and elevate the value of, and support for, geospatial technology. This direct relationship with the CIO will generally ensure access to the CEO and bring with it a host of opportunities.

This marriage may mean that complex geospatial modeling or cartography will not be our focus anymore. Instead, we may turn our attention to developing a Web service that will be used by taxation, 911, and permitting systems so they can ensure every parcel and/or address is valid. Or we may provide an easy-to-use mapping application that allows our Animal Control Division to effectively census homes across the county so they can ensure dogs are properly licensed and fees are proactively collected. But in the end, there is one thing we won't have to focus on anymore: the relevance of our geospatial program within our respective organizations.

About the Author

Scott Oppmann is the manager of Oakland County's Application Services Division. He is responsible for the planning, implementation, and support of spatial and nonspatial technology solutions across the diverse customer base that includes more than 80 county departments and 60 local units of government. He is currently serving as cochair of Michigan's Geospatial Coordinating Initiative.

More Information

For more information, contact Scott Oppmann (e-mail: oppmanns@oakgov.com).

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