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Summer 2010
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URISA logo "Managing GIS"
A column from Members of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association

Finding Success During Hard Times

By Nicole Gattuso, GIS Director, McHenry County, Illinois

Almost everyone is facing the challenge of how to get by in these economic times. As powerful and necessary as GIS has become, those working in GIS are not exempt from needing to do more with less. click to enlargeWhether working for the public or private sector, we all are examining the resources we have. The question everyone must ask is, How can I better manage my system for continued success?

Background

McHenry County, Illinois, is located in the Chicago region. It is the sixth-largest county in the state of Illinois. McHenry County consists of approximately 150,000 parcels and has a population of around 320,000 people. McHenry County's GIS began roughly 15 years ago in the Assessment Department. It was then moved to the Information Technology Department in 2007 and became its own department in 2009. Just as it became its own department, revenues were 18 percent lower than expected and requests for applications tripled.

The McHenry County GIS Department has six full-time employees and is funded 100 percent through a document recording fee in the County Recorder's Office. The mission of the department is to maintain the parcel basemap and points of interest data, develop and deploy various interactive maps to assist departments, provide greater access to public information, assist departments with GIS solutions, and coordinate GIS efforts regionally.

With requests for applications on the rise, the question McHenry County faced was how to better manage limited resources to maximize application development and support. The county found success by using five key strategies:

  • Collaborate.
  • Make strategic staffing decisions.
  • Balance consulting services with in-house capabilities.
  • Make sound technical decisions.
  • Understand limitations.

Collaborate

Collaboration is important for success. If you are a public agency thinking about creating new revenue streams by selling data, consider what you might be losing. When you share your knowledge freely and collaborate with others, you will be able to accomplish much more. When others have greater access to information, the value of your information increases. People become dependent on the information and appreciate the value. Additionally, if nobody knows what you have, you are going to miss many opportunities to work with others.

In the Chicago region, McHenry County works closely with neighboring counties. Collectively, we have formed a group we refer to as the Northeastern Illinois, or NEIL, group. We meet regularly to discuss projects we are doing and share advice. We are developing data sharing standards to increase the efficiency of sharing data, which helps not only each county but also the municipalities or agencies that use data from multiple counties. Most recently, we have been collaborating to do aerial flights together. This reduced costs and increased our chances to obtain additional federal funding from both the United States Geological Survey and Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

Make Strategic Staffing Decisions

In these difficult economic times, it is critical to be choosy about whom you hire. It is important to have a balance of knowledge within your team. You will maximize what you are able to do if you spread out your knowledge and expertise. If you do have the opportunity to fill a position, be sure to take your time and make sure it is the right choice. Understand the important factors needed to fill the position and don't settle. Last year, McHenry County had to fill a position for a developer. It was a difficult task finding people who had expertise in .NET programming and GIS. We narrowed down the skills we thought were critical. We had to interview 50 candidates and administer a technical examination for each candidate. The investment in time paid off with finding the right candidate. It is also imperative to invest in the right training. When looking for areas to cut funding, sometimes this is the first area people look at. However, given how the GIS environment is rapidly changing, staff knowledge can quickly become obsolete if it is not updated.

Balance Consulting Services with In-House Capabilities

From a management perspective, hiring a consultant instead of using staff to undertake a project will not reduce the amount of oversight required by the manager. McHenry County has tried both approaches. We once hired consultants to do all our development, and we have tried only using staff at the county. The key to success, we believe, is balance. We have managed to do more than we can ever afford by having a developer on staff. However, this is not enough. You need outside knowledge to really grow and support applications. When hiring consultants, you need to be just as selective as when hiring your own staff. It is good to look for a consulting firm that understands your business needs and is willing to share knowledge openly.

Make Sound Technical Decisions

When planning any project, you need to look ahead at what is needed in terms of hardware, software, and resources to support the system. Often, agencies jump right in with the expectations of what they want and do not put the time into mapping out how to get there. This often leads to redundancies and shortfalls. The McHenry County GIS Department has been fortunate to work with an IT Department that strives to implement best practices. This has allowed easier integration of our GIS with other systems, such as our tax database and document management system, which ultimately has reduced resources needed.

Understand Limitations

  group photo
McHenry County GIS Department, left to right: Brian Anderson, Feng Lin, Edward Amoo, Amanda Foley, and Nicole Gattuso.

At McHenry County, we have a list of data and applications that we desire to create. However, with limited resources, it is impossible to do it all. We believe the best thing to do is determine what your mission critical needs are first. At McHenry County, we have determined that applications related to public safety and providing the public with easier access to information as our priorities. Although every need is important, it is critical to set priorities. With limited funding and resources, it is inevitable that some of your projects will need to be put on hold. It is also inevitable that you may not be able to do everything you did in the past. It is important to communicate realistic expectations with your customers and set realistic goals.

Conclusion

In these tough economic times, don't be afraid of change. We believe the best thing to do is embrace it! Every challenge gives you the opportunity to improve. Although it is a challenge in these economic times, I like to think of this time as an opportunity to evaluate how to improve things with greater efficiency and develop new paths to success.

About the Author

Nicole Gattuso, GISP, is the GIS director for McHenry County, Illinois. Gattuso has more than 12 years of experience in the GIS field. Prior to McHenry County, she worked for Wilbur Smith Associates providing GIS analysis of toll highway systems across the nation and for the Northern Illinois GIS laboratory. Gattuso is an active member of the Illinois GIS Association and a firm believer in the need for GIS professionals to share data and collaborate on projects. She graduated from Northern Illinois University with a bachelor's of science degree in geography and special coursework in computer science and mathematics.

More Information

For more information, contact Nicole Gattuso, GIS director, McHenry County, Illinois (tel.: 815-334-4280, e-mail: nlgattuso@co.mchenry.il.us).

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