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Interoperability Multiplies Returns on Investment

Return on investment, commonly referred to as ROI, has become a recurring theme in management publications and the topic of seminars and conference presentations. Why should a government agency or business care about its ROI on GIS or any other technology?

There are many reasons for exploring ROI. These reasons relate not only to how an organization is perceived by others, but what it knows about itself. This kind of self-examination encourages improvements in processes that keep businesses profitable and government organizations effective. Justifying expenditures is an accepted part of good business practice in the private sector and, increasingly, in the public sector. In an era marked by budget tightening, ROI analysis can answer the question that plagues managers everywhere, "What have you done for me lately?" ROI analysis also provides a self-check on job performance that boosts the confidence of workers as well as constituents or investors.

The Where of ROI

Work flow events, whether in business or government, generate tasks that result in products. Geography provides a context for relating work flow events, tasks, and products. As the language of geography, GIS provides a framework for organizing and maintaining data, improving work flows by streamlining tasks, and generating products more efficiently. In contrast to a relational database management system (DBMS) approach that focuses on spatial data types, GIS uses a knowledge-based approach that abstracts and serves geographic information that supplies the common link between departments in an organization or between organizations.

GIS centralizes data holdings, eliminates needless redundancy, and standardizes processes. Chester County, Pennsylvania, has amply demonstrated the substantial benefits reaped by organizations that adopt an enterprisewide approach to GIS. The county began implementing GIS for its emergency response operations and leveraged the address data refined in this effort to modernize the county's land records. The county's GIS uses digital vector data, orthophotography, and tabular data from existing databases and integrates the commercial off-the-shelf software already in use by the county. The project has not only helped create a local GIS consortium and 15-agency GIS implementation but has generated revenues of more than $963,000 in 2003 from the land records program alone. GIS, which is crucial to E-911 operations, also helped produce $4.8 million in E-911 fees that were collected in 2003.

Interoperability Drives Benefits

These returns are possible because Esri software has pursued a practical and comprehensive approach to standards and interoperability that has taken GIS from a niche software used by researchers for specific projects to a robust technology that integrates both data and processes in a mainstream IT environment.

ArcGIS 9, the latest release of Esri's integrated collection of software products, supports data exchange with native read and data conversion capabilities, DBMS integration, and Web services. It also incorporates features that streamline data acquisition such as the ArcMap GPS Support toolbar and direct access from the ArcMap interface to online data sources such as ArcWeb Services and the Geography Network.

However, Esri software support for interoperability goes far beyond data standardization. Comprehensive support for interoperability includes standards-based design that can be integrated with information technologies widely used in both the public and private sectors. Continued and evolving response to significant developments in computing—growth in the Internet and advances in DBMS technology, object-oriented programming, and mobile computing—has led to the development of GIS as an information infrastructure that can be deployed anywhere.

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Leading business critical customer, financial, and management applications can be optimized using GIS.

The power and flexibility required for this new role for GIS was systematically developed through a complete redesign of Esri's software. ArcGIS core functions and logic are implemented in ArcObjects, an open object library that supports application creation and integration in using .NET, Java, and other popular development environments.

The ArcObjects foundation supplies consistent GIS functionality and logic that can be distributed across desktops, application servers, and mobile devices and via Web browsers. In addition to powering desktop GIS applications, Web-enabled GIS applications, and mobile GIS for handheld devices, there are custom, focused GIS applications that can now be delivered via networks by application servers and Web servers to any number of users using ArcGIS Server. Focused GIS logic can be embedded and deployed in custom applications using ArcGIS Engine. ArcGIS not only enables data sharing between users, but it also lets users share geoprocessing models and tools. The result—knowledge can be made available across and between organizations.

This GIS infrastructure can also be integrated with the modern business information infrastructure. Leading business-critical customer, financial, and management applications can be optimized using GIS. The SAS Bridge for Esri is just one example of this type of integration. It allows the read and write exchange of data between SAS and ArcGIS and merges the sophisticated statistical tools for tabular data supplied by SAS software with the robust spatial analysis functionality available in ArcGIS to make more powerful analyses possible. Linking spatial, numeric, and textual data through a single GUI extends traditional GIS capabilities and lets organizations answer more complex business questions which, in turn, generates additional returns on an investment in GIS.

Measuring Benefits

GIS yields two types of benefits—tangible and intangible. Initially, GIS was adopted in the hope of improving services. GIS managers have discovered that as GIS use has grown, a whole host of interrelated benefits are being enjoyed. GIS has enhanced the quality of services not only through time savings and increased efficiency, but also by helping optimize processes through increased accuracy, worker productivity, and automated work flows. These improvements have avoided costs and generated income as well as saving money.

The overall quality of operations, not just customer service, has benefited from increased communication and collaboration and enhanced access to information. The building and maintenance of an information base has led to better decision support and improved resource management. GIS has also proved a valuable budgeting tool.

In addition to ROI that can be measured in dollars and hours saved, GIS has enabled organizations to deliver services and perform activities that were previously fiscally or practically impossible. GIS has become so integrated with the daily operations of some organizations that they could not perform on the same level without GIS.

Using manual methods, planning staff for a city may be able to produce, at most, one or two scenarios in a given time frame. From those limited choices, elected officials make an informed decision. With GIS, the same staff can present many more scenarios to decision makers. This allows for a truly informed decision process that presents a positive image to the public. Modeling more alternatives also gives organizations a competitive advantage.

Expanding Use

Thousands of organizations in both the public and private sectors have incorporated GIS technology into daily operations. Many can't imagine working without it, and the uses for this technology continue to evolve at a rapid rate.

"This is a wonderful opportunity, and I think it's more or less similar to the introduction of the PC, where if you asked someone 20 years ago what they could do with a computer, you could never describe all the applications. I think GIS is similar," says Larry Moy, streets commissioner for the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

GIS has continued to keep pace with the demands of information technology and now delivers benefits across and beyond organizations. Esri's continued commitment to standards and interoperability enables users to maximize the return on their investment in this dynamic technology.

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