GIS: The universal language
To understate the obvious, there appears to be a communication gap in many public works departments between information technology (IT) and what could be called operational technology (OT). However, clear communication between these departments is critical for the successful completion of city projects.
Communication relies on mutually accepted rules so that it is clearly understood. IT must follow data standards to make sure that the data is reliable, trustworthy, and available across the entire enterprise. While not always understanding back-office data requirements, OT has its own rules that must be strictly followed. For example, you don’t jump into a trench to fix a water main break wearing open-toed sandals, and you use protective equipment when necessary to perform a job safely and effectively.
A critical part of understanding the perceived IT/OT dichotomy is that operational functions tend to be the reason for the public works department’s existence, and IT is there to support the operational business function. GIS represents a bridge between IT data management and OT fieldwork.
Maps have been a common communication tool for thousands of years. Even today, paper maps spread out on the hood of a work truck are a familiar sight. However, the moment we moved those paper maps into the digital realm, things seemed to get unnecessarily complicated, even though effective communication is still vitally important. Today, with the abundance of data collected by the IT department and the ability to serve it directly to the field, GIS is critical for all public works operations.
GIS provides data integration, analytical functions, and visualization displays that allow many disparate pieces of information to be examined together. For example, the analysis of a toxic plume infiltrating local groundwater may have been performed for an Environmental Protection Agency study completely unrelated to public works operations. However, because the IT department collects and maintains all municipal data, it can provide a map of toxic areas to public works field crews, so that they are aware of potentially dangerous contaminants in excavated soil. This analysis is possible because the IT department has worked out data sharing agreements with other departmental organizations and worked with operational supervisors to identify their requirements. With its ability to communicate information that is relevant to operational needs throughout your enterprise, GIS is truly a universal language.