ArcGIS Dashboards

Tracking value for GIS—Discussion and examples to inspire

The global visibility of GIS and location intelligence for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has spurred significant uptake, with local applications that are making a difference in government, health, and business sectors as everyone monitors changing conditions and does their part to respond to challenges posed by the pandemic. During this time of crisis, location intelligence has proven to be an essential tool to maintain situational awareness and allocate limited resources and services to where they are needed most.

In this blog, Esri’s chief medical officer, Este Geraghty, talks with Dan Henderson, local government team lead, about the value that governmental organizations—particularly those focused on health—have achieved when applying GIS to their workflows. We’ll cover some relevant COVID-19 examples but also point to the ongoing and sustainable practices we’ve observed in governments and health departments over the past several years.

Measuring an organization’s performance and the value of location technology and GIS is understandably a task more frequently undertaken during hard economic times, but it’s important to measure value during times of growth as well.

First, some terminology—return on investment (ROI) and level of service (LOS)—these are two separate but equivalent ways to look at value. Both are important, with ROI relating to increased financial performance through enhanced efficiency, and LOS speaking to the enhanced collaboration that improves service delivery. GIS underpins both of these valuations, with its fundamental capabilities that enhance awareness and improve operational intelligence.

Improved workflows enhance efficiency

Geraghty: We’ve spoken a number of times about the importance of building greater efficiencies in government. Why do you see time savings as an important indicator of value?

Henderson: As many organizations will tell you, salaries are often considered a sunk cost; you’re already paying someone to do a job, so doing it faster doesn’t automatically result in cost savings. What is impactful is having that same person get more done, with greater accuracy. Ultimately, saving time in any workflow allows individual talents to be applied across more relevant tasks or projects. Each human resource can produce more output—that’s efficiency.

Geraghty: I have a good example of efficiency from my very first GIS project. I studied the aerial application of pesticides used to kill mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus. The first thing I focused on were areas of Northern California using aerial spraying to cover large swaths of land. Several vector control agencies kindly shared their data with me, but it came in the form of paper maps that had been shaded with colored pencils to show what had been sprayed. There was a paper map for every area on every spray day. It took a while for me to translate a two-inch file folder stuffed with drawings into GIS before I could perform my analysis.

It’s amazing when I think about the tools available now. A vector control agency today can use Workforce for ArcGIS to plan their jobs digitally. Precise spray areas can be created on the fly, resulting in things like automatic acreage calculations, determinations of chemical quantity needed, and data and report preparation for mandatory reporting to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) once chemicals have been applied. All of this can literally be done much faster than coloring in just one single sheet of paper.

Henderson: Is there is a downside to time savings?

Geraghty: Instead of a downside, I’d say there’s a caution. In my experience, employees in all kinds of organizations, including government, start to worry when too much time savings has been achieved. People wonder if their job will become redundant. That’s why any big workflow changes should be accompanied by change management activities. Staff should be informed about how the change will impact their jobs. Most of the time, I believe the time savings will be a welcomed benefit that allows staff to concentrate on other areas of that work that may have a higher impact (compared to hand-coloring paper maps, for example).

Henderson: I worked with the City of Salem, Oregon, on improving their field data collection using Esri’s Collector app for their LED streetlight conversion project. It was a pretty dramatic reduction both in time spent and errors reduced thanks to drop-down menus. Their rough estimate was that they halved the time it took to get from field collection to project completion by using mobile GIS.

Learning more with higher data quality

Geraghty: I love the use of drop-down menus as a data rule that eliminates the potential for nonsensical answers. I think improvements in data quality are incredibly important. We live in a data-driven world, and we all know that key decisions are made on the basis of that data. If they are not the highest quality possible, our decisions suffer, and outcomes may deteriorate. When used effectively, technology should eliminate redundant data entry and unreadable handwriting, increase the timeliness of the data, and set parameters and standards for meaningful data capture.

Sometimes, data is so much better that people misinterpret the results. We see this in medicine when a new, higher quality diagnostic or screening test is offered. It may appear that there is a spike in the number of cases of disease (colon cancer, for example), when what we’re actually seeing is a more sensitive test (in other words, the test has a greater ability to correctly identify those with the disease).

A similar experience seems to be happening with Continuums of Care around the country that are using our homelessness solution. We’ve digitized the Homeless Point-In-Time Count, making data collection for this annual census faster, allowing enumerators to cover more territory and capture a more accurate count of people experiencing homelessness. I suspect that some of the increase in homelessness that is sometimes reported in the first year a jurisdiction uses the digital tool is an artifact of superior quality data and is not solely an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness. Better tools often create a new baseline.

Henderson: One of the most impactful examples I’ve come across is how an insurance company used ground-based 360-degree street-level photography and GIS to identify their policy holders’ homes after the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, California. By overlaying assessor parcel data and addresses, they were able to quickly identify whether the home and property were destroyed, damaged, or unimpacted. They then notified the policy holder about the status of their property. At the same time, they were able to provide a settlement payment in the case of a loss to allow their customers to begin the recovery process. I’ve never seen that level of proactive engagement from an insurance company. In a tight housing market, their displaced customers were able to move quickly to secure new housing. Their data quality gave them the confidence to act in a way that dramatically sped the claims process and improved customer service.

Illuminating gaps in service

Geraghty: Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, has repeatedly said, “The most important single thing is to obsessively focus on the customer.” No matter who you define as your organization’s customer, you will always do better when you delight that customer with great service.

In health insurance organizations, the customer is the insurance plan member. One way to delight that member is for the insurance plan to make access to health-care providers convenient. Nowadays, there are regulations to ensure a reasonable level of access to providers of various specialties. Those regulations are referred to as network adequacy—and it requires measuring the drive time and drive distance for each member to their nearest doctors. This level of network service review can only be done with GIS. The process illuminates gaps in service, which offers the opportunity to iteratively improve service in a virtuous cycle.

Henderson: Sometimes, I think of service in more of an operational way. One of the little-recognized value propositions involves what I’ll call enterprise dependency. Many of the business systems that governments depend on leverage data in their GIS system of record to function accurately and effectively for such critical things as taxation, permitting, emergency response, and public works.

Without GIS and location intelligence, these systems would cease to function properly and would lead to poor decisions based on out-of-date information. When a city seamlessly shares its data with staff and constituents, the benefit deepens. Many businesses rely on their government’s authoritative data for day-to-day operations and would be severely impacted without it.

Many GIS users are taking the next step with their enterprise integration, diving further into customer needs and thinking about the value of location and mapping. Some have enhanced their information products such as offering an online parcel map that shows your tax bill, allowing anyone to locate the nearest park on their phone, and providing a map-based tool for 311 systems to report such things as a downed tree after a windstorm.

Geraghty: Great point—GIS is most powerful when it’s fully connected to other enterprise business systems.

A key enabler for enhanced collaboration

Henderson: We’ve been living in a global pandemic for over a year now. Everyone is fighting the same battles with COVID-19, such as gaining situational awareness, maintaining health-care capacity, and planning the vaccination process. You talk to a lot of leaders around the world. Would you say everyone is working well together on this?

Geraghty: Good question. In today’s world, collaboration is truly a key to success. With regard to COVID-19, I would say we’ve seen a lot of positive advances in collaboration from data-sharing agreements to forming new public-private partnerships and innovation consortiums to improving information sharing among colleagues.

The problems we’re trying to solve are increasingly complex, and they often require a multisector, multispecialty approach. At the same time, individual areas of expertise are increasingly narrow. The only way to make progress is to involve more stakeholders. That said, there are a number of barriers to collaboration, and few of those barriers are about the technology. Most are associated with those sharing practices, governance, trust, policies, and the like. When I worked for the California Department of Public Health, focusing on open data, those were the issues I spent my time on. The technological capabilities were a given. I think COVID-19 highlighted the importance of proper data sharing in health.

What have you been seeing in local governments?

Henderson: One of the more impactful trends has been taking a true enterprise approach across an organization versus what has too often been silos of excellence. This means getting the relevant data analytics in the hands of decision makers by creating an authoritative system of record.

In addition to getting the internal house in order, we are seeing a continued emphasis on sharing both information and the methodology used to reach a conclusion, which increases trust in decisions. True transparency also requires showcasing the things that didn’t work.

Contributing ongoing economic impact

Henderson: We can’t end our conversation without addressing how GIS achieves ROI, right? You once pointed me to this great report on the economic impact of geospatial services. Here are just a few of the numbers that jumped out at me:

Sometimes the cost savings are in plain sight, but often the value is hidden. Revealing that value often comes from asking the simple question, “Could the work be done without location technology?”

Geraghty: Each individual savings area has ripple effects, and it’s important to focus on where GIS continues to add value.

In conclusion

Consider the ripple effects of the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard. It brought worldwide attention to the value of mapping health information, inspired thousands of similar localized dashboards, stimulated conversations about data sharing, and enabled faster decision-making based on near real-time data updates. All this from a simple dashboard, created in a few hours, by a graduate student. You may be pleasantly surprised when you start intentionally tracking value—whether ROI, LOS, or both—in your GIS workflows.

Do you have a GIS workflow that’s adding value? Calculate your ROI or LOS and send us a note.


About the authors

Dan Henderson

Dan Henderson, PMP, GISP, leads the local government team for Esri in northern California and northern Nevada. He has worked in and around the GIS profession for the majority of his 20+ year career. He holds a Bachelors in Geography from Oregon State University and a Masters in Geography from San Diego State University. He has worked for a variety of public, private and academic organizations and enjoys helping agencies transform how they do business through the science of geography and location intelligence. He has worked with all levels of government from federal to local as well as several private sector clients. His interests outside of work include snowboarding, hiking, surfing, travel, and working on classic cars.


Este Geraghty, MD, MS, MPH, CPH, GISP is the Chief Medical Officer at Esri, developer of the world’s most powerful mapping and analytics platform. She heads Esri's worldwide health and human services practice and is passionate about transforming health organizations through a geographic approach. Previously, she was the deputy director of the Center for Health Statistics and Informatics at the California Department of Public Health. There she engaged in statewide initiatives in meaningful use, health information exchange, open data and interoperability. While serving as an associate professor of clinical internal medicine at the University of California (UC), Davis she conducted research on geographic approaches to influencing health policy and advancing community development programs. Geraghty is the author of numerous health and GIS peer reviewed papers and book chapters. She has lectured extensively around the world on a broad range of topics that include social determinants of health, open data, climate change, homelessness, access to care, opioid addiction, privacy issues and public health preparedness. She received her medical degree, master's degree in health informatics, and master's degree in public health from UC Davis. She is board certified in public health (CPH) and is also a geographic information system professional (GISP).

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