A New Year’s Resolution All GIS Professionals Should Embrace: Become a GIS Ambassador

It’s that time of year where we connect with family and friends over the holidays. Inevitably you meet a new significant other or guest who asks “So what do you do for a living?” or some derivative. You hesitate for a moment and think… is it worth the effort? But then you blurt out, “I work with computer maps.” 

And then you probably think to yourself, I just lost an opportunity to share the passion for the work I do. A missed chance to explain the difference you make in the world.  Not to mention how you help improve an organization’s efficiency, improve productivity of employees, provide time savings, work to save money, and improve decision-making.

This experience made me realize that taking the time to educate co-workers, management, and family members on what we do for a living (as a GIS professional or a professional that uses GIS), can open new doors to advance geographic information systems (GIS). By sharing the geographic approach and placing an emphasis on geography first, we can help others rethink their own work and realize how life-changing GIS can be. Just like it was for you.

Advocating for our chosen profession starts with developing the skills to explain GIS in a context of the person you are speaking to. Let me explain. I was at an event for city and county administrators years ago. My colleagues and I were busy greeting individuals at our booth as we always do when a city manager walked up to the booth. He quickly stated his staff already uses “our stuff” (a common phrase we hear). In reality, he stopped by because he wanted a free T-shirt. He mulled over our displayed material long enough so as not to seem too obvious. 

Then another city manager walked up and said, “Man, I love your stuff.” He then proceeded to go into detail explaining how his staff had used GIS to reroute their fleet of solid waste trucks. He shared that they had gone from 34 to 28 trucks, which saved them over 1 million gallons of fuel, minimized associated costs, and eliminated long-term maintenance expenses. They were also able to reassign workers to new areas that needed coverage. Obviously, it was clear his staff took the time to educate this executive and document the benefits of how GIS helped the city achieve their goals. 

The best part of this story is, the first city manager that had intended to just quickly let me know they already had our “stuff,” had overheard the entire conversation. He waited until the other executive left, and then reapproached me. “What was that guy talking about? I thought your software just made maps?”This led to a conversation that resulted in a better-informed executive.

As we ring in the new year, I want to challenge you to make a New Year’s resolution to become a GIS Ambassador. In 2022, I want all of you to take the time to share your work and the value you bring.

Sharing your story can be powerful! I speak from personal experience. Early in my career I received one of the most meaningful compliments and experienced one of the most memorable career moments. A very senior executive who was well-known in the regional planning industry, approached me at a planning conference. I was a young GIS Manager working in city government at the time. He said he had really wanted to meet me. I was shocked he even knew who I was. But he went on to say he had been hearing about all the great work I had been doing in planning, public works, police, and fire, economic development, and public engagement. I thanked him for his kind words and asked how he heard about the work. He said he had read some of my articles and sat through some of my presentations. He went on to explain how his own organization was borrowing from our organization’s work to implement the same workflows and approaches. The exchange led me to realize that taking the time to share your work can inspire others.

Here are a few simple ways you can work to better communicate your chosen vocation:

Sometimes telling your story can influence people in your own backyard so to speak. For example, a city manager I worked for and rarely had the opportunity to speak with, approached me and recognized my work. He was eager to tell me that he recently attended a government executive forum where he shared that all the other city managers kept coming up to him saying how they had been reading about our work in GIS. He boasted that they were jealous of our program and wanted to learn more. Let’s just say my opportunity to be invited to participate in more high-profile projects increased that day because our work made the city shine.

I worked hard throughout my career to make sure I was a GIS ambassador. Sometimes you’re working to convince the people you work with day in, day out of the importance of the technology. Whether it be through articles, presentations, or awards. And sometimes it may feel that those close to the work or within your own organization don’t see it. But news always travels and boomerangs back. So, keep trying. Keep working to be your own GIS ambassador.

Because the moral of the story is… sometimes you look better from 3,000 miles away. 

About the author

Christopher Thomas, Director of Government Markets on the Industry Solutions team at Esri team focused on state and local disciplines. He has over 30 years of experience working in and with national, state and local governments implementing technology. As a strategist and subject matter expert, Christopher works to identify emerging trends GIS can support.


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