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Winter 2007/2008

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

Growing Up GIS

By Kim H. McDonough, GIS Coordinator, Information Technology Division, Tennessee Department of Transportation

As the parent of a soon-to-be college student, I have reflected quite a bit on the growth of my career and profession lately. As I read other articles for this column written by my peers, I thought a lot about what my career has been wrapped around, and I realized that it's all about growing up. I see my daughter ponder what she wants to do with her life as an adult: actress? dancer? doctor? I have seen similar struggles with GIS through the years. When I began in this business, everything was in FORTRAN and you first had to know JCL to produce maps. (If you don't know what JCL is, don't worry about it. You will probably never encounter it.) I started out in a small research lab in a remote corner of the campus at North Carolina State University. By today's standards, we were absolutely primitive, but in those days, we were doing some pretty heady stuff. I loved the loose, relaxed atmosphere. No time clock and a constant flow of ideas and solutions. We had an operational discipline, but because there were three of us, it did not require rigid controls. We all knew what was going on. It was important work, but it wasn't rocket science.

Then, I moved to an urban municipality and eventually managed that GIS. The dataset sizes were magnitudes larger and the implications of mistakes much higher. More and larger computers were needed, and the cost of the overall systems was mind boggling to me. Operational and systems discipline had to be introduced and enforced. I came on board as an urban planner and evolved into a GIS manager. As in many, if not most, cases, GIS was initiated and managed in the department that was its champion. Did we have the most to gain by embracing GIS? Not really, but we were the most passionate about the technology, so we ended up being the default GIS custodian.

This worked well for the city. The Planning Department embraced its role as GIS leader and worked to expand the use of the technology while keeping everything consistent. We really did not see it as a problem that we operated outside of the Information Systems (IS) Department. While we strove to meet its operational standards, it was not unusual for us to use different systems than IS. To a large extent, this was because most IS operations were still very strongly oriented toward financial and operational management. At that time, the value of having this same information associated with a location on the earth's surface was not fully understood or appreciated within the general IS community. In addition, the computers used for managing financials and payroll did not support the type of GIS we were trying to implement.

To communicate our needs to the IS Department, as well as sell GIS to everyone else, GIS and I had some more growing up to do. We had to develop an operational discipline and a methodology for developing GIS throughout the government. Collaborative efforts became essential, and I had to learn enough about information technology to interact effectively with Information Systems managers. Overall, we were very successful. GIS grew across the various departments, and we began to feel stretched by the demand.

However, as was pointed out by Scott Oppmann in his Summer 2007 "Managing GIS" ArcNews article, we were vulnerable. The Planning Department's designated mission was to plan the city's growth, not provide for development and management of geospatial systems. When budgets became tight and cutbacks were mandated, GIS suffered. It wasn't that we were viewed as unessential, but we were not a part of the agency's principal mission. As such, when push came to shove, GIS was a logical place to cut back. Up until that point, I was a champion for not placing GIS in with the rest of IS. We were different, and I did not think IS could appreciate the G part of GIS, but I was wrong.

I managed to land with both feet in the Tennessee Department of Transportation. As it turned out, I could not have made a better move if I had tried. This time, GIS is managed within the Information Technology Division, and once again, the change in scope is mind boggling. I have gone from talking in terms of gigabytes of storage to tens of terabytes. The geographic scope has changed from a single county to the entire state. I was beginning to see a merging of GIS and IT while I was with the city, but here it is complete.

Things are very different now, and it makes sense for GIS to be in the IT Division. The computers and systems we use for GIS are exactly the same as those for all other applications in the agency and across the state. We store all our geospatial elements in the exact same database environment as all our inventory features. We have too many similarities to standard information technology to be considered outside of that management scope now. The growth has occurred for myself and other GIS professionals in learning and implementing the operational standards of a large IT department. We are held to a higher standard now in developing and managing our program. Every project must be introduced and adopted into the Information Systems Plan (ISP) before work can begin. Most of these projects will also require a rigorous cost-benefit analysis (also known as return on investment).

This has presented numerous challenges to GIS staff, but it has been good for us. It contributes tremendously toward the mainstreaming of GIS. Of course, traditional IT is finding GIS to be a very demanding student. We consume vast quantities of storage (10 terabytes is just the beginning for statewide, high-resolution imagery) and have shown that a computer suitable for standard desktop operations is quickly overwhelmed by GIS. Yet, this agency has identified GIS as a major enabling technology and is firmly committed to making full use of it to improve its operational efficiency. We are all going through a growing phase as we learn how to incorporate GIS into the overall IT infrastructure. We must now become a part of the overall IT fabric at the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Neither GIS nor IT will be the same as a result, but we are both the better for it.

So now GIS has to recognize that we have "grown up." We are no longer special, at least in terms of standard information technology. Those of us that have chosen this as a profession need to embrace the IS part of our name. We also have the responsibility to educate the traditional information technology world on what that G is all about and why it now belongs in IT. The State of Tennessee understands that idea. Not only is GIS an integral part of information technology at the Department of Transportation, there is also a GIS program within the state's Office for Information Resources. As GIS professionals, we need to understand much more than the nuts and bolts of the technology. We better start knowing how that technology interacts with a wide variety of needs and how to administer it under the rigorous operational environment of a modern information technology agency. On the vendor side, GIS has got to be more closely incorporated in standard information technology. We still expend far too much energy linking geospatial systems with the rest of the enterprise data. If the traditional GIS leaders do not accept this reality, they may cease to be leaders in the future.

When I am working on a large project proposal for the ISP, I frequently think of those wideČ-open days of minimum paperwork and laid-back operations in that little research lab at North Carolina State, but that is not where I am now and it's not where GIS is either. We have both grown up and need to look at ourselves differently. We are no longer that little group of oddballs operating our own unique system. We are now part of the overall IS world.

About the Author

Kim McDonough, GISP, is GIS coordinator for the Information Technology Division, Tennessee Department of Transportation. He is a past board member of URISA, and he is running for URISA president in the next election.

More Information

For more information, contact Kim McDonough (e-mail:, tel.: 615-741-4037).

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