Arc User, The Magazine for Esri Software Users How To Start A User Group


Why Start a User Group?
User groups help members be more successful. User groups support members by increasing technical expertise, building contacts within the GIS community, and keeping members up to date with the latest developments in GIS.

One of the most obvious benefits is technical support from peers. Most groups hold open forums on user problems in which the group troubleshoots an individual's problem or shares a work-around.

Membership in a user group helps build a network of industry contacts that is invaluable. These contacts provide opportunities for creating data sharing arrangements as well as for sharing code. Members can learn about funding mechanisms such as grants that can preserve a GIS program or help it grow. Members can also find out about job opportunities, often before these positions are advertised. Members looking to hire a GIS specialist have a ready pool of qualified individuals.

There are less obvious benefits from joining a user group. Often, members find they are the only person using GIS in their organization or company. They feel they are struggling with unique problems. Finding out what others are doing with GIS not only can help solve current problems but can also provide insight to develop more effective or innovative techniques. People who would not normally be in the limelight can become regional stars based on the everyday functions they perform with GIS.

Steps To Start a Group
Groups need a champion--one person who will get things started, take charge, and follow up. While starting a user group requires effort, that effort is rewarded with visibility in the GIS community that can help with career development.

Potential members can be drawn from coworkers, members of professional organizations who are directly or indirectly involved with GIS, or from fellow students in GIS classes. Anyone in the area who uses GIS could benefit from membership. Often information on users in an area is available through Esri's regional offices or from the user group coordinator at Esri, Redlands.

Deciding What Kind of User Group
Some groups are focused on the needs of GIS users in a particular industry such as petroleum, transportation, or local government. These groups help members stay abreast of developments in GIS and their industry at the same time.

Other groups specialize in a particular GIS program such as ArcView GIS or ArcInfo. Because these groups are focused on one program, expertise in design, troubleshooting, and other technical aspects of GIS can be built more quickly in these groups than in groups where members use a variety of programs.

Regional groups composed of GIS users in a city or region are probably the most common. Members in these groups benefit from the cross-pollination of disciplines. Users often find that an approach to solving a problem in a seemingly unrelated field can spark innovation in their own area.

Whether industry, program, or regionally based, these groups connect members with their peers.


Keys to Successful Meetings
Successful meetings make good user groups. Here are some hints supplied by organizers of strong user groups that can help a new group get off to a good start.

Make sure meetings have a broad appeal to members. Avoid focusing an entire meeting on just one topic. Many groups have found that a three-part approach works best. Each meeting features one training presentation, one presentation by a user from the group, and one product, consultant, or data vendor presentation.

Training presentations improve the skills and knowledge of everyone in the group. Be sure to vary the experience level of training presentations. Over a year's time, topics should range from basic GIS skills to newly released programs or technologies.

The benefit of member presentations is twofold. The group learns about a new application and the nitty gritty details of its implementation. The member giving the demonstration can polish his or her presentation skills. These are the same presentation skills that can help sell a project to an organization or the presenter to a potential employer.

Presentations by vendors or GIS businesses can introduce members to products, service, or technologies that can help them function more effectively.

To prevent meetings from becoming burdensome to hosts or attendees, hold meetings in the morning every other month and rotate meeting locations between member sites. Plan meetings six to eight months in advance. Long-term planning avoids last-minute changes of meeting location and lets members arrange their schedules so they can attend. Publishing meeting agendas and sending them with meeting notices or publishing on a Web site help members demonstrate to their employers that user meetings are worthwhile.

Keep Your Group Going
User group Web pages provide an excellent way for members to stay informed of the group's events. Post meeting location, time, and agenda to encourage attendance. Some groups publish lists of tips and have code archives.

Workshops, particularly on technical topics, are popular and can get more members involved in the group. Some groups sponsor social outings, such as beach or camping trips, or hold annual conferences. There are no hard and fast rules--user groups can be as narrowly focused or broad and inclusive as members want. Just remember to keep the tone light and have some fun with it.

Start Today
For help with starting a user group in your area, call Maria Cilmi, user group coordinator, at 909-793-2853, ext. 1-2207 or for additional information. You can also contact your nearest regional office.


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