ArcWatch: Your e-Magazine for GIS News, Views, and Insights

September 2008

Baltimore County's GIS Strategic Business Plan Reveals a Significant Return on Investment

By Matt Freeman, Esri writer

Baltimore County, Maryland, operates an enterprise geographic information system (GIS) that is available to all county agencies and departments. The county also gives the public access to its GIS maps, data, and services through a fee-based program. Organizations or individuals can receive printed copies of published maps or gain access to the digital data and services so they can create custom mapping products based on their own specifications.

GIS is used extensively by most county departments and is popular with the public, but it comes with a hefty price tag. The county's budget for GIS hardware, software, personnel, database maintenance, and training has steadily risen since purchasing its first Esri ArcInfo license back in the mid-1980s. As a result, the Office of Information Technology (OIT) and Office of Budget and Finance initiated a strategic business plan focusing on determining the return on investment (ROI) for the use of Baltimore County's GIS.

The county contracted with Dewberry, a nationwide planning, engineering, design, program management, and geospatial technology firm, to conduct the study. Rather than examine the historical costs and benefits of the county's GIS technology utilization, the study focused on an eight-month period from September 2006 through May 2007. Dewberry's findings have been outlined and published in the Baltimore County GIS Strategic Business Plan.

In the plan, Dewberry provides detailed information on existing GIS layers; identifies key users and how they use GIS; establishes current benefits, including costs avoided due to the use of GIS, as well as revenue and productivity gains; distinguishes current costs including software, hardware, support, and maintenance; and delivers recommendations on critical areas the county could focus on for future GIS use.

The plan suggests that the county's current enterprise GIS implementation is a viable technology that provides a significant return on investment and important quantitative benefits to its users. However, many business processes were uncovered that could further benefit from additional GIS integration. As a result, the GIS Strategic Business Plan provides a series of enterprise recommendations that prioritize these findings and proposes a course of action for their implementation. Recommendations and action plans include hiring a GIS program manager, implementing a GIS-based disease tracker, and developing a customized GIS application to automate the retrieval of current data regarding school capacity.

A large portion of the study focused on GIS as a suitable technology for use by local government on a cost/benefit basis. Costs are broken down into the categories of enterprise, agency, and capital. The plan defines costs as any expenditures required to support GIS activities within the county such as personnel salaries for resources dedicated to database maintenance and administration, hardware and software costs, training and conference costs, capital expenditures, and miscellaneous supply and administrative costs.

Establishing the county's GIS benefits was a more extensive exercise. A team of county staff members worked to define hundreds of activities that utilize GIS for each agency within the county. GIS activities included determining the location of sidewalk ramps, protecting and managing groundwater resources, and maintaining an inventory of all county-owned bridges. By analyzing and comparing the time spent to perform an activity with and without GIS, Dewberry derived a time-savings benefit. The total hours were then multiplied by a standard rate of $33.95 per hour and used for all personnel savings calculations. Additional benefits included cost avoidance by applying GIS technology and revenue from the license of GIS products, such as the maps, data, and services, gained through the public access Web site.

The team also directed a group of employees to gather information about the GIS activities; the employees were then interviewed by Dewberry. They were asked questions about specific business processes and applications for data uses. In addition to the interviews, several other information sources were used such as short- and long-form questionnaires. Follow-up phone and face-to-face interviews were conducted to compile data about the GIS infrastructure, comparable industry practices, and public access programs within the county. The information was used to compile reports for each of the county's agencies and was presented to each agency in Dewberry workshop format.

Baltimore County is just beginning to reap the benefits of the GIS Strategic Business Plan. GIS personnel have been reassigned to streamline operations. The OIT is developing GIS Service Level Agreements to better define the GIS infrastructure, products, and services. Communication is also improving between agencies on GIS activities and database needs. Overall, the study charts a course forward for the use of GIS and offers the challenge to the agencies to further integrate GIS into their business processes.

To view a copy of Baltimore County's GIS Business Plan, visit the county Web site.

Baltimore County's GIS Benefit*

* September 2006 through May 2007

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