Improving return on investment through enterprise GIS

Improving return on investment through enterprise GIS


Simon Callaghan
GIS Coordinator
District Council of Mount Barker
[email protected]

With financial constraints being increasingly felt in the aftermath of the global financial crisis (GFC), and greater scrutiny facing technological projects, proving one’s case through return on investment is becoming ever more critical for the spatial scientist. Studying South Australia’s Department of Transport, Energy and Infrastructure initiative to deliver a department-wide enterprise Geographical Information System (GIS) encompassing its business objectives, there is evidence that by working smarter, the GIS Office looks to increase its return on investment in every aspect of GIS throughout the department. This provides excellent example that service delivery management strategies for all information system technologies must be agile by nature and that emerging technologies must be adaptive in their project management framework in order to be successful under post-GFC pressures.

Department of Transport, Energy and Infrastructure (DTEI) is a large South Australian government department employing about 3500 people. Its primary purposes are to serve the public good in the areas of roads, public transport, land divisions and land records and energy efficiency.

GIS implementation began within DTEI under a model of “technical determinism” in 1993 within a unit of the Transport Services Division. As the demand for GIS grew, teams grew in different branches and divisions and without an enterprise approach, silos started forming throughout the Department. This is an inefficient model, as there is duplication and rework within the Department and there are also costs associated with both software and hardware that could be better shared through an enterprise approach. The key to successful GIS implementation, like any information technology, is planning up-front. Taking the time to get the plan right, will save many hours later when problems arise that need to be fixed – doing so with a planned and isolated approach as opposed to an ad hoc fashion. Whilst some entropy will inevitably occur, this is the reason why the formation of a strategic plan that is constantly revisited and revised, is so critical to the long-term success of an information system. This is exactly what DTEI has done, with the formation of the GIS Office to achieve enterprise GIS infrastructure and practices. In order to avoid a similar situation arising in the future, it becomes fairly obvious that to avoid entropy occurring at an enterprise level, there must be development of support networks to ensure the future direction of GIS within DTEI. During the 1980s and 1990s, technical enthusiasts steadfastly held control of the adoption of the technology. The realisation of business benefits was sub-optimal and even the understanding of potential business benefits was poorly understood.

DTEI internally recognised that some rationalisation of its GIS services was necessary in order to become more efficient and to provide better service. The GIS Office was initially established by David Goodwins, and following his resignation David Harvey was appointed as DTEI’s Director of GIS. The Director of GIS and his team are accountable to a GIS Steering Committee of executives from across the agency.

By December 2010, the GIS Steering Committee was supportive of the case for fundamental change to the way in which GIS operates within DTEI, through the creation of a Corporate GIS Capacity and centralising support services. Engaging key stakeholders, including both the Land and Transport Services divisions, is critical in this process in order for any work of such substantial nature to be carried out, even at the preliminary stage. Upon stakeholder engagement, it was requested that a range of possible solutions and alternatives be derived in order to make balanced and objective decision on the best way for DTEI’s GIS to operate.

Spatial reliance
It is estimated more than 50% of the agency’s 3500 staff use spatial data directly or indirectly in the course of their duties. More than 20% of the agency regularly use GIS software and approximately 10% use spatial data in some capacity. Harvey and his team had the goal of maximising the number of people using spatial data. DTEI has standardized data on Esri GIS software and uses this in conjunction with a small number of Autodesk and MapInfo licences in isolated business units. DTEI utilises an Oracle Relational Management Database System, systems software, project management software, data conversion software, and also stores aerial imagery. By exploiting tools and data in a way which is understood by its staff, DTEI returns benefit from its GIS. As DTEI looks to simplify its processes and streamline its business functions and software providers, it will become more efficient and increase the return on its GIS investment. Further to this, by having only fixed licenses for specialists and utilising floating licenses for non-specialists, such as environmental scientists or planners, DTEI is better leveraging the technology.

DTEI holds a spatial point of truth, its Corporate Data Repository (CDR). The CDR is purely spatial data. With over 80% of organisational data containing a spatial element, this is an important repository. It gives the agency the opportunity to strengthen its data quality whilst dealing with issues of security. The CDR holds data from a range of internal and external sources including, but not limited to, Geoscience Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Planning SA. Whilst GIS is considered a business tool for DTEI, investment in it from business units has grown to higher levels than ever before. This created GIS silos throughout the Department and was the catalyst for executives to investigate a rationalisation approach. It is critical for an enterprise GIS to move to a developed state of maturity for any organisation. Some rationalisation process must occur. GIS at DTEI is aligned with ICT policy, but also remains specifically defined, so as to recognise its significance to the Department.

The biggest challenge for Harvey was selling the long-term benefits of a technology that has significant up-front costs. As he said, “a significant driver is cost and in the current climate, any solution gets shaped by fear of costs and the perceptions of the influential decision-makers, as much as the more demonstrated research.” Whilst being tasked with the rationalisation of a key business system, the challenges associated with acquiring the budget of business groups are both demanding and significant. Political will is not always shared, nor is there a willingness to forgo budget share. An innovative approach to establishing the Department’s GIS strategic plan has taken place through recognition of the role that distributed collaboration can play in modern day GIS. This side-stepped some of the issues business group managers had around their post-GFC budget cuts, although local control on investment must be removed for long-term business driven investment. This is an interesting challenge in a government environment.

There has been significant spending on GIS within DTEI. Executives now want a more coordinated approach, with an enterprise focus, that will provide a better return on investment. GIS has evolved from being enthusiast-driven to becoming driven by the business. After all, GIS is just an applied ICT and in that sense, must maintain a business-centric approach.

There are a number of cost drivers in the business decision to move toward an enterprise GIS. Collecting data but not managing or maintaining it is a huge cost. Duplicating this effort and having different data sets throughout the organisation will lead to different quality of results being produced by various business units. This is hardly optimal. The risk of making decisions on inaccurate duplicated data is significant. Essentially, spatial data is a corporate asset and it needs to be managed as such. A project to manage community engagement used a spatial tool to integrate with document management for transport-related inconvenience mail outs. This is far more targeted than door-to-door visits or manually processing such mail. DTEI has conducted a GIS maturity assessment and there has been a change from a technical focus towards a management focus in order to ensure that business drivers are successful as development toward an enterprise GIS occurs. Contemporary government management practices now require the rigorous establishment of benefits and subsequent benefit realisation.

DTEI has become increasingly dependent on GIS in its business processes and GIS has become critical to DTEI’s core-business, rather than a supplement to the business. The GIS processes must therefore be more rigorously supported as its importance increases. With budget cuts post-GFC, a lean and responsive approach has been adopted for GIS at DTEI. Operating just under capacity, with the opportunity to bring contractors in when and where necessary allows a streamlined approach to GIS management. Application development and upgrades then can be outsourced to contractors. Structuring the growth of the technology to be enterprise focused is where DTEI is focusing its rationalisation of GIS services.

DTEI is ensuring that the key concepts of capability and capacity are met. They are working towards ensuring, first, that they have the capability to provide enterprise-wide GIS to a large organisation and secondly, that they have the capacity to meet demand. The conceptual approach is similar to other areas of ICT, in that it is a “cross cutting support operation” rather than a line of business in itself. This supports the notion that GIS is merely a business-tool that enables better decision-making processes within organisations. What is critical to the long term success of GIS in DTEI, is the support of its enterprise GIS. Like any ICT implementation in any successful organisation, one does not take the time to build an enterprise structure simply to watch its decline; thus a constant maintenance must exist in the same way that DTEI maintains its other ICT systems.

Increased geoprocessing and mapping services usage, as opposed to up-skilling business units in GIS, is a key initiative to improving GIS return on investment. Having specialists customise and maintain tools for business units and having more people use these tools is DTEI’s approach. This was DTEI’s objective from the outset – to have more people accessing spatial data with the use of GIS tools. This improves return on investment. There are few GIS specialists within the organisation and only they need the use of high end GIS software. But the development of tools and improving access to web-mapping are ways in which GIS use within the organisation can be increased relatively cheaply.

A further challenge to this is changing people’s fear of change. Business unit managers fear a loss of autonomy and changes in budget. One way that this is being avoided is by the business units sharing the costs so they directly control and see the benefits of receiving better services for less investment. Combating the perceived loss of business flexibility was a difficult initial selling point for Harvey and the GIS Office. It is, however, the reality of change in business and where the business justification becomes so important. But as the organisation has grown, so has the dependency on GIS for its core-business. The stakes for having a fully functional GIS are much higher and have become integral to DTEI doing business. There must be professional enterprise practices for managing it.

Building higher levels of user adoption is the biggest challenge for the GIS Office in increasing return on investment. Having the innovation to develop tools that encourage the integration of location intelligence further into decision-making processes is the best means of doing so. If considering the location aspects of every business decision and where it might be applied, becomes entrenched into the minds of the executives and managers within DTEI – then David Harvey and his team have truly done their job. They face significant political pressures in doing so and the longevity of the GIS Office must be seen as imperative to a streamlined approach to the management, maintenance and further development of GIS within DTEI and as a critical means of avoiding the information silos that develop as a result of entropy.