Location, location, location
GIS underpins online initiatives
What do groundwater reserves in Ontario's Oxford County,
roads in British Columbia and parkland in rural Ontario have in common?
Information about all three is being brought vividly to life by a powerful
technology known as Geographic Information Services (GIS). It's changing
the way organizations manage information by allowing users to see, explore
and analyze data by location, revealing hidden patterns, relationships and
trends. Not surprisingly, a growing number of municipalities, as well as
provincial and federal ministries and departments, are embracing GIS as a
key element in implementing their online initiatives.
GIS is a computer-based tool for mapping and analyzing
spatial information that integrates common database operations, such as
query, reporting and statistical analysis, with the visual and geographic
analysis benefits of maps. Like a paper map, a digital map created by GIS
represents features such as cities, roads and small areas such as lakes.
Unlike a paper map, a GIS map combines many layers of information,
resident in a database, that is visible when the user chooses to display
it. Users select the information they want based on the goals they are
trying to achieve - whether it's determining the best location for a new
store, analyzing environmental damage or viewing similar crimes in a city
to detect patterns.
Gord McElravy, web and enterprise GIS business development
manager with Autodesk Canada, says, "Governments are utilizing GIS to
make web-based information available to both internal and external
audiences. It's an excellent example of how web-based technology can be
used proactively to interact with the public, and it helps to facilitate
Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources is a good case in
"GIS created open access which enables us to deliver
transparency and accountability," says Jim Hamilton, director of the
Information Resource Management Branch. "It allowed us to take data
from filing cabinets and put it in the hands of resource managers, giving
them the tools to analyze and make resource decisions."
The ministry's Lands for Life program, which created 378
new parks and protected areas in Ontario while helping to maintain
sustainable forestry, hunting and trapping practices, used GIS to create
maps that illustrate those decisions and their impact, he says.
"That's helpful because people relate well to maps."
Using a map-based browser to investigate road conditions
is convenient because it's intuitive, says David Loukes, vice president of
Information Systems with Fredericton's Geoplan Consultants Inc. Geoplan,
an engineering consulting firm that implements GIS strategies for
transportation agencies, is using the Highways by Exor application as part
of the BC Ministry of Transport's Road Inventory and Maintenance System
The ministry established RIMS to manage the replacement of
its existing inventory system and provide the means to create and maintain
a Ministry Standard/Corporate Linear Referencing System. The data from
both will be stored on a single data server within an integrated data
"A picture is worth a thousand words," says
Loukes. "If I want to review all the accidents that occurred on a
particular stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway it's much easier to bring
up that information on a map and zoom in on the area that interests me
instead of assembling it all from tables."
Rick Adie, RIMS project manager, says the magic of GIS
lies in linear referencing. "It allows us to see all data - road
surface conditions, signs, etc. - within a single context, preventing us
from making decisions in isolation. You shouldn't widen a road just
because there were several accidents in a particular location when perhaps
all that's needed is to replace a missing road sign."
RIMS will make it easier to build a web-based portal to
present a view of the information to the public, adds Adie. "When
geo-positioning systems (GPS) technology becomes more common we'll utilize
it to provide precise location information. For instance, if you're
driving we'll be able to present you with route information in the car via
a simple hand-held GPS device."
When the ministry initiated RIMS it went through a Request
for Proposal (RFP) process, Adie says. "We weren't interested in
creating the software. We wanted to buy it based on its ability to support
our functionality requirements and integrate it with our IT structure. The
process took about five months to complete."
David Loukes praises the ministry's approach to awarding
the $896,000 project.
"Everything proceeded right on schedule," he
says. "That's important because we often encounter problems with
slipped deadlines. We commit resources and when the project is delayed it
throws us off." Problems also arise when agencies don't follow
through on an RFP. "Weeks of work are involved in preparing a
response and when a project is dropped I feel like billing them," he
Budgets are always an issue with GIS, says Adam Fox, a
Toronto-based account manager with ESRI Canada, but they can be tailored
to meet the organization's needs. "It all depends on
functionality," he says. "The licence for one software program
can cost as little as $2,000, whereas a major program can be quite
Many of ESRI's clients started small and worked their way
up, he notes, adding that once your program is on the Internet, "your
budget will increase. When people see what a GIS can do you attract
internal champions and that gives you real clout."
Each municipality adapts ESRI software, creating a GIS
unique to their needs, Fox adds. "Oxford County in southwestern
Ontario is a good example. Their Land Related Information System connects
the county, eight local municipalities, the local conservation authority,
public utility commissions and the board of health. They all use the same
software so they don't have to exchange formats."
Oxford County centralized its GIS-related data, software,
hardware and applications at the county office so it can maintain
resources efficiently despite limited staff, says Margaret Parkin, manager
of the county's system. It also helps to make the information widely
accessible. "Maintaining an integrated, broad-based database ensures
access to timely, accurate land-related information," she says.
"That's important to our planning, public works and public health
departments. It also means the public can access our information and
examine it in the context of their specific needs."
Data management is a major component of Oxford's
Groundwater Navigator project, which uses ESRI's ArcIMS software. The
Groundwater Navigator permits users to explore various water-related data
layers, including the location of municipal and private wells, potential
contaminants, aquifer vulnerability and well catchment areas.
The county budgeted funds to ensure that all data compiled
during the project could be integrated with its existing GIS applications
for use in reviewing land development applications and nutrient management
planning, says Parkin. "That flexibility allows us to address the
needs of users, including members of the public, county staff, university
students and officials of other government departments."
Flexibility is crucial when embarking on a GIS, according
to Autodesk's McElravy. "Always look for open architecture and
systems and avoid proprietary technology. Then, if something happens to
the software vendor, the data will be usable no matter what technology
Jim Hamilton agrees. "Using an open GIS format
instead of a proprietary data structure allows you to share data much more
readily with other jurisdictions using a common format."
It's also important to find executive sponsorship,
Hamilton adds. "Moving data from paper to a digital format is
expensive and time-consuming so commitment and a long-term view are vital.
You also need rigor because the data must be standardized and data models
constructed that allow you to maintain them. The effort is worth it,
because your data will have tremendous value as long as it's
maintained," he explains.
Finally, he says, it important to change your thinking
about information itself. "Drop the idea that knowledge alone is
power," he urges. "Today, its only real value is in our ability
to share it."