3 Apr

2014 Washington GIS Conference Session – They’ll Stone You When You’re Trying to Build Your GIS: The Multidimensional Role of the GIS Coordinator

David A. Howes, David Howes, LLC

As mentioned in the previous post, Background to the 2014 Washington GIS Conference – Communicating Our World, we included a GIS Communication track at the 2014 Washington GIS Conference to provide a set of sessions and presentations that were closely tied to the conference theme. In this post I’ll provide some details regarding the first session in the track, which has the fairly lengthy title They’ll Stone You When You’re Trying to Build Your GIS: The Multidimensional Role of the GIS Coordinator (at least one of the participants is a Bob Dylan fan).

The session abstract is reproduced below along with text that was originally submitted for the conference proceedings. I have my co-presenters Chris Owen (GIS Supervisor, City of Walla Walla), Jason Eklund (GIS Coordinator, Kittitas County), Matt Stull (GIS Coordinator, City of Tumwater), Jennifer Radcliff (GIS Coordinator, Port of Tacoma) and David Wallis (Cowlitz County IT/GIS Director) to thank for allowing me to post the text here. The details of their backgrounds are included in the slides for the session.

Session Abstract
Maybe your boss quit. Maybe you applied for the job. Or, maybe the workload just grew to the point where the position was necessary. One way or another, you became a GIS coordinator in a public agency. So what’s your story? What are the characteristics that helped you be successful? If you could start again, what advice do you wish you’d been given? What difference does it make if your GIS operation is a separate entity as opposed to being part of, say, an IT department?

There are many questions one could ask of a GIS coordinator and in this panel session you’ll have an opportunity to ask and answer some yourself. To get you started, five GIS coordinators from different types of agencies and different parts of Washington State will share their experiences and the nature of their roles, especially as they relate to communication. For example, they often have to sell the benefits of GIS to other departments. They have to apply the appropriate technology to represent and express the state of spatial phenomenon. In addition, they have to help ensure that participants in their projects keep each other informed in such a way that they can, collectively, be as successful as possible. Please join us for what will certainly be an engaging and informative conversation.

Session Details
The idea behind the GIS coordinators panel session was to bring together a diverse group of coordinators from around the state and provide a forum through which they could discuss their professional experiences and provide helpful suggestions to their audience. The following topics were selected for the session:

  • GIS department structure and location;
  • Why good documentation and procedures are important;
  • Marketing GIS to your agency;
  • Maturation process of a GIS program/department.

After the coordinators had introduced themselves, each topic was addressed in turn. Audience members were then given an opportunity to contribute to the conversation and the session concluded with closing comments. The corresponding slides are quite self-explanatory so there is little need to repeat what they say. It may be helpful, however, to give consideration here to some of the general themes that emerged from the session as well as to some background details.

The role of the GIS coordinator is truly a multidimensional one, hence the session title, and in addition to the core technical aspects, the administrative requirements of the position are significant, with a heavy emphasis on project management and professional relationship building, both of which are, of course, strong communication mechanisms. The coordinators supported their comments on these and various other aspects of their roles with many pieces of positive advice, including references to helpful resources such as the GIS Management Handbook by Peter Crosswell. The importance of thorough and effective planning was strongly recognized and when done well tends to yield many positive benefits. For example, the process of creating a strategic plan helps the author of the plan think through what is required for their organization, what is feasible given the available resources and who would benefit from the plan through their involvement in the planning process, their role in implementing the plan and/or their position as a general beneficiary. Collective involvement encourages collective ownership of GIS data and operations and, thus, enhances the likelihood of positive outcomes, both materially and fiscally and Chris Owen’s achievement in setting up the City of Walla Walla GIS and demonstrating an annual ROI of $92,000 per year is particularly compelling in this regard. Once developed, a strategic plan becomes a valuable marketing tool, as Jason Eklund found at Kittitas County. In a similar vein, Matt Stull’s GIS Newsletter and GIS Day activities along with David Wallis’ advice to “be visible” are central to promoting the value of GIS and thereby helping increase the overall effectiveness and success of a GIS operation as well as the entire organization.

We have Jennifer Radcliff to thank for suggesting the section on documentation, another key communication mechanism which is sometimes overlooked within organizations. Yet, its importance cannot be understated for many reasons. For example, developing good documentation enhances efficiency, it provides insurance against the loss of institutional knowledge and it provides protection in the event of enquiries of any nature.

By way of background, the inclusion of GIS department structure and location as a core topic in the session partially evolved from a discussion about the influence of where the GIS coordinator is or was located within an organization as they began to fulfil their role. The basis for the discussion was a set of comments by Leonard Mlodinow in his book “Subliminal,” related to group dynamics and the subconscious tendencies of individuals to support groups of which they are a part more strongly than they may realize and, occasionally, not necessarily in their best interests. In the local authority GIS realm, therefore, one could ask whether it’s more difficult to be successful as the GIS coordinator for the organization if you start out in, say, the public works department, as opposed to, say, the IT department or the appraiser’s office. Clearly, there are many variables that govern the success of a person, role or operation, but questions such as this one are definitely worth thinking about. Indeed, they provide a strong motivator for the shift away from the purely technical subject matter typical of a GIS conference towards other topics that are of considerable importance within the GIS profession and can, often have far greater bearing on the success of a GIS operation than the technical aspects ever could. On that note, the question of group dynamics ties into another conversation that emerged at the conference on “turf wars,” perhaps most commonly involving GIS and IT staff or departments. Regardless of how explicitly they were able to account for their accomplishments, all of the coordinators participating in this session were able to report admirable success in overcoming such barriers to progress through their application of good communication skills and primary focus on relationship building. On a lighter note, David Wallis has the unusual position of being director of both a GIS department and a separate IT department and can certainly teach us a lot about the value of having positive conversations with yourself.

For all of us involved in this session, it was a particularly positive experience and the audience response appeared to be similarly favorable. We will, therefore, do our part to facilitate and encourage similar activities at future conferences and help others in our profession as best we can.