IT and GIS, Better Together


It’s been an interesting year. We are witnessing an open call to bridge the gap between traditional information systems and geographic information systems (GIS) disciplines and technologies. The evidence is all around us.

  • The National States Geographic Information Council’s annual conference illuminated the benefit of increased collaboration between GIS professionals and Chief Information Officers (CIOs).
  • State of Ohio CIO, Stu Davis has repeatedly emphasized the industry trends revolving around data analytics and business intelligence as a large driver for the two groups to work more closely together.
  • Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has touted the benefits of GIS as an invaluable tool in communicating public policy issues to the community.
  • Alan Shark of Public Technologies Institute (PTI) describes GIS as a centralizing planning tool for collaborative planning.

The question everyone should be asking themselves is why was there ever a separation between the two disciplines at all. Throughout my personal and professional experience, I have observed philosophical differences that gradually forced the two groups to drift apart. At the core was difference in opinion on how to organize and display information. In the early days, hardware, database programs, and programming languages were selected based on the software application supported. The focus on application driven technology choices, resulted in the two camps running in different technology circles. GIS found its roots in land management, urban planning, assessor’s offices, and public works departments, disciplines not thought of as traditional IT thought leaders. One of the most common arguments I would hear from IT leaders, which still makes me cringe, was, “it’s just a dumb little mapping software”. This was an indication of a lack of understanding on what GIS was all about.

Fast forward to today, and we see that the role of the CIO is focused on so many different priorities: cyber security, open data, civic engagement, mobile government, business intelligence, cloud computing, the internet of things, and digital service delivery. Hey wait a minute, aren’t GIS professionals focused on the exact same things? So, what is really keeping them apart?

My sense is that there hasn’t been a concerted effort on the part of CIOs to revisit GIS and better understand where the disciplines intersect. And frankly, the GIS profession has not done a lot to demonstrate the opportunity to work together.

But now for the plot twist: at the recent Esri Public Sector CIO Summit we posed the question of whether CIOs should be working together more with their GIS peers, especially, if oversight of GIS fell to the CIO. There was a simple admission that was repeated throughout the event, “We simply looked at the technologies as being mutually exclusive.” This was an admission that neither an internal or external dialogue had been taking place. But as in every great story, there’s room for yet another plot twist. There is a recognizable pattern that some of the top Chief Information Officers and Chief Data Officers across the U.S. come from a strong GIS background: Stu Davis, CIO of Ohio; Maria MacGunigal, CIO of the City of Sacramento; James Ollerton, CIO for the Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District; Mark Greninger, Chief Data Officer for Los Angeles County; and the list goes on and on. These are examples of recognized leaders that have an understanding of both disciplines.

So some CIOs know GIS, but does everyone? Are CIOs looking at the intersection of technologies to support initiatives? Are they running multiple open data projects on different platforms? Do mobile apps have a location component? Does mapping play a role in the implementation of their business intelligence tools?

GIS professionals have gone through a lot of trial and error to perfect things like open data exchange, mobile government, and developing data centers. CIOs have a holistic view of the IT projects taking place across an organization. It always good to remember where we came from. But more importantly, that we are better together.

Christopher Thomas is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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What specific training is recommended for GIS staff to understand, converse, and collaborate with traditional IT staff? As GIS is more & more reliant and dependent on the IT backbone, the ‘burden’ seems to be on GIS to build our knowledge of servers, networks, database administration, web technology, etc. As a long-time GIS-er, this has been daunting as each of these topics are disciplines of themselves. From folks who started in GIS and ‘crossed-over’ to IT, what are some main introductory courses that help facilitate the technical teams working together and anticipating each other’s requirements?

Gunin Gogoi

This is excellent understanding to work together for getting success in various projects. I would say, not only IT but also GIS professional need to work with Statistician, Hydrologist, Catastrophe Modelers while developing models & solutions to support industry.