The GIS Whisperer: Connecting GIS Professionals and Government Executives


You know the story. Two people meet, maybe in high school or another social setting; she likes him, he likes her. Friends on both sides know they secretly long for each other, yet neither ever act on their feelings. Then, they meet at a reunion and one of them finally decides to express their feelings on a path not taken. The other confesses that they felt the same way. Circumstances permitting, they live happily ever after. I was reminded of how this story parallels the day-in and day-out relationship between the professionals who use GIS and government executives.

This realization started with a conference a few weeks ago with 18,000 professionals who all share the same passion to solve the world’s problems with geospatial technology. We talked about open data, homelessness, opioid addiction, Internet of Things (IoT), drones, and data-driven decisions. Then a few days later, my team and I jumped on a plane to meet with our colleagues at the National Association of Counties (NACo) Annual Conference where we basically had the same discussions with many of the same jurisdictions, but this time with the government executives. We talked about open data, homelessness, opioid addiction, IoT, drones, and data-driven decisions again. Oftentimes, we have found ourselves explaining to many elected officials the great work their own employees are doing. What is clear is the two groups are not talking with each other. And you see this problem manifest itself in other forms. For instance, the GIS department might release an elections application and post it on the GIS website, but it is not posted on the elections department website.

The obvious solution to bridging the gap between these groups would be to establish regular communication. But what is not so obvious is that both groups don’t realize there is a problem, just like the couple I started the story with. And how do we encourage open communication? Enter the need for a GIS Whisperer. An effective GIS Administrator or Chief Information Officer (CIO) should act as the intermediary. A person in this role would establish communications with each individual group, identify their needs, and bring them together. This can lead to a decrease in redundant workflows, open the opportunity to assemble all of the stakeholders to help solve a problem, and leverage the best talent.

At NACo we had lines of people mesmerized by demonstrations on retail gaps and business opportunity. Are GIS professionals mesmerizing their leadership with the same demonstrations back at home? If they did, would we have such long lines? We shared the next-generation of open data with both groups. It was clear that both technical staff and executives were interested but they were not having a conversation about it together.

Someone has to be the GIS Whisperer. This role ensures technical needs are communicated to leadership and the concerns of management on budgeting, getting the most out of staff, and priorities are shared back to the various departments. Logic tells us everyone should be in the same room, but technical staff wants to talk tech standards and apps, while management wants to talk about the mission of the organization. When you put them together, there is not always an opportunity to share both sides. The GIS Whisperer should speak two languages: tech and management.

Is someone aligning both viewpoints for the advancement of your organization, and more importantly, the betterment of your community? Who is your GIS Whisperer?

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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Kitty Wooley

This is a fresh, compelling description of the value of boundary-spanning connectors who “translate” IT for non-IT leaders (and vice versa) within the organization. I’ve never seen it said this well.