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Enterprise GIS Drives Efficiency at Parks Canada in a Big Way

“For us, the real power of ArcGIS is being able to tie all of our corporate systems together using a common map—that’s a big part of our vision.”
- Brock Fraser, Acting Manager of Information Integration, Parks Canada 

Parks Canada is the largest landowner in the federal government, which also makes it one of the largest worldwide. The area bounded by the 46 national parks and four marine conservation areas under the agency’s stewardship adds up to about 343,000 km2 – that’s 2.5 times the size of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. combined.

The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel in Banff National Park uses land leased from Parks Canada.

Put another way, if Parks Canada was a country, it would be the 63rd largest by area, just one spot below Germany. It would be bigger than Finland, Norway, Poland, Italy, New Zealand, the U.K. and more than 100 other nations.

That’s big, right?

Yes, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Parks Canada is also the custodian of 168 national historic sites and a national urban park. The agency has a mandate to present its diverse portfolio of natural and cultural treasures to Canadians and protect the integrity of these places for future generations.

Now that’s big. And it’s an enormous responsibility.

For over 30 years, Parks Canada has relied on geomatics to help fulfill its responsibility in areas such as ecological restoration, infrastructure management, biological inventories and monitoring, visitor presentations, law enforcement, search and rescue, and information sharing with partners.

The agency’s operations are spread out across the country, often in remote areas, so it’s no surprise that the organization developed a strongly local, project-oriented culture, which eventually led to significant duplication of effort. For example, Parks Canada formerly operated 10 different realty systems to track land ownership, leases and licenses.

Of course, duplication of effort wasn’t the only problem. Since internal groups worked independently of each other, most of the agency’s corporate knowledge was inaccessible to individual staff members. People had to rely on meetings, phone calls and emails to retrieve information from their colleagues. Understandably, some information never got shared. Some was simply lost when employees left the organization.

Seven years ago, Parks Canada began to consolidate its many, disparate IT systems in an effort to eliminate information silos, increase efficiency, improve collaboration and do a better job of retaining corporate knowledge.

Centralizing Data with Enterprise GIS

Since almost everything Parks Canada does is somehow related to location, most of its consolidated corporate systems required integrated mapping features. The problem was that all of the agency’s geospatial data was stored at the national parks.

“We were faced with the possibility of having to make requests for each system to our 40 GIS specialists, for several layers of data,” said Brock Fraser, national geomatics coordinator at Parks Canada. “If you multiply 40 specialists by 25 layers by 5 systems—that’s an awful lot of requests. It would be impossible to manage, so we decided to use an enterprise GIS to collect the information and distribute it to the corporate systems.”

Parks Canada had already completed detailed business analyses of several corporate systems, during which a set of geospatial data requirements had been gathered for each one. The enterprise GIS implementation team decided to use those requirements as a starting point.

“Using our existing business analysis processes helped ensure that the GIS applications met the requirements of the corporate systems,” explained Fraser. “For example, the business analyst for the realty system already had a community of users and an advisory panel, so we didn’t need to conduct a massive user needs assessment as many of the business needs had already been identified. Instead, we went to the analyst and asked, ‘What GIS functionality do you need?’”

This approach ensured that each piece of local data copied to the enterprise GIS would be tied to a proven business outcome.

Once the team had boiled the corporate systems’ requirements down to a master list, they built a data model that was distributed to the national parks.

To see how an enterprise GIS would work in Parks Canada’s unique environment, the agency engaged Esri Canada to help implement a pilot project using ArcGIS. The pilot helped the team figure out how to replicate and centralize their data, as well as build map caches. After the successful conclusion of the pilot, the team began introducing ArcGIS Server across the organization – one corporate system at a time.

The Incident and Event Management System (IEM) was the first to go online. Accessible from handheld and vehicle-mounted tablets, IEM can be used by park wardens to display maps, view and edit the locations and details of current incidents and add new incidents. Enterprise GIS maps are now being added to the National Integrated Realty System (NIRS), a consolidated land registry application.

The Incident and Event Management System (IEM) provides wardens with situational awareness of incidents in national parks (Image shows simulated data).

Despite all of the recent developments on the corporate front, onsite GIS staff remain the stewards of national park data. They have now adopted the new national schema developed by Fraser and his colleagues. As a result, Parks Canada currently has 27 GIS databases replicating to its centralized ArcGIS Server.

Introducing Self-Serve Maps

In 2015, the agency launched the Parks Canada Atlas, a basic mapping tool designed for staff members who do not have access to corporate applications with mapping features. The Atlas employs a Parks Canada basemap developed using ArcGIS, which contains the detailed information required by the agency.

The Atlas improves efficiency by making staff members more self-sufficient. For example, now that park superintendents have the Atlas at their fingertips, they are no longer dependent on the local GIS staff member to perform routine tasks such as exporting a map image to a written report or printing out a paper map. GIS personnel are now able to spend more time on activities that better use their skills.

Realizing the Vision

The ability of ArcGIS to scale between project and enterprise has made it possible for Parks Canada to capture the expertise and knowledge of its staff members, and integrate it into a map-based interface that decision-makers from all disciplines can use to make smart choices.

This screen-capture from NIRS shows how Realty staff can “rubber-sheet” a survey plan to the basemap so the plan can be more easily found, understood and related to other map information. A transparency slider allows the user to fade the survey in and out of the foreground.

“For us, the real power of ArcGIS is being able to tie all of our corporate systems together using a common map—that’s a big part of our vision,” said Fraser. “On their own, none of our systems  integrates the Agency’s complex mandate. Our enterprise GIS is giving our employees the platform they need to share their knowledge with each other, and with the public.”

Parks Canada is continuing to build on ArcGIS with a new asset management system, cultural resource management system and national dispatch system, all scheduled for completion in the near future.

ArcGIS is also driving Parks Canada’s contributions to the Federal Geospatial Platform (FGP), a collaborative project that will pool data from 21 government departments, allowing them to make smarter, more informed decisions. The FGP will also become a source of geospatial information for the general public.

As well, the agency is working with Esri Canada to implement Portal for ArcGIS, which it sees as a game-changer for app development, collaboration and innovation. The solution will allow a staff member at one park to quickly build a custom mapping application and then instantly share it with the other parks.

In the last few years, Parks Canada has put a lot of effort into working smarter, and the effort is definitely paying off.

That’s big – for all Canadians.