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How to drive technological change—with just one simple app

The Communications & Engagement team at Urban Systems, a Western Canada-based professional services firm, has been using polished, branded, low-code narrative maps to help community members engage more effectively in public consultations. As we learned in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, these maps are a huge help to Urban Systems’ clients. But the widespread adoption of ArcGIS StoryMaps—a user-friendly narrative mapmaking app—has also been a surprising gateway for technological change at Urban Systems.

In Part 1 of this series, I explored how Urban Systems navigated a difficult time in public consultation using narrative web apps as a temporary substitute for in-person sessions. In Part 2, I discussed how Urban Systems has continued finding success with clients by leveraging ArcGIS StoryMaps as a cost-effective and high-quality option for communicating with a wide audience.

This last part of my blog post series on Urban Systems is in some ways the most exciting—because in it, I’ll talk about how ArcGIS StoryMaps, a seemingly simple storytelling app powered by maps, is driving digital transformation at Urban Systems by making adoption of geographic information system (GIS) technology exciting, easy and inviting.

The struggle of pushing technological change

Ryan Periana came to Urban Systems after getting his Bachelor of Science in Earth & Environmental Science, then working in the mining and viticulture industries. A GIS specialist with a keen interest in geospatial strategy and governance, Ryan has worked with systems architecture, GIS server management and GIS infrastructure. At the time of this writing, he’s been with Urban Systems as a geospatial strategist for two years.

Ryan came to Urban Systems two years ago with a keen interest in GIS strategy and governance—one of the main concerns of which is adoption of new technologies across an organization. In general, implementing any new technology within a mid-size to large organization can be difficult. Different levels of technological interest or aptitude, resistance to change and the organization’s existing technological maturity are just some of the hurdles that new technology can face on the way to adoption. Often, change has to start with a mindset shift. Organizations can struggle to push the kind of culture shift that can help staff develop a new mindset—in this case, the kind of geospatial mindset that gets them excited to adopt GIS technology as more than a mapping and analysis software. Because beyond helping people make useful maps, GIS also helps companies effectively use authoritative data, develop relationships with the public and find new insights within their data.

Ryan had struggled with broad-based technology adoption in his previous workplaces. Although he’d demonstrated geospatial technology and explained its benefits to his previous organizations, adoption had been spotty at best, or restricted to those mapping and asset management functions that are its traditional home.

At Urban Systems, while Ryan’s primary concern was to meet the needs of the company’s project teams, he also wanted to see GIS technology be adopted more broadly.

Driving change within an organization usually means finding someone to champion that change. Normally, as Esri Canada’s Director of Management Consulting Matthew Lewin describes in his article on the subject, the best geospatial champions are business leaders with the power to influence non-geospatial functions from the top down. But at Urban Systems, Ryan lucked out. He got an entire team of champions—and not necessarily of business leaders, but of non-GIS specialists who were using GIS tools to develop GIS apps. Ryan got the Urban Systems Communications & Engagement team.

An easy-to-use app that makes the geospatial approach fun and exciting

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when lockdowns were shutting down in-person public engagement opportunities, Urban Systems’ Communications & Engagement team used ArcGIS StoryMaps as a web-based way to talk to the public about their clients’ ongoing infrastructure projects. This spurred a surge of StoryMaps usage within the Communications & Engagement team. They developed dozens of polished, easy-to-use StoryMaps stories as a result.

Those stories—many of which were rapidly developed using existing content—made the rounds within Urban Systems. They were highly polished and branded, took readers through multimedia narratives and even had embedded feedback mechanisms. Because of the way they solicited feedback in the same way that a public information session might, they became essential tools in Urban Systems’ communication toolbox.

And soon, staff members outside of the Communications & Engagement team started asking how to make stories of their own.

By becoming the standard web-based communication tool for many of Urban Systems’ planning projects, ArcGIS StoryMaps has exposed many non-GIS users within the company to GIS technology and broadened their idea of what GIS can do. It’s also given some project leads who have historically been more comfortable working with static formats like PDFs exposure to more dynamic options, such as interactive maps.

And because of the Communications & Engagement team’s runaway success with ArcGIS StoryMaps, Ryan has found that when pitching the use of other GIS technologies like ArcGIS Hub or ArcGIS Dashboards, he receives a more enthusiastic response, and more of a willingness to try new things.

For this reason, ArcGIS StoryMaps has been a gateway for change at Urban Systems.

Now, Urban Systems staff members are taking stories inside: they’re developing ArcGIS StoryMaps stories for internal use. For example, using Urban Systems’ AWS environment, one of their graphic designers developed a story about the organization’s vision and path forward. Instead of using geographic basemaps, the story leveraged XML, HTML and CSS to create clickable “image maps” tailored with custom graphics that immerse readers in the concepts being discussed.

Not only has this approach to internal communications made challenging topics easier to navigate, it has also improved goodwill toward those topics. Rather than sending a long email that might inspire a reader to skim, an employee of Urban Systems instead has the power to send an interactive story packed with visuals that provides a fun, engaging experience—even with difficult subject matter.

Be connected through accessible information

Whether they’re external or internal to Urban Systems, the people that Ryan helps are enthusiastic about Urban Systems’ use of ArcGIS tools to make information more accessible.

He credits the Communications & Engagement team with inspiring this shift towards a geospatial mindset. “Having this team adopt ArcGIS StoryMaps so well and use it even better than the GIS team is really cool,” he says.

Especially considering that most of Urban Systems’ Communications & Engagement team are not self-described GIS experts, this is huge.

“Not only have they adopted Esri technology as non-GIS users, they excel at it.” –Ryan Periana, geospatial strategist, Urban Systems

“Not only have they adopted Esri technology as non-GIS users, they excel at it,” says Ryan. And because of this excellence, GIS has started to get its feet at Urban Systems as more than a mapping technology. And its use is growing all the time.

This blog post is part 3 in a series about how Urban Systems is using ArcGIS StoryMaps in new ways. Read part 1 for the story of how they used StoryMaps to navigate the early stages of COVID-19, and check out part 2 to learn why using StoryMaps meant they didn’t have to compromise on cost, time or quality.

About the Author

Dani Pacey is a Marketing Specialist for Esri Canada. She digitized her first map at the tender age of 10 and has been fascinated by the relationships between people and places ever since. An avid technical communicator with degrees in Science & Technology Studies from York University and History of Science & Technology from the University of King's College, Dani has always blended science, social science and the humanities and loves bringing them all together to tell great stories about human life.

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