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GIS growth and the Advantage Program (part 1 of 3)

When considering use of geospatial data and products, what do municipal and provincial governments and resource, transportation, utility, health, AEC and education organizations all have in common?

All have made investments into GIS software, infrastructure and personnel. All have a unique set of business challenges that they’re hoping GIS can help solve, and all have budgets, mandates and goals they need to consider when designing their geospatial programs. 

Despite having a wide range of unique business cases, all these types of organizations have had to ask themselves: where do I start, and how do I get where I need to go? 

And that can be a very big and very daunting question. This is especially true when you consider the monumental change in the GIS landscape over the last 10 years as we collectively moved from siloed, desktop GIS to an interconnected landscape of a system of systems. Today’s GIS isn’t just data that is managed by a GIS professional. It engages the entire organization and beyond, with tools, apps and information products. With such a vast amount of opportunity at our fingertips, how do these organizations know which is the right direction for them?

An illustrated network of person-shaped icons floats on top of a world map. A hand reaches toward one of the icons.

Advantage Program advisors often find themselves answering the question: “With all the options and opportunities available to me, where should I go next with my organization’s GIS?”

All of the industries above, and many more, have opted to participate in the Esri Canada Advantage Program (AP). This program pairs the organization with a senior advisor who works to get to know the client in great detail—who they are, what their business is, their challenges and their current state. Usually, a challenge leads to an uncovered opportunity for improvement, and the advisor will analyze this information with a team of Esri Canada consultants and solution architects, and in collaboration with the organization, identify goals, define priorities and develop a workplan aimed at optimizing geospatial activities for the next 12 months. Once this roadmap is in place the remainder of the year is dedicated to execution, revision, knowledge transfer and measuring progress. 

In my five years as a part of the Advantage Program, I have seen many unique organizations—different in their organizational structure, resourcing, culture and geospatial maturity—yet with many similar patterns and needs. Read on to see if these scenarios (in three parts) are relatable to your organization and hear what these AP clients did to move forward and find success.

Common Challenge #1—How to Deploy and Move the Organization to Web GIS

As I stated above, we’re not in Kansas anymore when it comes to desktop GIS. GIS will always support those desktop professionals who execute complicated and business-specific analysis workflows. But the GIS of today includes a much more widespread distribution of information, data, sharing styles and users. And that means a lot of changes on the back end too—do you move to a services-based architecture rather than directly connecting to your geodatabase? Do you share things with the public? Who handles your system infrastructure or responds to your users if there is an issue? And how do you migrate all your existing workflows or legacy apps? 

The Toronto & Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) found themselves in a similar scenario. “We want to adopt Enterprise GIS, and we want to know what we don’t know for this year and in years three, four and five,“ says Jason Tam, manager of business information and technology, TRCA. “And our IT has adopted a cloud-first policy, so whatever we design, we can no longer plan on it being on-premises.”

Through the AP planning sessions, the advisor uncovered that TRCA’s main goals were to establish a GIS that is better aligned to business needs and future technology opportunities and is seen as an integral enterprise system in the organization. Taking this a little further, these goals subdivide into the following objectives:

  • Architect and implement cloud infrastructure to host their Enterprise GIS
  • Migrate existing apps, data and workflows to the cloud
  • Design a system of governance that aligns with organization structure and best practices

This is a common scenario. Organizations know they want to take advantage of the sharing and collaborative capabilities of a centralized system, but making the shift feels immense. They know the fundamentals of this type of migration, but often get overwhelmed by the number of items and tasks to consider.

The key to addressing this challenge is to take enough time to understand how all the moving parts fit together and then use that to plan your approach. I’ve seen teams rush to a solution without really knowing what the problem is or how their decisions might impact their future. For example, an organization might stand up a “sandbox” environment for testing. If the organization doesn’t include a phase for planning their future needs, this sandbox then morphs into an underpowered production environment, leaving them with sizing and performance issues. Or they might decide to move all users off a legacy system, such as ArcMap, but fail to take into consideration the training required or options available with moving their current workflows to Web GIS.

A blue, yellow and pink sandbox filled with sand.

Organizations shouldn’t rush to set up tools or environments before understanding all of the moving parts that could affect their business. A sandbox environment for testing, for example, might not be the right fit for every organization.

In a lot of cases, lack of preparation leaves the organization strapped for time or resources, or with a GIS that is a poor fit for their needs, which is a tough spot to be in.

In the case of TRCA, their AP advisor had seen this scenario before and was able to work with TRCA to develop their plan, which included:

  • A three- to five-year Technology Strategy & Roadmap engagement, focusing on a cloud platform.
  • An ArcGIS Enterprise architecture design phase culminating in an architecture at the beginning and end of the strategy, marking changes required should the strategy pieces be executed.
  • Assistance with deployment to Microsoft Azure.
  • A series of knowledge transfer sessions covering data management, imagery optimization, workflow discussions and technical governance.

TRCA decided on the technology strategy covering up to five years because this depth allowed them to have a solid plan for architectural changes that would be required as a result of planned system growth and user adoption. They were able to insert their migration to ArcGIS Pro in year 2, where it fit best given their user base and gave them lead time to implement governance around administration of the environment.

TRCA is currently completing year 2 of their strategy. The ArcGIS Enterprise environment was thoroughly designed according to their needs now and in year 5. They’re beginning to implement their user migration to Pro and have implemented user governance and administration workflows. They’ve also identified which user groups will migrate first and have worked to set up a migration template that will allow them to seamlessly identify all the configuration items, users, privileges, apps and change management tools they will need to migrate users one group at a time. They’ve set up user roles and privileges and have identified the access structure so new users can get the access they need. They’ve also identified and allocated administration tasks within the core group of GIS admins to keep the system running smoothly.  

Through thoughtful planning, looking at where they are now and where they need to go, and what stages exist in between, TRCA has ensured a smooth transition to Web GIS that should return value for years to come.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this blog series where we’ll take a look at another common way our clients are using the Advantage Program to plan for and meet their goals. In the next blog post, we’ll discuss how an idea becomes a reality under the Advantage Program through proof-of-concept workflows, information sessions and access to expert advice.

About the Author

Julie Roebotham is the Advantage Program Practice Manager at Esri Canada and is based in the Halifax office. In her work helping customers implement GIS technology more effectively, her philosophy is to meet people where they are: to give GIS users and non-GIS users alike the skills and confidence to use their new tools, then celebrate their success. Her specialties include change management as well as governance program development and implementation.

Profile Photo of Julie Roebotham