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Is it important to keep GIS out of the IT Department?

Many managers are reassessing where their GIS Department would best reside organizationally -- should it be on its own or should it be a component of the IT Department?

As GIS becomes more enterprise and Web centric, many managers are looking at their GIS activities and questioning: “is my GIS staff located in the right organizational unit to maximize GIS investments and operational efficiency?” This problem is not new; it has been around since the early days of GIS. One of the reasons why this conundrum has become more of an issue recently is that GIS work is expanding and much of this new work is Web related. In the past, Web work has generally been the sole responsibility of IT Departments and not necessarily the GIS Department.

To study this problem, let’s do some high level organizational analysis.

Generally speaking, IT Departments look after Internet access, email, servers, Web sites, plus the software and hardware within their enterprise, which could be a school, government or business. Also,  IT Departments are usually in charge of non-functional activities such as repair, system security and performance optimization. Some IT Departments provide custom programming, while others just keep everything working efficiently. A function that may or may not be in the IT department is the Information Management (IM) function, which is the collection, care and maintenance of data and information. In particular, the IT Department usually doesn’t develop or maintain Web site content. The content is often the responsibility of others and the IT Department simply hosts the various pages.

Most often, the GIS Department provides GIS services for an organization and they usually operate a framework of spatial services and related data so that it can be displayed, analyzed and used for decision-making. The GIS is designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage and present all types of geographic data. The results of GIS Department work are often maps, strategies or decisions that are shared internally within the organization or externally to the general public.

So is there anything special about spatial? Does it need to be treated differently than mainstream IT/IM? Well, that depends on a lot of things.

GIS is really not about if my computer is more secure than your computer or if my Internet bandwidth is faster than yours. GIS is mostly about data. GIS data is expensive to collect and needs someone knowledgeable to manage it, understand it and use it properly. GIS is about providing geographic services to clients and thus determining their requirements and creating what the clients need. It’s about keeping the data up to date so that decisions are based on the best available data. It’s about knowing what processes to run on the data to create the desired result. Also, it’s about making clear, understandable Web maps for the general public.

Figure 1: When managers look at their GIS organizational structure, they need to take a number of issues into consideration.

Are there a lot of functions and human skills that overlap between staff in the IT Department and the GIS Department? That depends. There are some organizations where GIS is in the IT Department and there are others where they’re separate. One well-known GIS success factor is a GIS champion, who’s a senior manager or executive who understands GIS and provides leadership.

Like a lot of organizational issues these days, there’s not a one size that fits all. In some organizations, GIS should never be put in the IT Department while in other organizations, this combination may work well. So when the manager is assessing the organizational strengths and weaknesses, they should look at the cultures, technology, workflows, data management and whether they have a GIS champion.

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About the Author

Gordon Plunkett is the Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) Director at Esri Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in GIS and Remote Sensing in both the public and private sectors. He currently sits as a member of the Community Map of Canada Steering Committee, GeoAlliance Canada Interim Board of Directors, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Technical Committee, the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) Committee on Geomatics, the University of Laval Convergence Network Advisory Committee and the Advisory Board to the Carleton University Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre. During his career, Gordon has worked on projects in more than 20 countries and has contributed to numerous scientific conferences and publications. At Esri Canada, he is responsible for developing and supporting the company’s SDI vision, initiatives and outreach, including producing content for the SDI blog.

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