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Understanding geospatial governance: policies, standards and guidelines

Geospatial policies are essential for ensuring that the decisions and principles of a geospatial strategy are correctly followed and that users are provided with structure and guidance. Ultimately, well-designed governance documents ensure the correct use of geographic data, shape future success and enable faster decision making. In this blog post, Allen Williams discusses the importance of and connection between the geospatial policies, procedures and standards you’ll need to harness the power of location in your organization.

Geospatial policies may not be the most exciting part of geographic information systems (GIS), but they are essential for ensuring that the decisions and principles of your geospatial strategy are adopted and followed. With the right geospatial policies in place, organizations can have confidence that their GIS is being used correctly and securely.

Policies provide structure and guidance for users so that they don’t need to guess what is expected of them or take unnecessary risks with geographic data and location-based insight. The impact of poor geospatial policies, standards and guidelines can be costly. To avoid expensive mistakes and ensure that you’re making the most of your investment in GIS, I recommend developing a comprehensive set of GIS governance policies that will help you deliver your strategy.

When I work with customers to help them design their GIS governance policies, I find it helps me to first understand their established policy framework and hierarchy. The framework provides an anchor point for the GIS function to adopt, adapt or develop relevant policies focused on geospatial concerns. The policy hierarchy describes the difference between a policy, procedure, standard and guideline.

These terms are often used interchangeably; however, there is a hierarchy. Each organization is slightly different in how it may structure its hierarchy, but knowing the difference between the elements of a policy framework enables you to distinguish between the different enforcement levels of your geospatial governance documents.

When I work with Esri Canada customers, I recommend this approach:

 An inverted pyramid labeled “Governance Policy Hierarchy” shows five tiers of geospatial policy documents: geospatial strategy and roadmap (including vision, strategic actions and objectives); geospatial policies (including support of strategic principles, decisions and expectations); procedures (which outline detailed steps to comply with a policy); standards (which set minimum measures and address interoperability); and guidelines (which leverage best practice approaches. A scale on the left-hand side of the image shows that the geospatial policies and procedures are key for strategic focus and are mandatory, whereas standards and guidelines have an operational focus and are only suggested.

The top layer of the hierarchy is a geospatial policy. A geospatial policy defines the objectives and strategies to be implemented. It’s a mandatory governance control, as well as a set of rules that help to ensure that GIS users are properly educated on their responsibilities and have the guidance they need. Geospatial policies relate to decisions in your GIS strategy or address important issues concerning the achievement of the strategy.

For instance, a policy on geospatial data quality will address the importance of having complete, accurate and current spatial data and to whom the principles apply. Strategically speaking, a geospatial data integrity policy links with a strategic objective to protect critical business data, ensuring that your maps and geo-information products are credible and can be trusted.

I recommend that all GIS policies follow a template and contain concise statements that define the principles stakeholders must respect and follow. This way, they’ll be easy for people to understand and apply to their situations, regardless of role; they’ll also be more likely to help your people be more consistent, efficient and risk-aware. Try drafting your geospatial policies using plain language and a clear structure so that they’re short and to the point, but clear on what your target audience can and cannot do.

A geospatial procedure is a set of steps that define how to perform an action related to your GIS, such as creating and updating data or configuring a GIS solution, in compliance with your geospatial policies. Procedures should be detailed enough that all stakeholders can follow the same process. A checklist is a great example of a format that can be used to direct recurring tasks. I often recommend that customers develop a set of standard operating procedures, then update them regularly as their organizations’ policies, technologies and circumstances change.

Like geospatial policies, geospatial procedures are mandatory governance controls. By following procedures, your users will remain in compliance with the geospatial policies you’ve put into place.

To help implement some procedures, consider using tasks in ArcGIS Pro. In Pro, tasks are sets of preconfigured steps that guide you through a workflow or business process. They help users follow the best-practice approach, provide detailed interactive steps and simplify workflows.

The third layer of the hierarchy is a GIS standard, which is a set of criteria used to measure performance against the desired outcome of the policy. A GIS standard establishes the minimum metrics that must be achieved, and also describes the technical requirements for creating, using and exchanging information in the geospatial domain. GIS standards guide what types of data should be collected, how data should be organized and how it can be used. An example of a GIS standard is the ISO 19115 standard, which provides a model for describing geographic information and services. This standard is widely used in geospatial data exchange and has been adopted by governments and private organizations worldwide.

When selecting a GIS standard, consider the applicability of both technical and business requirements. Will you create your own geospatial standard, or use standards published by external organizations, such as the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) or the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)? I encourage my customers to use industry standards because they help organizations advance the adoption of new GIS solutions while helping customers effectively maintain interoperability considerations. Furthermore, these standards are widely accepted in the industry and are proven to work.

From a governance point of view, the related geospatial policy will dictate whether a GIS standard is mandatory or voluntary for the organization.

GIS guidelines provide recommendations on how best to fulfill the requirements defined in the policies and procedures. GIS guidelines provide users with additional information and advice on how to use GIS systems effectively. They may include best practices for data management, usage of geospatial tools or system security measures. They’re like standards, but provide more detailed direction about specific tasks when working with geospatial data. They may also include information about acceptable sources for types of data, limitations on the use of certain technologies or recommendations on methods for data collection or distribution.

An example of a GIS guideline is: “Data should be collected using a consumer-grade device or GPS receiver that is accurate up to five meters.”

In terms of governance, guidelines are recommended for use and voluntary. They will help your organization achieve and maintain adherence to best practices, but following them won’t affect the continued day-to-day function of the organization.

A look forward

Understanding the distinctions between GIS policies, procedures, standards and guidelines will help you ensure that your geospatial governance documents are well-defined and appropriate for your organization’s needs. With the rapid pace of innovation in GIS technology, it’s important to stay current on the latest advancements and ensure that policies can keep pace. I recommend periodic reviews of your geospatial policies, which will help you identify areas where these may be lacking or need improvement to stay relevant. And don’t forget to communicate these decisions regularly to all stakeholders. This will help you promote adoption and compliance and lead to improved workflows.

As a reference, many governments publish their geospatial policies online to ensure that everyone is aware of their specific principles, to provide transparency and to support information exchange. These policies typically highlight several aspects of geospatial governance, including data ownership, accuracy, sharing restrictions and more. Here’s a brief list of geospatial policies you can use for inspiration:

The importance of geospatial governance and policies cannot be overstated. They can save your organization time and money. They allow teams to collaborate more efficiently, reduce time spent on resolving issues related to improper use and lead to more efficient operations and better decision making. Having clear policies in place is essential to ensure the integrity, accuracy and security of geospatial data. By understanding and implementing these governance controls, you can more securely manage your geographic information assets and maximize the value you derive from them.

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About the Author

Allen Williams leads the Management Consulting Practice at Esri Canada. He focuses on helping organizations build transformative geospatial strategies and roadmaps, giving them practical steps to maximize the value of location intelligence. Allen has worked with organizations at all levels of government and a broad range of industry sectors. He helps customers develop long-term geospatial strategies and governance programs resulting in modernization and innovation.

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