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Building geospatial data capacity at the municipal level

We wanted to look at the human and organizational factors that influence how geospatial data collaborations are formed.

Whether they are transforming legacy services and infrastructure, such as emergency response systems, to provide the level of service that residents expect, planning for sustainable growth, and addressing local effects of climate change, municipalities across Canada have no shortage of challenges to be solved.

But, the ability to fully leverage geospatial data in response to these challenges varies significantly between municipalities. Larger municipalities may have dedicated GIS teams and significant resources at their disposal, while smaller municipalities generally have minimal in-house GIS capacity.

How can this gap be addressed? Could there be an opportunity for greater municipal collaboration, sharing expertise and resources to build collective geospatial capacity to solve shared problems?

That’s the conversation we wanted to start when Open North and Esri Canada launched this research project last summer. An extensive scan of current practices in Canada and internationally, as well as interviews with individuals representing nine municipalities, collaborations and civil society organizations, allowed us to piece together a clearer picture of inter-jurisdictional geospatial data collaborations.

Several people’s hands holding a jigsaw puzzle piece to be put together

Q: How did the focus on collaboration emerge?

Some of the earliest inter-jurisdictional data-sharing collaborations involved GIS – and today, integrated spatial data infrastructures exist in many places. But while collaboration between neighbouring municipalities is not a new strategy for meeting the needs of residents, it has yet to become a common practice.

When we talk about collaboration, we’re talking about municipalities sharing data assets, infrastructure and knowledge to build collective capacity that they would not otherwise possess or be able to access. This capacity can be leveraged in multiple ways, such as to improve internal data practices, share collective intelligence and make mutual decisions on issues of regional importance, unlock geospatial information for community-based economic, social and environmental initiatives, and present a united ask for resources from higher levels of government.

Q: Did you encounter any inspirational examples of collaborations in your research?

Absolutely. There are great examples in Canada where we see municipalities are already working together. The YorkInfo Partnership is one well-established example — a collaboration involving York Region, its nine municipalities, two district school boards and two conservation authorities. They’ve developed business cases for each of their major datasets, from critical infrastructure to street trees and building permits, that make clear the value of sharing that data both from an internal and public-facing perspective. After all, it's important for municipalities to remember why they are collaborating in the first place and that those reasons are grounded in the local context.

Another example is the Alberta Municipal Data Sharing Partnership, which aims to create a seamless road network map covering the whole province. They started with only a handful of municipalities as members, but have steadily expanded their membership over the years by fostering peer-to-peer support, making it easy for new member municipalities to get their data up to the required standard and participate in the partnership.

Q: How can other municipalities approach getting started on creating their own collaborations?

So, we’ve established that there is a strong case for collaboration between municipalities. But how should a group of smaller municipalities embark on their own collaboration, and what do they need to consider? We wanted to look at the human and organizational factors that influence how geospatial data collaborations are formed.

We were able to identify several key stages in a typical ‘collaboration journey’: identifying and evaluating the opportunity; understanding current capabilities; designing and implementing the collaboration, and; measuring outcomes and sharing successes. Each of these stages brings its own opportunities and challenges that many municipalities will encounter. Rather than provide easy answers, we encourage municipal staff to reflect on key questions along the way, such as: What internal and external opportunities can be leveraged? What resources are available among potential partners? What are the gaps and how might they be addressed? What form should the collaboration take? What standards and processes will need to be adopted? How will success be measured?

Key Stages in the Collaboration Journey

Diagram of an arrow with the four stages in the collaboration journey

Q: So, where do we go from here? What needs to happen for us to see more collaborations?

There certainly remains work to be done in developing a roadmap for collaboration that can take into account all of the various contextual factors that municipalities must navigate. We came to realize that while ultimately the drive to collaborate needs to come from the municipalities themselves, there’s a broader range of actors involved in shaping the space where collaborations can emerge and in providing different kinds of support along the way.

Provincial governments can certainly play a larger role in creating the enabling conditions from which collaborations can emerge, such as by providing funding and investing in high-speed internet infrastructure to connect remote communities. Where regional governments exist, these can also support collaboration among lower-tier municipalities by bridging gaps and facilitating connections to specialized expertise.

But there’s also a role for actors in the broader ecosystem, outside of government. Civil society actors (e.g., non-profit organizations, professional associations) can create a supportive environment for collaboration by convening forums and communities of practice to bring together municipalities that are facing similar challenges to share knowledge and practices. Civil society can also partner with municipalities to bring in relevant outside expertise where it is needed as well as document and share local lessons learned with peer municipalities.

And there’s a role for the private sector as well, in offering support services targeted at smaller, lower capacity municipalities and identifying use cases where collaboration between municipalities can support the local innovation ecosystem and provide public value at the same time.

Q: What’s next for this initiative?

Our main goal with this research was to put inter-jurisdictional collaboration on the agenda, and use it to spark conversations between the various government, civil society and private sector actors who need to be at the table. We’re hoping it will kickstart a renewed interest in developing collaborations between municipalities at a time when we need it more than ever.

Read the full report: Building Geospatial Capacity at the Municipal Level: A Case for Collaboration

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This blog post is co-authored by Esri Canada’s Alia Kotb and Open North’s Steven Coutts.

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.