MCP Insights

How to Keep GIS Institutional Knowledge From Walking Out the Door

Posted on May 19, 2020 by Robert Horne

Every once in a while, the geographic information system (GIS) professional working for one of our clients retires, which is great for the pro—and equally bad for the client.

GIS has been important in the public safety community for a couple of decades now. The data generated by such systems is leveraged by computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system mapping applications to pinpoint the location of 911 callers on telecommunicator screen displays. In the Next Generation 911 (NG911) environment, to which many emergency communications centers (ECCs) are migrating, GIS-generated geospatial data will replace the legacy automatic location identification (ALI) and master street address guide (MSAG) databases to locate emergency callers. The result will be fewer misdirected 911 calls and timelier dispatching of the appropriate emergency response. When lives are on the line and every second counts, this is a good thing.

A lot has to happen on the back end for GIS to effectively support an ECC’s operations, and it can be a little complicated. Workflows, standard operating procedures and policies have to be created and continuously updated to ensure that well-attributed geospatial data makes it into the CAD system. Every day, telecommunicators discover addressing errors, and processes have to be established for them to not only report the errors, but also to ensure that they are corrected in a timely manner. If they’re not, emergency responders might end up in the wrong place. Even if it is only a few hundred feet, the discrepancy will waste valuable time and delay responders’ arrival at the scene—and that might cost someone their life.

In addition, nuances exist that are unique to the 911 environment. Here’s just one of many examples. Let’s say that a county GIS professional is drawing road centerlines for a one-way street, for the purposes of vehicular routing. The pro will draw the centerline simply in the direction of travel. But in the NG911 world, the system expects the centerline to be drawn in the direction of increasing addresses, with the start point being the lowest address and the end point being the highest address. It might not seem like a critical distinction—but it is.

MCP has developed a proprietary assessment tool called the Model for Advancing Public Safety, or MAPS. The idea is to use the tool to determine whether various factors of an ECC’s operations are at risk, in transition, or public-safety grade. Documentation is one of the factors considered during a GIS assessment. And what we find quite often is that our clients completely lack documentation related to their GIS workflows, procedures and policies.

That’s a very big problem. Without adequate documentation, when an ECC’s GIS pro leaves, for whatever reason, all of the institutional knowledge gained over many years walks out the door with that person, and the center is right back on square one. However, with effective documentation, a GIS pro working for the county in another area, e.g., real estate or municipal planning, could fill in on a temporary basis. They would need some time to learn the nuances of the 911 environment, but they immediately would understand all of the workflows, procedures and policies. That’s a critical capability give that it could take months to replace the 911 GIS pro.

Invest the Time Needed for GIS Documentation Now to Reduce Heartburn Later

The reason we most often hear for the dearth of documentation is lack of time, which reminds me of a popular 1970s television commercial for a specific brand of oil filters. The tag line was, “the choice is yours … you can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” The implication was that viewers could spend $4 each time they changed their oil, or spend hundreds of dollars sometime in the future on an engine repair that could keep their vehicle out of service for a considerable amount of time.

The parallel to GIS documentation should be obvious to the reader—invest the time needed for GIS documentation now, or face an enormous time drain, and a lot of heartburn, later.

A great way to avoid these pain points is to develop a GIS succession plan. A simple way to start is to hire an intern to shadow your GIS pro. Interns usually are willing to work for modest pay—and sometimes free of charge—to gain incredibly valuable experience. Every state has at least one or two colleges/universities that have a GIS program, so finding an intern shouldn’t be very problematic. Let them memorialize every workflow and procedure—this is the first step toward creating a GIS succession plan.

We have ample experience in helping clients develop such plans—please reach out.

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