Reshaping MetroGIS for its second decade
By Jeanne Landkamer, Communications Specialist, Metropolitan Council
A new mission statement may emerge this spring for MetroGIS. Stakeholders at a day-long workshop held in early February said that it is time for MetroGIS to focus on how its collaborative efforts help to solve real-world problems, not just how the organization’s work benefits its members.
“We need to more clearly communicate the value that an investment in GIS provides to citizens of the region and to decision-makers,” said Randy Knippel, GIS Manager for Dakota County and a member of the MetroGIS Coordinating Committee. In the early days MetroGIS was more internally focused, and the mission was driven “from more of a technical perspective,” Knippel said. “We need to replace it with more of an outward-focused perspective.”
The goal of the workshop, facilitated by Professor John Bryson of the University of Minnesota, was to provide the organization with strategic direction for its second decade.
Thirty-two representatives of the entire range of MetroGIS stakeholders spent the day in interactive exercises and discussions about the organization’s future.
By day’s end, the group had identified seven priority outcomes for MetroGIS as it moves ahead. The proposed outcomes will serve as guideposts for a team of MetroGIS partners who will write a new draft business plan during spring 2007.
Support and develop applications. MetroGIS has a solid track record of creating and sharing regional datasets, such as parcel data. Many of the workshop participants endorsed the idea of moving into developing and sharing applications.
“It’s frustrating for some of us to watch organizations shelling out money for the same thing,” said Nancy Read, director of technical services for the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District. “It’s a good sign of the growth of MetroGIS that we’re moving in this direction, and it’s good for the taxpayers of the region.”
Expand (diversify) MetroGIS stakeholders. It’s time to more fully engage cities in MetroGIS, said Ben Verbick of LOGIS, a consortium of Minnesota cities. When MetroGIS was founded, the primary stakeholders were the Metropolitan Council, the seven counties and a handful of other regional-level agencies. Cities were seen as secondary participants because they were not generally contributors of data. With a new focus on applications – which cities routinely develop and use – cities become primary stakeholders.
Involving the private sector will be critical if MetroGIS wants to support and develop applications, said Will Craig, Associate Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the U of M. “The private sector is chomping at the bit to write applications based on the parcel data,” Craig said. “They’re even willing to share the profits. But they need lower up-front costs to make the effort viable.”
Participants at the workshop also spoke about the need to expand collaboration beyond the seven-county area. Whether this means expanding the policy board geographically or supporting other regional GIS groups is an open question.
Improve marketing and advocacy. Policymakers need to better understand the role that GIS plays in helping to solve problems and serve customers. More demonstrations of what the data and technology can do are needed. MetroGIS may need to be “rebranded” so that people can better understand what it does and to accurately reflect its geographic scope, should that be expanded.
Develop regional data solutions. MetroGIS should continue this important work, and may need to identify a second generation of common information needs. Participants also suggested a need to work with utility companies to share data back and forth. More data standards need to be developed as well.
A new concept that emerged was that an organization may decide to be custodian for a dataset even if it isn’t critical to its own internal business needs, if it meets a larger identified regional need. “Our common motivation has got to be more efficient and effective government across the region,” Knippel said. “Ultimately it’s for the public, the regional economy. We’ve got to focus on the common good, assign responsibilities where it makes sense and work together to find the necessary resources.”
Achieve common funding strategies. The Metropolitan Council in 2006 affirmed the importance of MetroGIS to its business needs and affirmed its continued support. Workshop participants said that it is also in the state’s interest to fund local GIS initiatives that ultimately support state programs. In addition, more can be done to leverage the buying power of MetroGIS participants.
Advance the infrastructure. MetroGIS partners will not be able to rely on each other to support mission-critical activities like responding to a metro-wide emergency until the GIS environment is completely reliable on a 24/7 basis, said David Arbeit, director of the Office of Geographic and Demographic Analysis at the Minnesota Department of Administration. That means building security and redundancy into the infrastructure.
“As we continue to build a network of partnerships among organizations that each have areas of expertise – be they data or services – we have to be confident that those services will be available all the time,” Arbeit said. “We need to consider housing our servers in secure buildings with generator power and 24-hour staffing to provide continuity of service for critical functions. We may also need off-site locations for data and ‘hot sites’ that can be used in case of emergencies. Most GIS organizations do not have these capabilities today.”
Other participants expressed concern that many cities lack access to high-speed data transmission. Some cities and school districts are already working together to build capacity through the development of fiber networks. Jane Harper, principal planner for Washington County, suggested that MetroGIS could serve a crucial coordination function to evaluate where infrastructure exists now and where it needs to be expanded.
Continue to provide a forum for knowledge sharing. Knowledge sharing has always been highly valued by participants in MetroGIS, said Craig. User groups were very important to building a culture of data sharing in MetroGIS.
Building on that legacy and bringing in new participants is important, participants agreed. Ideas for expanding knowledge sharing included blogs, an online forum, a demonstration project with a collar county and new, active work groups with a specific purpose. MetroGIS can also increase its participation at events held by other groups, such as the Minnesota Chapter of the American Planning Association.
A draft business plan should be ready for consideration by the Coordinating Committee and Policy Board in mid-2007. In addition, a group of volunteers will be solicited to develop a new mission statement for MetroGIS and rework the organization’s guiding principles, based on the discussions at the workshop.