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Your Guide to GIS Strategic Planning

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If you watched the ROK Technologies’ presentation, “ How to Design your GIS for Today and Beyond ,” and the question you’re asking now is, “How do we create a GIS strategic plan that can serve as a living document for our GIS program as we navigate these types of transitions?” this article will help.

Obviously, for any document to be  living  it must be in constant use, but all too often, strategic planning is seen as a one-time event, or at best, an annual one. In the fast-changing world of technology, a more realistic approach is to see strategic planning as an ongoing process, one in which you evaluate your progress toward strategic goals weekly and monthly, and adjust your strategic plan every 3-6 months as new technologies and information emerges.

With that in mind, let’s get to the nitty gritty of developing your strategic plan. Many step-by-step templates suggest starting with an in-depth assessment of where you are today: what technologies you are using, and how well are they being used, by whom, for what, etc. However, starting where you are makes it far too easy to limit your idea of where you can be in the future. Instead, consider  starting from the biggest vision you can identify for your organization, and ask what that will require of your GIS.  At this point, don’t worry about cost, staff capability, equipment, time, etc. This is about defining an ideal situation.

For a GIS team in support of a larger organization, it’s critical to begin with the organization’s strategic plan.  Where is the organization planning to be in five years? In three? In one? In an ideal world, what would your role – the role of GIS – be in that 5-year distant organization? What challenges are expected over those years? What obstacles are foreseen? What industry trends will your company be preparing to face, and how can GIS help navigate those waters?

Think about trends . Delve deeply into the trends being predicted for geospatial technologies. It’s clear you will need to move from desktop infrastructure to cloud-based GIS to accommodate remote offices and work-from-home employees, but what else lies on the horizon? Resources like “ Future Trends in geospatial information management: the five to ten year vision, THIRD EDITION ” created for review by the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management, are invaluable.

Also, be on the lookout for articles in industry magazines , like Geospatial Net’s “ Four Major Trends in the GIS Market by 2024 ” and watch for information from product developers as well. (If you missed the livestream webinar, “ Current Trends in Cloud-based GIS ,” you can watch it on demand now.)

Read everything you can find on trends that may impact how you will play a role in supporting your organization’s vision .

Now interview everyone  - the C level executives down to the lowest level of staff that interact with GIS. Find out how they expect their roles to change over the next one to five years. What role do they expect you to play in their success and that of the organization? Are they satisfied with the support you provide now? One of the best tips I’ve seen is to  ask non-GIS staff what frustrates them most  about their interactions with your current GIS products, services and staff to avoid those issues in the future.

Be prepared to be uncomfortable with the answers you get! You may discover that many people, even executives, don’t actually understand the way GIS supports the organization’s mission – at present or in the future. Consider these opportunities to educate departments about the many ways your team can help them achieve their current and future goals. Add an ongoing education or outreach element into your strategic plan.

Interview industry experts outside of your organization too; this is a terrific opportunity to reconnect with the people you’ve met at conferences or through LinkedIn over the years! Discuss future trends with GIS experts in other fields and see how they might impact yours.

At this point, construct an imaginary ideal future state for your GIS department and staff that aligns with the role you expect to have when the organization achieves its vision. Yes, you’ll be making leaps into the unknown, but at this point, that’s ok. You will use your review and realignment process to ground your strategic plan into present-day reality.

Now, you need to move from the ideal Big Picture to the reality of the details.

In order to get to that ideal state, what equipment would your team have to have? What skills would they have to possess? How many people would you likely need? What will your GIS need in order to handle the challenges that may arise?

Begin assessing where you stand now in relationship to these future requirements. You may immediately identify training needs, or realize that your new hires need different qualifications than ones you have hired for in the past.

If you expect emerging technology to revolutionize how something is done, make room in the plan for consistently assessing and testing new products and put a budget on it to make it real. Plan for employees to invest time in continuing education and training and add that to your plan.

As you get closer to the present day, become increasingly specific. If it is clear that the organization needs to have a cloud-based GIS system to accommodate growth plans and new locations, for example, plan to achieve that in that next year or two and map out the specific steps, budget and products you’ll evaluate for the transition.

Your strategic plan must have actionable steps, clearly defined, with deadlines and responsible parties for each step that need to occur within the next year. Then, as part of the regular review process you defined in the plan, evaluate progress and create new action items for the next set of goals as they approach.

I suggest spending time googling GIS strategic plans for industries similar to your own and using these a as templates. For example, this is a good one from Oregon’s Department of Transportation:  https://www.oregon.gov/odot/Data/Documents/ODOT_GIS_Business_Plan.pdf .

And, if you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading the  URISA GIS Management Handbook . “It provides practical information on the development, implementation, and operation of GIS programs and projects—for a full range of public sector, not-for-profit, and private sector organizations and companies.”

Reposted from The DirectionsMag  Geospatial Community Blog,  an extension of  Directions Magazine . Visit us for daily geospatial news, exclusive articles, geospatial webinars, and podcasts. If you are interested in contributing, please email  [email protected] .  

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GIS Strategic Planning: Creating a Viable GIS Master Plan for the Top Water District in California

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Contra Costa Water District (CCWD)

The Contra Costa Water District (CCWD) located in Concord, California, provides water for approx. 500,000 individuals in the central and eastern areas of Contra Costa County. Founded in 1936, The District was created to provide irrigation water to serve local industries. In 2020, they are a leader in drinking-water treatment technology and one of the largest water districts in California.

In 2006, The District was aware of the potential ROI that a more robust GIS would provide and created a GIS Master Plan to begin putting GIS to work for The District. By 2009, The District completed the major recommendations associated with the 2006 plan, including hiring a GIS Analyst, GIS hardware and software implementation, and GIS data creation and conversion, along with training. In 2018, The District realized a need for an updated GIS strategic plan, as the internal demand on the enterprise GIS had grown to support a myriad of District department needs involving data creation and management, enterprise geodatabases, GIS software support, and web mapping applications. By this time, having The District’s sole GIS Analyst manage all aspects of the GIS while continuing to strive to maximize ROI by scaling the GIS program, was no longer a long-term viable plan.

To assist The District with strategically aligning the GIS program with current District needs and goals, Geographic Technologies Group (GTG) was retained to provide a successful, detailed, innovative and sustainable five-year Enterprise GIS Master Plan for the District. The goal was to develop an enterprise-wide, scalable, and enduring GIS program, which effectively and efficiently meets District Staff and other stakeholder’s needs.

GIS technology implemented to meet business needs facilitates data-driven decision-making, playing a key role in strategic service management and tactical service delivery. At Contra Costa Water District, GIS is an integral component of computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS), enterprise asset management systems (EAM), and an array of other information technology (IT) systems used throughout The District. A sustainable enterprise GIS initiative requires a considerable amount of discovery and deliberation. A documented assessment of existing conditions is a logical first step, as it allows for informed decision-making regarding the needs of each operating unit and the organization as a whole.

Through this initial assessment process, GTG identified further opportunities. While there was a wealth of GIS data at the District, the enterprise GIS database was integrated with only one other system. Furthermore, although the District obtained an Enterprise Agreement with Esri, only eight desktop licenses were in use. These conditions were limiting innovation and the GIS Program’s ability to fully realize potential benefits and support the District’s mission and strategic goals.

contra costa water district

  • Step 1: Online Questionnaire and Voice of the Customer Survey
  • Step 2: Kick-Off Meeting, Technology Seminar, Departmental Interviews, and Needs Assessments
  • Step 3: IT and GIS Infrastructure Review and Assessment
  • Step 4: GIS Governance, Staff Training, Education, and Knowledge Transfer Plan
  • Step 5: Five-Year Strategic Implementation Plan
  • Step 6: Final GIS Master Plan and Presentation to Stakeholders

A Voice of the Customer Survey was administered online with the purpose of painting a clear picture of the current state of The District’s GIS initiative through the point-of-view of internal GIS users and stakeholders. Ratings and comments were gathered on GIS needs, limitations, and opportunities, and the results were used to inform the GIS Needs Assessment.

As part of the project kick-off, a Technology Seminar was presented to key staff members to provide an overview of GIS, its capabilities, available products and programs, and potential key initiatives. While GTG was on-site with District staff, staff interviews were conducted to create a comprehensive look at the current state of GIS to build on for a detailed GIS Needs Assessment .

The IT and GIS Infrastructure Review and Assessment step analyzed existing IT infrastructure for its ability to reliably support performant GIS applications and solutions. GTG provided industry best practice recommendations and a conceptual system design to meet The Districts current and five-year system needs. Analysis included considerations for peak load placed on the system’s servers and databases by GIS users, web GIS solutions, and field staff.

GTG’s GIS experts also developed GIS Governance and Training, Education, and Knowledge Transfer plans specifically tailored to the needs of the District. Jason Marshall, GTG’s Director of GIS Consulting states, “A formal governance model is a critical component of all successful enterprise GIS programs. If you can get the people component right, it ensures a GIS program’s procedures are efficient and implemented solutions are sustainable. The District recognized this need as a key part of the project and subsequently adopted a governance model before the project was completed.”

The GIS Strategic Implementation Plan was the capstone of the project. It defined the necessary tasks and five-year schedule for the District to implement recommendations outlined in the GIS Master Plan. The provided five-year annual budget assessment will also allow District staff to procure needed funds for the implementation. Using this five-year, phased tactical plan, The District will implement cost-effective GIS solutions that will allow it to further scale its GIS program in an enterprise-wide fashion and maximize return on investment of its GIS.

The District is currently planning to pursue the three mission critical priority projects identified in the GIS Master Plan. It is clear that staff throughout the Contra Costa Water District see the value in continuing to utilize GIS technology to conduct day-to-day operations. GIS use in public utilities is going to become more pervasive and has become the de-facto system for managing and analyzing all data in public utility organizations — both spatial and non-spatial. The District will reap benefits from its former and future investments in GIS as the use of geospatial technology at the District increases.

“Excellent team providing excellent service and final products.” – Richard Broad, Engineering Support Supervisor, CCWD

For more information, go to GISplan.com or contact:

Curtis Hinton, President Geographic Technologies Group (888) 757-4222 [email protected]

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GISPlan: A Tactical Plan for Data-Driven Decision Making and Technology Expansion

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Lessons Learned in GIS Strategic Planning

  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to be?
  • What resources are going to help us get there?

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  • What motivates the organization’s work?
  • Why do stakeholders seek out the organization’s products and expertise?
  • Which processes and products align with the organization’s vision?
  • Do planned innovations on the GIS team fit the organization’s present and future strategies?
  • Do staff outside the GIS department know everything that the team does and is capable of doing?
  • Which products do non-GIS staff and their clients or stakeholders use most?
  • How do staff members throughout the organization use GIS products?
  • What tools and functionality do non-GIS staff wish their GIS products had?
  • What frustrates non-GIS staff when they use current products?
  • What questions are people trying to answer when using GIS tools?

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EPA Geospatial Strategic Plan

This page provides access to the EPA Geospatial Strategic plan for Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 - 2027. This document provides direction and guidance for the EPA Geospatial Program to identify priorities that support the Agency's mission now and in the future. 

Geospatial Strategic Plan FY 23-27 (pdf) (770.2 KB)

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  • Dennis Wuthrich

What Does Storytelling Have to Do with a GIS Strategic Plan?

Tell the user’s story.

A GIS Strategic Plan (see template ) defines the technical and business objectives of a GIS program.  Many people view this as an uninspired document with cookie-cutter recommendations.  But I like to see it as a way to understand the unique story of a client and turn that into a script for action. A focus on the user’s story ensures a more robust and vetted plan.  In fact, the elements of good storytelling can easily be related to elements of a good GIS Strategic Plan.

1. GIS managers, staff and end-users are the heroes

A GIS Strategic Plan is about a stakeholder, staff or end-user journey and how a GIS can help them achieve their goals. They are the heroes or protagonists of the story. You need to identify who they are they, what motivates them, what are their strengths/weaknesses and where they can benefit from support.

2. Your current GIS implementation is the existing situation

Most of the initial research we do—from stakeholder interviews to inventories and quality audits of geodata, to walkthroughs of current workflows and apps, to gap analysis—is to understand the starting point for a strategy. You can’t lay out a strategy until you know where your hero is coming from.

We ask subject matter experts to describe what is working well and identify any points of frustration or confusion with the current GIS environment. Then we have them list off all the things that they would want to change, improve, remove, modify, or create new in the current system and additionally asked them to rate the importance of these changes. The ability to evaluate future success and ROI will be measured against the understanding we build of this existing situation. From this point on, the hero’s journey or quest can begin.

3. Your business goals represent the central quest

You can’t plot a strategy if you don’t know the goals and direction your GIS needs to grow. GIS is no longer just a specialized complicated analytical tool. GIS now has broad application and utility to both complex business process like tracking development to simple functions like locating a park trail on a smartphone.

Goals need to be clear, concrete and external. GIS plays a smaller role with some business goals (e.g. reducing citizen complaints) but is the star player in others (e.g. mapping asset locations).

Goals help answer fundamental questions: Why do you do this? What has your organization achieved? What do you want to achieve? What do you want to do next?   Goals are both short term: make it work now for those currently using the system; and long term: provide a roadmap to a sustained future of successful technological uses and growth throughout the entire organization.

4. Organizational constraints are the antagonists

Even if you’ve got the greatest GIS strategy ever, you still need to figure out and evaluate the risks that would prevent the objective from being accomplished (the antagonists). Then you need to understand what revisions or adaptive tactics can be used to overcome the most obvious obstacles and maximize chances for resourcing and implementation. Business constraints might be different than technical GIS constraints. Ideally a GIS strategy will address both.

5. Strategy is the plot

At this point in the story, you know who the players are, what’s working and what’s not, and have some ideas about how to move forward to achieve those goals.

When I write up a strategy, I think about them as though I were developing the plot for a novel. Each tactic or recommendation is a way to move the GIS hero(es) closer to the goals. What benefits can they achieve? What obstacles or risks might they encounter? What recommendations do we have for governance and staffing? What is the required technical architecture, workflow modifications, and data? What are tentative timelines? Finally, we document how the GIS Strategic Plan recommendations can help achieve these goals, save the kingdom and let everyone ride off into the sunset.

If you are interested in documenting and presenting the story behind your own strategic plan needs,  drop us a line .

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  • By Dennis Wuthrich

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GIS Strategic Plan

Building a Strategic Equity Plan with GIS

Using a location strategy can help your organization decide which programs to implement, resource allocation, and where funding should go based on need. Before coming to Esri I was also an equity practitioner who leveraged the power of GIS technology to tell me what communities were underserved and in most need through nonprofit work and local government. Making the connection between equity initiatives and a geographic approach allowed me to develop a GIS-based strategic equity plan.

A GIS-based strategic equity plan outlines four steps organizations follow to ensure an equity lens is applied to all their workflows. It overlays internal and public data to better understand your community, creates a location strategy based off needs identified, operationalizes the strategy, and monitors the strategy’s progress in real-time. In the ongoing webinar series I am hosting Build Your Strategic Equity Plan with GIS Esri subject matter experts and leading organizations guide attendees through the strategic equity plan. I believe all organizations, private or public, benefit from adopting a geographic approach as it allows them to identify and prioritize communities with the most need.

Since we are approaching the halfway mark of the webinar series, I wanted to share what we have learned so far:

Sentara Health

Iris Lundy, Vice President of Health Equity at Sentara Health, joined our first webinar to review how her team is creating change and increasing access to care in their communities by adopting a geographic approach. Lundy reviewed how the need for preventative measures was brought to her attention as the health system was experiencing high emergency department utilization rates. Lundy wanted to ensure that the communities they serve had resources and programs in place that helped them lead healthy lives. When she mapped out where the emergency department use was, they found the communities identified were lacking easy access to healthy food options.

gis strategic plan examples

Lundy relied on the GIS staff to tell her where to implement new resources such as food banks and then worked with community organizations to operationalize this work. Due to GIS technology Sentara Health is leading health equity work for all organizations to follow. However, we understand not all organizations are ready to operationalize their equity plans and must first look to location data to understand their community’s needs.

Understanding Your Community

Mapping and overlaying data such as income levels, demographics, access to care and affordable housing exposes patterns of inequity throughout our communities. Understanding your community’s needs is essential in ensuring underserved communities are prioritized, which is why this is the first step in developing an equity strategic plan. I invited Diana Lavery, Esri senior product engineer, to the webinar series so she could demonstrate the power of overlaying data to visualize where inequities are occurring.

“You start by building a map for understanding a community, but the goal is to create a map for decision support,” Lavery said, and I couldn’t agree more. Diana is part of our ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World team, our collection of geographic information roam around the globe. The living atlas includes public maps, apps, and data layers to support your work. I wanted Diana to highlight this content as it is available to all Esri users. You do not need to build or collect your own GIS data if you do not have the capacity to do so; the living atlas allows you to tap into data, reviewed and vetted by Esri staff.

Some of the data sets include the CDC Social Vulnerability data, American Community Survey data, Justice 40 layers, County Health rankings and more. Many of these data layers are updated every month and there are several real time updates.

gis strategic plan examples

Diana also demonstrated Esri Maps for Public Policy, a site of curated content training, best practices, and datasets that can provide a baseline for your research, analysis, and policy recommendations. While Lavery reviewed the various maps for public policy a question arose from attendees asking about data around the unhoused population in the US.

gis strategic plan examples

Lavery demonstrated the above layer found in Esri Maps for Public Policy which was collected by local continuums of care during the annual Point in Time count. This is a perfect example of how organizations combine national level data with their own data collected. This is also an acknowledgement that not all data is perfect however, it can still be used to understand your community and is an opportunity to incorporate community feedback and qualitative information into your work.

The Series Continues

We welcomed the new year with our second webinar in the Create an Equity Strategy webinar series. Thank you to Diana Lavery from the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World, for walking through various examples of equity data and how to use the data to understand your community. Understanding your community is just the starting point, the goal is always to utilize your maps for decision making support. This leads us to our next step, creating a location strategy. Please join us on April 3 rd where the City of Tacoma Washington guides us through how they leveraged the power of location to enhance equity with a location strategy.

Register today.

About the author

gis strategic plan examples

Sophia Garcia

Sophia Garcia is Esri’s Lead Equity and Civic Nonprofits lead. Her work at the Dolores Huerta Foundation (DHF), a social justice nonprofit in California’s Central Valley, laid the groundwork for institutionalizing Esri’s Equity and mapping work. At DHF, Sophia worked with community organizations across California to pass legislation for more fair and equitable redistricting codified in AB 849 the Fair Maps Act. Sophia subsequently worked as a consultant with over one-hundred municipalities, including five of California’s 10 largest cities, to implement the Fair Maps Act. Sophia’s GIS career has been focused on participatory community GIS and implementing GIS with an equity lens. She is excited to continue working with users to understand and apply GIS and geospatial thinking to equity issues.

Related Content:

  • equity and social justice
  • health equity

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Applying GIS for Enhancing Network Health & Equity

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Learn how to leverage GIS tools for complying with network adequacy and enhancing health equity.

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Creating the World You Want to See

Sophia Garcia | August 25, 2023

The Esri User Conference enhanced the presence of equity and social justice initiatives at this years event.

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In honor of Earth Day the Esri environment and conservation team discusses how GIS technology can help enhance equity within the industry.

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