11. Geospatial Friday — GIS vs IT. The Ultimate Battle? (Pt 1)

For this weeks Geospatial Friday we’re off to New Zealand to meet another experienced geospatial professional called Nathan Heazlewood. Nathan currently works as a Programme Manager at Auckland Council and is most likely a fan of rugby balls as well as spherical geometry.

The following is the first half of Nathans excellent article entitled:

‘GIS vs IT. The ultimate battle?’

It’s a must read for any IT professional who is curious about Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and for any geospatial professional who is interested in building productive relationships with IT teams. Over to Nathan.


“What makes GIS different to ‘general IT’ projects?”

Many people that I deal with are more used to ‘general’ IT projects with ‘text and numbers’ types of systems. There are issues that arise due to the differences that are inherent in the GIS specialism. Some of the reasons behind these issues are listed below:

(1) GIS Team vs. IT Department

• Due to the nature of GIS and some of the qualification/training that goes with it GIS users are often have more IT knowledge than ‘average’ personnel. GIS training and work often covers things like data modelling, creating database joins and making database connections etc. Everyday office personnel don’t typically do these types of things and this starts to span into the realm of general IT.• This can be useful but can also lead to issues such as conflict with IT departments that want to apply the same levels of control to GIS personnel as they do with other teams.• Negotiate with the IT department to provide GIS personnel with appropriate tools and privileges (such as administrator rights etc)• Keep the IT department informed of what is happening with projects- they are often a key stakeholder group that may get left in the dark until they are needed.

(2) Imagine if your on-line banking system told you: “your bank balance=$1,353.24 (plus or minus $200)”

• Many IT systems such as banking systems are expected to give exact results. • Some users assume that GIS systems will also provide precise results (particularly because GIS coordinates often go down to ‘high precision’ decimal values- this is sometimes confused for a high level of accuracy). In fact often if someone reads the metadata they will discover that most GIS datasets give spatial accuracy tolerance figures such as “accurate to plus or minus 10 meters” or similar. • Assess the data accuracy requirements- if necessary more accurate data through ground surveys or Lidar etc may be required • Educate users about the level of accuracy to be expected with each set of data

(3) GIS systems ‘overlay’ multiple layers of data from different sources- often these don’t ‘match’

• Some users are confused when different datasets are used and they don’t match. These users often think that there is an error either with the data or with the system. • The truth is that different datasets often have different accuracy characteristics- and often one dataset may be ‘more accurate’ in some different geographic areas than another dataset (which may in turn be more accurate in another geographic area or using a different evaluation characteristic: one dataset could be comparatively more recently updated but less spatially accurate for example) • Part of the experience/skill of a GIS professional is to be able to evaluate multiple conflicting datasets and to make a judgement as to the most likely ‘real world’ situation and the best dataset to use for a specific purpose.

(4) My phone has GPS! I’m gonna dig here!

• There is a recent trend where some users assume that because ‘consumer’ mobile devices are equipped with GPS receivers that these devices can therefore be used to collect field data or to direct field operations (to a high level of positional accuracy) • Ensure that the level of positional accuracy that can be expected from different devices meets the requirements • Ensure that users understand the distinctions between ‘smartphone’ accuracy and industrial GPS • GPS coordinate tracking functions can drain batteries quickly and can cost a lot in mobile data charges

(5) GIS concepts are foreign to the uninitiated

• GIS concepts such as requirements for topology or the capabilities of geoprocessing are not understood by the average person (Theissen polygons or Delaunay Triangles anyone?) • Professional grade desktop applications are not intuitive and are bewildering to the average person if they haven’t been trained. There are improvements in intuitiveness for the most basic GIS functions with the advent of mobile phone apps etc but an average person cannot open something like ArcGIS for Desktop and expect to be able to “work it out for themselves”. I have heard of some people trying to do this and concluding that GIS is really difficult, when it need not be. • Even some systems that have some similarities to GIS, such as CAD systems do not necessarily have the same topology requirements or functional capabilities • Ensure that users understand geographic and geometric concepts as well as how to use the functional aspects of the system. • Formal training is often more of a requirement for GIS when compared to some other systems.

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