GIS: Strategic Planning and Management Through

The Application of Computer Technology

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On the walls of caves near Lascaux, France, Cro-Magnon hunters drew pictures of the animals they hunted 35,000 years ago. Associated with the animal drawings is a map; track lines and tallies thought to depict migration routes. These early records followed the two-element structure of modern geographic information systems: a graphic file linked to an attribute database.

The map has been in existence in much the same form for thousands of years. In the traditional form it suffers from a number of problems. Firstly, maps are static and therefore difficult and expensive to keep up to date. This leads to a second problem, in that because they are static they lose flexibility, for example, maps exist as discrete sheets and inevitably your area of interest lies on the corner of four adjacent sheets. In addition maps are often very complex and may require an expert to extract the particular data which are of interest.

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) can be regarded as the enhanced, high-tech equivalent to maps. An individual computer generated map contains information that is used in different ways by different individuals and organizations. It represents the means of locating ourselves in relation to the world around us. Maps are used in diverse applications; from locating telephone wires and gas mains under our streets, to displaying the extent of de-forestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

From a management point of view, accurate and relevant information provides the key to effective decision making. In today's modern societies, decisions should be made quickly and based on reliable data and sound processes even though there are many differing viewpoints to consider and a large amount of information to process. Nowadays, the impact of decisions is ever greater, often because they involve conflicts between society and individuals, or between development and preservation. Due to this, information should therefore be readily available to decision-makers.

Without doubt, during the past few years, the drastic increase in access to computers has altered our planning practices. Planners that specialize in the application of computer technology to planning and planning-related issues are concerned with ameliorating the crucial process of decision-making by providing up-to-date information and new methods for looking and analyzing physical, social, and economic data. In turn, Geographic Information Systems and other similar new technologies are constantly and constructively changing the way we view our physical environment, allowing planners to simultaneously study the physical, social, and economic composition of geographic areas based on such hi-tech maps.

The objective of this essay is to study and demonstrate the benefits offered by Geographic Information Systems, as a cost-effective managerial tool, to strategic planning and management within all industries. Before commencing, the following section provides a brief overview of the basic concepts and functions of a GIS.

Concepts & Functions of Geographic Information Systems

Even though numerous attempts have been made to determine the exact definition of a GIS, seldom to theorists directly relate it to the strategic issue of planning and management. Nevertheless, the following is a rather successful attempt of creating a full, well balanced and precise definition:

"A system of hardware, software, and procedures designed to support the capture, management, manipulation, analysis, modeling and display of spatially-referenced data for solving complex planning and management problems." (NCGIA lecture by David Cowen, 1989).

A primary benefit of a GIS is that it integrates, in a generic manner, data and information that may be scattered throughout an organization, in different departments and on different documents. But it is the ability to integrate common database operations such as query and statistical analysis with the unique visualization and geographic analysis benefits offered by maps which distinguishes GIS from other information systems and makes it valuable to a wide range of public and private enterprises for explaining events, predicting outcomes, and planning strategies.

More importantly, GIS offers decision makers at various levels the capability of integrated and coordinated planning, efficient coordination of construction, and development of preventative and routine maintenance programs on the basis of reliable data and long-range plans.

The GIS serves users on four levels:

A‚A§ Basic: archive or file for accessing up-to-date and reliable information on the various elements in the system.

A‚A§ Planning: accessing data for planning at all levels of detail, from conceptual planning to detailed design.

A‚A§ Management: decision-making at all levels of management, from strategic to operational.

A‚A§ General: aggregation of information for businesses.

At senior management levels, GIS serves as an indispensable aid to policy definition and control of high priority and critical regions, and assists in decision making with respect to planning and development on different time horizons, and in the immediate, intermediate and long range.

Generally speaking, a Geographic Information System links spatial information (CAD) to alphanumeric information (database) - to produce a geographically referenced database. GIS software allows the user to collect, edit, analyze, and display this information, which are stored in the following three ways:

1. Points: location of electric and telephone poles, fire hydrants, traffic lightsA?a‚¬A¦etc.

2. Lines: data defined topologically in a network or linear, such as water pipelines, road centerlines, communication networksA?a‚¬A¦etc.

3. Polygons: closed areas, each with its own distinct characteristics such as parcellation, land use, surface cover, structuresA?a‚¬A¦etc.

A Geographic Information System can be divided into two basic types of data: graphic and non-graphic. Graphic data, which are digital descriptions of map features, are used by the GIS to generate a map or cartographic 'picture' on a display device, on paper or through other media. On the other hand, nongraphic or textual data are representations of the characteristics, qualities, or relationships of map features and geographic locations.

The following diagram illustrates the relationships of graphic elements to nongraphic data, which allows the creation of graphic software, a GIS, that integrates visual material with its appropriate data:

(Antenucci et al., Geographic Information Systems; A Guide to the Technology, USA, 1991, P.87)

In order to operate, the GIS depends on the integration of three aspects of computer technology, which are presented in the diagram below:

The database management is composed of graphic and nongraphic data, whereas the graphic capabilities involve routines that manipulate, display, and plot graphic representations of the data, and spatial analysis tools deal with algorithms and techniques that allow spatial analysis. (Antenucci et al., Geographic Information Systems; A Guide to the Technology, USA, 1991, p.21).

A GIS provides the facility to extract the different sets of information from a map (roads, settlements, vegetation, etc.) and use these as required. This provides great flexibility, allowing a paper map to be quickly produced which exactly meets the needs of the user. However, GIS goes further, because the data are stored on a computer, analysis and modeling become possible. One might, for instance, point at two buildings, ask the computer to describe each from an attached database (much more information than could be displayed on a paper map) and then to calculate the best route between these.

Unquestionably, map making and geographic analysis are not new, but a GIS performs these tasks better and faster than do the old manual methods. And, before GIS technology, only a few people had the skills necessary to use geographic information to help with decision making and problem solving.

Developing a Geographic Information System

GIS belongs to the class of computer systems that require the building of large databases before they become useful. Unlike many micro-computer applications where a user can begin use after the purchase of the hardware and software, the use of a GIS requires that large spatial databases be created, appropriate hardware and software be purchased, applications be developed, and all components be installed, integrated and tested before users can begin to use the GIS.

The adoption of a GIS by an organization introduces fundamental change into the organization in its thinking about data as prior information technology allowed data to be collected and related to activities and projects individually. Organized stores of data were the exception rather than common practice. This led to duplicate data collection and storage (as in different departments) and to the possibility of erroneous data existing in one or more locations. One of the goals of computer systems and database development is to eliminate redundant data collection and storage. The principle is that data should be collected only once and then accessed by all who need it. This not only reduces redundancy; it also allows for more accurate data and a greater understanding of how multiple departments use the same data. The necessary condition for successful computer system and database development is for different departments and agencies to cooperate in the development of the system. A database becomes an organization-wide resource and is created and managed according to a set of database principles.

The "decision" to develop a GIS is made incrementally. The information needed to determine the feasibility and desirability of developing a GIS is not available until several of the planning steps have been completed. The key decision points are:

A‚A§ Decision to investigate GIS for the organization - the initial decision to begin the process. This is an initial feasibility decision and is based on the likelihood that a GIS will be useful and effective. It is fairly important to identify the major participants at this point - both departments within organizations and the group of organizations, particularly key organizations, those who represent a majority of the uses and who will contribute most of the data.

A‚A§ Decision to proceed with detailed planning and design of the database - at this time, the applications, data required, and sources of the data have been identified. Applications can be prioritized and scheduled and the benefits stream determined. Also, applications to be tested during the pilot study and the specific questions to be answered by the pilot study will have been determined. A preliminary decision will need to be made as to which GIS software will be used to conduct the pilot study.

A‚A§ Decision to acquire the GIS hardware and software - this decision follows the preparation of the detailed database plan, the pilot study and, if conducted, the benchmark tests. This is the first point in the development process where the costs of the GIS can reasonably be estimated, the schedule for data conversion developed, and targets for users to begin use determined.

Developing a GIS is more than simply buying the appropriate GIS hardware and software. The single most demanding part of the GIS development process is building the database. This task takes the longest time, costs the most money, and requires the most effort in terms of planning and management. Most local governments, for instance, will acquire the GIS hardware and software from a GIS vendor. Choosing the right GIS for a particular local government involves matching the GIS needs to the functionality of the commercial GIS. For many agencies, especially smaller local governments, choosing a GIS will require help from larger, more experienced agencies, knowledgeable university persons and from qualified consultants.

The GIS development cycle is a set of eleven steps starting with the needs assessment and ending with on-going use and maintenance of the GIS system. These steps are presented here as a logical progression with each step being completed prior to the initiation of the next step. While this view is logical, it is not the way the world always works. Some of the activities in the process may happen concurrently, may be approached in an iterative manner, or may need to be restructured depending on the size and character of the organization conducting the study and the resources available to plan for the GIS.

Building a Geographic Information System is a highly consuming task, not only from a systems development point of view, but also from the human resources aspect. The system could perfectly function, technically speaking, and still bring forth deceiving results. Staff training, education, and interaction with the GIS is as important as creating the system itself. It is both the combination of an appropriately built system that meets the user's needs, in addition to well-trained personnel, that will allow an organization to exploit the GIS's full potential.

GIS: A Vital Tool for Strategic Planning and Management:

Today, Geographic Information Systems are being applied in all different sorts of organizations, ranging from government municipalities to marketing firms and finance corporations, as it provides a decisive tool, through its incorporation of spatial graphics to data, towards effective and productive decision making. Initially used by the government, such systems have now increased popularity amongst a wide range of businesses and agencies, whose astonishing success has echoed in the corners of all markets.

Constructed specifically for all sorts of geographic purposes, the system has demonstrated its ability to meet user needs and provide significant benefits towards planning and management for all sectors.

London's Heathrow Airport case presents an example of how a GIS is used to manage vast amounts of information, thus dealing with large stores of constantly changing data that is required for airport management. For the management and maintenance of the airport, an estimated 400,000 technical and engineering plans are required. In addition, with already more than 50 million travellers in 1994, the airport was in need of a system which could meet the customer demands of an ever-increasing number of passengers, and maintain accurate records of each change to the airport services and structures.

Nowadays, through a GIS, the Airport Planning group, for instance, "issues safety regulations detailing what construction works is being carried out, which diversions are in effect and other relevant information. Up-to-date information can be quickly accessed from the database and used to produce high quality computer-drafted A3 or A4 plans supporting safety notices." Indeed, the GIS currently being used at Heathrow Airport has showed real financial benefits and turning around times for record requests have been greatly improved. By giving the "the right information to the people who want it [and] when they need it," the system is rapidly being accepted as part of the organization's decision making process (Mapping Awareness, Plane Language- Managing Information at Heathrow Airport, October 1995).

The UK water industry has greatly benefited from the presence of GIS technology. East Surrey Water (ESW), a water company serving the southern fringe of London, East Surrey, and West Kent, demonstrates one of many success stories of the GIS in the private sector. By installing a Geographic Information System, the water company managed to improve its planning and services to customers through a more targeted and cost-effective works program to further improve water quality and supply, which meant less paperwork and duplication of tasks, swift access to vital information and a simple updating system (Mapping Awareness, Do Go Near the Water: GIS Boosts East's Surrey Water's Planning, Efficiency and Service, December 1995). On the other hand, UK water companies still currently face up to 30 per cent loss of the water they produce, but this time due to a different reason: water leakage. Reducing water leakage is the prime concern of British water companies, as they are endlessly developing new modelling and water-distribution management systems to combat this massive problem. At Thames Water Utilities, though, a PC-based GIS system was installed as an alternative solution to this financially devastating problem. The system, which simplified the updating of records and viewing of information from databases, made it extraordinarily easy to find solutions to operational obstacles, allowing them to be overcome in a shorter period of time via more efficient techniques (Mapping Awareness, GIS Plugs the Gap as Water Leakage Companies Combat Leakage, April 1996).

With over 50 per cent of the population as customers each month, Boots the Chemist is one of the most popular chains of shops in the UK. Despite its supremacy over its industry, increasing competition is forcing Boots to hone its competitive edge by mastering new technologies, making it one of the first retailers to integrate a GIS into its mainstream IT infrastructure. Due to its disparate existing sets of data, such as CCN's Marketing Environ system for customer-profiling data and census demographics and GOAD plans for paper maps of towns, detailing units, occupiers and their goods and services, Boots wanted a system that would collect all sources together into a single system. Overall, Boots required "a flexible GIS, capable of business analysis and planning primarily for site location and research." In addition, as customer trends change daily, the company hopes to use the system to fine-tune its inventory to ensure that it is supplying what customers require. Despite this, developing a GIS remains a complex, effort and time-consuming task, for it has taken Boots over 18 months to capture and integrate its data into the GIS database. One definite strategic benefit, though; the new technology has changed the firm's focus from stores to customers, towns and competitors, which will be critical to the future success of the business (Mapping Awareness, Fighting the Supermarket Sweep, June 1997).

The case of the British Royal Navy proves that GIS technology can even be utilized for military purposes. Recently, the Royal Navy has equipped some of its warships with a stand-alone plotting system that offers greater accuracy and increases the amount of tactical information plotted through the implementation of GIS technology. This new system, which is proving invaluable as a flexible, low-cost planning tool, may even save lives.

A modern warship needs sophisticated data-handling technology to help deploy its sensors and weapons systems quickly and effectively. To ensure its warships are prepared, the Royal Navy is investing heavily in bespoke computer systems in order to handle the enormous amounts of tactical data now available. To operate successfully in the Royal Navy, a system must be able to provide rapid processing, with a minimum number of operators, which would give a clear and concise overview of the tactical situation.

Previously, the ships had to manually update positions on a paper chart every 10 to 15 minutes. The new system, interfaced with satellite navigation data, now allows them to achieve an update almost instantly using computer graphics display. Although the GIS is still at the trial stage, "it provides a low-cost, customized, commercial off-the-shelf system that is now being used as an amphibious planning tool for sea-going commanders."

Worldwide, GIS consultants are confident that the technology will flourish in the foreseeable future - but in a different form; in a few years the GIS market will comprise (1) fewer suppliers, (2) more lower-cost systems, (3) and easy-to-use desktop systems that are integrated into main-stream corporate solutions. Even though GIS's flexibility will increase in general, the utilities and local government remain the healthiest market sectors, with industry/manufacturing the least promising.

As to specific changes and areas of focus in the near future of this tool, its rapid growth will be coupled with low-end GIS and desktop PC-Based solutions, as they are expected to be the main areas for expansion. Business GIS is the first area expected to boom, since it has the greatest potential for expansion, such that mapping technology will be on the desktop.

GIS is seen as a specialist area now, restricted to specialist industries and specific types of organizations. Nevertheless, in five years it will undoubtedly be an enhancement to many applications whose increased benefits for users and suppliers will rapidly evolve as open systems become the norm.

Obviously, there is an enormous growth potential for the GIS, which should come through broader proliferation in different markets, due to lower cost software/hardware and data availability. With time, the systems are expected to become more user-focused as both users and buyers will expect quality, cost-effective, and significantly simpler application-based GIS solutions. Clearly, once GIS is "demystified in the minds of users and potential users, and when desktop prices have dropped further, it will boom with current ITA?a‚¬A¦" (Mapping Awareness, Consulting the Experts, November 1996).


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Bernhardsen, Tor Geographic Information Systems, Viak IT, Norway, 1992.

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Mapping Awareness, The Start of Something Big: Using and Managing Spatial Data in the Cable Industry, December 1995.

Mapping Awareness, Building on Safe Foundations: Landmark Reports on Contaminated Land, November 1995.

Mapping Awareness, Planning is Paramount: GIS in District Councils, September 1995.

Mapping Awareness, Consulting the Consultants, October 1995.

Mapping Awareness, Consulting the Experts, November 1996.

Mapping Awareness, Public Services in Wales: Analysing Supply and Demand for Healthcare and Education, September 1995.

Mapping Awareness, Helping Manage Emergencies: One GIS Company's Perspective, June 1995.

Mapping Awareness, Fast Track to GIS - PC Based Systems in Local Government, March 1995.

Mapping Awareness, London Calling: Ambulance Services get Better with GIS, April 1997.







GIS Team