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A new and better future for Web mapping

By [email protected] - 1st March 2012 - 09:57

Ben Allan asks whether we have come to value GIS too much for its own sake rather than as part of a definable business need
The very nature of web mapping means that it makes sense. Seeing information within a geographic setting appeals to just about everyone. Ultimately, it brings data to life. While it appeals to the masses, one fundamental problem remains â very few people can accurately value it.When money was available, particularly from the transparency agenda, the conundrum of a sensible asset that didnât add up was seldom seen to get in the way of investment. In fact, you only need to look around - nearly every local authority now boasts an internal and external facing web mapping application. The nature of these investments, as general information dashboards, meant that most of the applications were installed in a universal way. The goal at the time was to enable as many people as possible to access the application, as this was perceived to drive up the value and the Return on Investment (ROI). This meant that the applications needed to be generic in approach and design. While this strategy resulted in their widespread uptake, it also meant that they were rarely focussed on any one area. There were three key knock-on effects from this approach. First, the measurable value of the investments remained in the âit makes senseâ to have it category and were therefore unexplored. Secondly, the planned extensions to the webmapping applications - the ânice-to-havesâ such as CRM integration and routing management - struggled to get passed because the ROI was so unclear, constraining webmapping to within the GIS environment. Finally, by remaining within the GIS space the common webmapping applications evolved in line with the more technical GIS-based needs rather than the business solution needs. This restrained their measurable ROI even more and has led to the current situation where many webmapping applications are very similar in functionality.Clearly this is a very general overview and some council teams did take a very different approach but the aggregated effects of all the differing projects has created a market where webmapping is still quite insular but, in many ways, commoditised and still hard to value.New approach to GIS emergingAs the recession has hit the local government sector, the requirement for all investments, services and teams to make a return has had an enormous impact. The GIS departments have been particularly severely hit. Teams have been halved or quartered and spending has been slashed. At the same time, GIS has been needed more than ever to make sense of the effects of the cuts and help explain how councils have responded.Web mapping technology refreshes have been heavily affected by the cuts. As a leading player in this field, Dotted Eyes has seen a large number of projects go through all the assessment stages, only to be culled at the final investment committee stage. The lack of a credible ROI case for standard webmapping has been a real burden for these projects. Dotted Eyes has, however, seen the emergence of a new and exciting dynamic to the way in which GIS is now being approached.Teams are now looking at these projects in a completely new light. Instead of looking at the GIS technology first, they are now going back to the drawing board to establish exactly what their specific business needs are as well as looking at the associated services. Rather than working in isolation, they are working with Business Transformation teams to build business cases based around measurable cost savings. It is only then that they are integrating GIS into those solutions and looking at new web-mapping applications to tag along. Itâs a case of reversing the standard approach, in terms of understanding the business need first and the GIS second.Some of these new business cases have focussed on areas that are very familiar such as channel shift using Report-It functionality. More advanced business cases are using Customer Service Operator (CSO) efficiency savings as their key drivers and focussing on application integration. The most innovative business case Dotted Eyes has seen has come out of the West Country and is using accurate expenses recording as the lead driver for investing in a new web-mapping application.Innovating in HerefordshireHerefordshire Council is a good example of this new approach to GIS. Duncan Trumper, GIS Team Leader for The Shared Services Partnership, Herefordshire commented: âIn 2011 Herefordshire Council GIS Team formed part of a new company with a fresh outlook and desire to have âinnovation in businessâ. âThe GIS team identified areas that could assist this objective, one being the evaluation of current web capabilities. When deciding upon our latest GIS solution, we wanted a mid-term return on investment deliverable to the business. A core area identified for improvement was with the customer services department, we knew that our call centre was not working as efficiently with GIS technology as we required and there were real efficiencies to be made by integrating an improved GIS solution.â âWorking closely with Dotted Eyes, Ciber and the underlying software technologies we identified objectives. Dotted Eyes offered us mentoring and the flexibility to deliver the project plus it had the capability to move the technology forward to further savings as part of the overall RMX4 road map is based on open source technology. Our web mapping/CRM project has now been implemented and weâre now looking at further enhancements and website reporting to deliver the next tranche of value.âReal advantagesThese new-style business cases deliver a number of real advantages over the more traditional web-mapping project. The most obvious is that the clear ROI calculation ensures that a far more robust investment commitment can be secured and, as further savings are made, there is opportunity for the investment to be increased. The process involved in identifying the business case is also one that engages the rest of the business and is, therefore, leading to a greater buy-in for what GIS can actually deliver. Once this type of project is successful and the ROI demonstrated, it becomes much easier to replicate similar projects in new areas. GIS teams are therefore able to penetrate further into a wider range of departments, again securing stronger support for both the application and the GIS team. Finally, the wider and deeper integration of web-mapping drives the performance of the web-mapping tool, which also benefits the development of the base tool as an entity in itself.What needs to change?What all these business cases and applications have in common is a refocusing of the priorities of the investment away from pure GIS functionality and into delivering against definable business needs. In the past, web mapping applications have traditionally been locked down in terms of their functionality, i.e., if a customer needed it to do other things then extensive development would be required. For this new approach, systems need to be far more flexible both in terms of technology and the licensing required to deliver. This is driving the standard model towards a more modular framework with mapping at its core than a web based GIS.The interaction between the web-mapping application and non-GIS third parties also needs to change. Traditionally, if a project needed to extend an application, the original vendor would more than likely need to deliver the change, meaning that the customer was tied into the rates and capabilities of the vendor. This model worked when there were a limited number of likely third party applications. Now there is a much wider range of potential applications that could require integration (from HR systems to CRM systems to ERP), there is a much greater need for open architectures and common standards. Finally, to make this new environment work, GIS vendors need to take a step back and review what they are offering. Not one single vendor will be able to deliver all of these new functional areas to the same high standard. As in all other industries, this will lead to specialisation as vendors migrate from delivering the best web-mapping application to solutions that deliver real measurable value in a limited number of areas, e.g., in communications integration and asset management. The real trick then will be to ensure that when a vendor is delivering in an area that is not their specialism, they utilise the skills of other vendors to deliver the whole package. A brave new world indeed.---------------------------------------------Ben Allan is the CEO of Dotted Eyes, one of the UKâs leading GIS development houses serving some 900 customers with expert consultancy, training and product development in the public, not-for-profit and commercial sectors

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