GIS a break
It’s a guest post for us today, which is always something we love to be able to say. If you’ve got a topic you’d like to write about (or even something you’d like us to look at from a slightly sideways perspective) you can get in touch at email@example.com. Until then, here’s some words from someone who’s done just that.
In my line of work I meet a lot of different teams from a lot of different places around the Council, and last week I had the chance to expand my network a bit when I met our GIS team. For the uninitiated and non-councilese speakers, GIS stands for Geographical Information System; basically a way of mapping geographical information on a map, with other data able to be overlaid.
To start with I was taken through some maps of the borough, with ward boundaries and key council buildings plotted on it. Next was a layer produced which showed the borough as it was laid out throughout several periods over the last 200 years, before up came a layer which showed satellite images of the borough.
It was nothing that I couldn’t have seen on Google.
I was then taken through a whole load of new maps they had produced – for plotting where cash machines were, where local businesses were and where some other similar resources were located.
It was nothing I couldn’t have seen on Google.
When I asked them about this, about why they had invested so much time and resource on something which to my untrained eyes looked like it was out of date several years ago and which appeared to be slower than a slow motion replay of a snail in a last-past-the-post race, it was as if I’d asked Jamie Oliver why he didn’t serve turkey twizzlers at his restaurant.
I was told about legal wrangles regarding crown copyright, about technical issues around using certain types of data and about ownership of information, but not once was I told that the GIS system they were using was actually better. These may very well be good reasons, but to me they sounded distinctly like a bunch of excuses from people who knew a system and weren’t willing to look at anything else.
This reticence seems a little odd to me, although I can understand why people for whom their employment relies on the continued use of a system should defend it.
I also understand that a GIS system may very well be able to do some things which other systems cannot. The degree of accuracy they offer for boudaries of premises and for roads, alleyways and pavements is impressive, and that these precise maps are used internally by teams servicing these locations.
What I can’t understand is why so much time and effort is spent on trying to make these maps more interesting and ‘useful’ for residents by adding such superfluous data to it. Accepting that it is an internal tool is one thing; anything else is a bit far fetched for me.
When I want to find out where cash points and businesses are I might search for them on Google, or use an app or two I’ve downloaded for exactly that reason. There are industries built up around providing such information, and which will forever do it better than any local authority should hope to do. In fact, there is an arguement that this is not something local government should do at all, with the money and effort spent on all these maps possibly far better spent elsewhere.
In some respects this harks back to recent discussion around keeping ICT systems simple. GIS may have a world of functions and uses that only it, in all of its ponderous and grinding glory, can provide. However, there are many other features which actually are already provided and used by residents, and which don’t need our involvement.
As I said, I am not aware of the real benefits of using a GIS set of maps over the more user friendly, cheaper and openly available Google Maps. The relative costs are low, and the ability to develop new layers and maps is open to far more officers.
Can anyone out there GIS a clue about GIS?!
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