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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Government Technology: GIS Saves Baltimore County $4 Million Annually

Aug 20, 2008, By Matt Freeman

Baltimore County, Md., operates an enterprise GIS that is available to all county agencies and departments. The county also gives the public access to its GIS maps, data and services through a fee-based program that's designed to provide printed copies of published maps and access to the digital data and services for the creation of custom products based on customer specifications.

While GIS is used extensively by most county departments and is popular with the public, it comes with a hefty price tag. The county's budget for GIS hardware, software, personnel, database maintenance and training has steadily risen since purchasing its first ESRI ArcInfo license back in the mid-1980s. As a result, the Office of Information Technology (OIT) and Office of Budget and Finance initiated a strategic business plan focusing on determining the return on investment and use of Baltimore County's GIS.

The county contracted with Dewberry, a geospatial technology firm, to conduct the study. Rather than examining the historical costs and benefits of the county's GIS technology utilization, the study was accomplished during an eight-month period from September 2006 through May 2007. A thorough analysis of Dewberry's findings were outlined and published in the Baltimore County GIS Strategic Business Plan.

In the plan, Dewberry provides detailed information on existing GIS layers; identifies key users and their uses; establishes current benefits, including cost avoidance, revenue and productivity gains; distinguishes current costs, including software, hardware, support and maintenance; and delivers recommendations on key areas the county could focus on for future GIS use.

By the Numbers
Baltimore County's GIS Benefits

119,377 - Hours saved from using GIS.

$4,052,895 - Money saved from using GIS (total number of hours saved at $33.95 per hour).

$606,626 - Other benefits realized from using GIS (e.g., an agriculture preservation program, savings derived from performing work in-house as opposed to using consultants, and revenue collected from data-request fees).

$4,659,521 - Total annual benefits realized from the use of GIS.

121 percent - Percentage of annual benefits realized from the use of GIS after its cost is subtracted.

221 percent - Percentage of money saved from using GIS.

-- According to the Baltimore County GIS Strategic Business Plan, figures from September 2006 through May 2007

The plan suggests that the county's current enterprise GIS implementation is a viable technology that provides a significant return on investment and important quantitative benefits to its users. However, many business processes were uncovered that could further benefit from additional GIS integration. As a result, the plan sets forth a series of enterprise recommendations that prioritize these findings and proposes a course of action for their implementation. Recommendations and action plans include: hiring a GIS program manager, implementing a GIS-based disease tracker, developing a customized GIS application and automating the retrieval of current data regarding school capacity.

A large portion of the study focuses on GIS as a suitable technology for use by local government on a cost and benefit basis. Costs are broken down into the categories of enterprise, agency and capital. The plan defines costs as any expenditure required to support GIS activities within the county, such as personnel salaries for resources dedicated to database maintenance and administration, hardware and software costs, training and conference costs, capital expenditures, and miscellaneous supply and administrative costs.

Establishing the county's GIS benefits was a more extensive exercise. A team of county staff members worked to define hundreds of activities that utilize GIS for each agency within the county. GIS activities included range from determining the location of sidewalk ramps, to protecting and managing groundwater resources, to maintaining an inventory of all county-owned bridges. By analyzing and comparing the time spent

to perform an activity with and without GIS, Dewberry derived a time-savings benefit. The total hours were then multiplied by a standard rate of $33.95 per hour and used for all personnel savings calculations. Additional benefits included cost avoidance by applying GIS technology, and revenue from the license of GIS products, such as the maps, data and services gained through the public access Web site.

The team also compiled a list of individuals to gather information about the activities, which led to a series of interviews conducted by Dewberry. In the interviews, questions were asked to uncover specific business processes and applications for data uses. In addition to the interviews, questionnaires and follow-up phone calls were used to compile data about the GIS infrastructure, comparable industry practices and public-access programs within the county. The information was used to compile agency-specific reports, which Dewberry presented to each agency.

The impact of the GIS Strategic Business Plan is just beginning to be realized by Baltimore County. GIS personnel have been reassigned to streamline operations, and the OIT is developing GIS service-level agreements to better define the GIS infrastructure, product and services. Another benefit has been the increased communication between agencies on GIS activities and database needs. Overall, the study charts a course forward for GIS use and offers agencies the challenge to further integrate GIS into their business processes.

Matt Freeman is a writer with ESRI and contributed this article to Government Technology

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