How can a small firm use GIS to its advantage?

June 2011 » Columns » CE + GIS INTERSECT
Janet Jackson, GISP

Civil engineering perspective
Neal: This column has offered some good advice about using GIS software, but the intersected advice sometimes seems targeted to larger firms with multiple disciplines, lots of skilled personnel, large financial resources, a wide variety of clients, and IT specialists to configure software and computers.

My civil engineering/professional surveying firm has fewer than six people and only one office. The staff routinely performs many different types of work such as field verification, calculations, CAD, and public presentations. To say the least, our cross-training ability is terrific.

In the past, I have purchased software and paid to train staff on that specialized software, only to find later that the application offered by the new software could have been solved by using a program I already was using, or was available online for free.

Our principal business is land development and, in this recent economy, we have painfully watched our client list shrink and revenues decrease. For us, the quickest solution to getting out of the slump is to enhance our current abilities in the land development market and add any new services that will increase revenues.

As principal of the firm, my “technology age” is probably a little less than my actual age, but most of the staff are young and computer savvy. They are familiar with the basics of GIS, as we often use the free public county data available for research and planning purposes on our projects. However, what new markets beyond land development can we move into with an expanded GIS investment? In other words, is GIS worth the investment for us? Should we take on yet another software program? What can my small firm, and my clients, really gain from expanding our use of GIS?

GIS perspective
Jackson: You are right when you say that this column mostly focuses on how GIS can be used by firms that have specialized personnel, expandable resources, and savvy IT staff. But GIS software can be used by and to the benefit of any firm, no matter how big or small.

It might be cliché to say, “Begin by starting with what you know and work toward what you don’t know,” but that familiar engineering saying seems to fit this situation perfectly.

Since your young staff is computer literate and diverse with their work tasks, obtaining GIS software at the level of ArcView or ArcEditor might be a good place to start. And maximizing your current market sector in land development might be the right direction for you to begin integrating the benefits of GIS.

Extend your current reach of services by using GIS to show your land development clients how buffering specific areas of their projects affects their building footprints. Property identification of adjacent land or within a proposed site offers your client access to details of data that can be used to make quick project decisions. Utility placement — both existing and new — is another GIS application that should be easy for your staff to produce by transferring any CAD line work into GIS for further labeling, analysis, and map making to use in follow-up presentations.

To maximize markets other than land development by using GIS, I recommend field data collection for utility or environmental inventories. With your professional surveyor credentials and experience, you would make the perfect partner on a field data collection project that requires data that will be used for an authoritative purpose — data that requires exact coordinates and will most likely be used by government or represented legally.

Overall, what can you gain by using GIS? At the least, you can expect to solve some of your daily data analysis and display challenges by using GIS. At the most, you can expect to convert your CAD staff person into a GIS professional who produces high-quality data analysis and related maps that make your clients smile and come back for more. It will be work you will be proud to hang your hat on.

 

Michael Neal, P.E., P.L.S., has worked in the surveying and civil engineering fields since 1974. He worked with an international engineering firm and in the municipal engineering field before starting his own firm in 2001 in Hillsborough, N.C. He can be contacted at mneal@manaengineers.com.
Janet Jackson, GISP, is president of INTERSECT, a GIS consulting firm (www.intersectgis.com). She travels the country talking about the importance of intersecting GIS with other professions to create effective solutions for clients. She can be contacted at jjackson@intersectgis.com
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