Western States Get Serious about GIS

Geographic information systems, or GIS, is a technology that can provide organizations of all types, including communities and governments, a way to visualize and analyze information to gain new insights and meaning.

People with a GIS degree can use specialized software and data collections to bring together and correlate disparate information. But to make use of the information, you need to have it first.

One problem professionals can run into, especially in government, is that sometimes limiting data collection to an area within an artificial boundary, whether a city or state, can leave them without what they need to do a thorough job. Eventually what is necessary is a more comprehensive approach to collecting and managing data, so professionals can undertake broader analysis. That is exactly what is happening in the western part of the United States.

A consortium of states are working together to store GIS data in a common cloud environment to increase efficiency and better control costs. The states of Colorado, Montana, Oregon, and Utah are working with the Western States Contracting Alliance — a cooperative purchasing organization of 15 western states — and the National Association of State Procurement Officials to obtain GIS public cloud services from general technology vendors Dell an Unisys and GIS vendors Dewberry and Esri. When this project originally started in February 2011, the intent was to reduce the costs of storing often large GIS data sets.

The official goals of the endeavor were to gain cost efficiencies, enable solution flexibility and scalability, and to reduce administrative staff costs. The problem they faced was that most states run an IT infrastructure optimized for transaction processing and high availability and recovery. Many of the requirements were not necessary for GIS and would drive up expenses. A cloud solution could provide a more effective approach, but could be expensive to implement on a state-by-state basis.

Furthermore, duplicating cloud capabilities would be to ignore the capabilities to scale and support multiple uses that are fundamental strengths of the technology. In the process of investigating a GIS cloud computing solution, the states also realized that the approach could apply to other types of applications and computing, further driving down costs. So the multi-state cloud will also include general hosting and infrastructure-as-a-service:

So any government entity within the states’ various jurisdictions — cities towns, counties, tribal governments or even sewer districts — can use the same GIS cloud contract to obtain cloud hosting services from the vendors, [Montana GIS officer Robert Trenbeath] said. In addition, the contracts are open to other approved states and federal agencies. (The states in the alliance are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.)

Starting with GIS will allow the states to gain experience and then expand cloud computing to other areas. The cooperative infrastructure will also let the states share data over time, which can become critical for such GIS applications as environmental studies and infrastructure construction, which can easily cross state lines.

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