Free GIS education
Free GIS education

Your ability to exploit mapping software and communications technology is more important to your department's long-term viability than engineering expertise.

This revelation hit me during the annual conference of ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc.) in June, where more than 100 public-infrastructure employees crammed into a conference room for the first meeting of ESRI's Public Works Special Interest Group.

Since its launch in 1969, ESRI has developed and virtually owns the market for geospatial software that integrates asset information with enterprise software such as work order management systems and vehicle routing software. Each year, more than 10,000 people from around the world gather to tune up their skills and talk to companies that have developed products compatible with ESRI's.

Having already launched special interest groups for water and waste-water utility managers, ESRI decided it was time to provide a networking forum for managers in other infrastructure disciplines: roads and streets, solid waste, traffic control, engineering, parks and grounds. To that end, ESRI's Chuck Cmeyla—a former geographic information systems (GIS) consultant who began his career implementing a GIS system for the public works department of Tempe, Ariz.—welcomed the attendees to lunch and explained how to join ESRI's newest special interest group.

You cannot fully care for your community's infrastructure, or adequately plan for its future, without managing all the information related to it (i.e., location, condition, repair history), or without sharing that information with other city departments, developers, utility companies, and, when appropriate, the public.

Gathering this information, developing an interactive database that allows appropriate personnel to add information, and getting employees to use the system is a never-ending process. And you may need to persuade other city departments to share information.

But you don't have to do it yourself. Just hire someone with a degree in GIS or geography, or who has a love of spatial databases, and set him or her loose. Do everything in your power to create and keep this position within your department, and defend it. It will quantify your department's current and future contributions to the community and justify funding requests.

While virtually all public infrastructure departments have access to a GIS, many don't deploy it to maximum advantage. To get started, attend one of ESRI's free, day-long seminars being held in 19 cities across the nation from Sept. 18 through Oct. 25. (I'll be at the one in Milwaukee on Oct. 11.)

We feel so strongly about your need to jump into GIS that PUBLIC WORKS is cosponsoring these seminars. For more information, contact Cmeyla at And if you haven't already, visit to learn how your colleagues are moving from a paper-based to an information-driven organization.

Stephanie Johnston
Editor in Chief