Thinking about starting up a GIS system for a non-profit or municipality? There are many options for configuring such a system and each ultimately depends on the software and interface you choose. Since Esri offers the most functional, best documented, and most fully supported GIS software, we’ll talk about implementing ArcGIS in this article.
ArcGIS is also well-researched and the outstanding returns on investment are very real. Keep in mind, though, that there are other options like PostGIS and QGIS among others. In this blog post, any mention of operating system architecture refers to Microsoft – Esri runs on Microsoft and the majority of municipalities across the country also run on Microsoft. This blog entry also focuses on municipalities, specifically, since non-profits who are not municipalities enjoy tremendous discounts on ArcGIS putting them in a completely different ballpark.
So where to begin? There are a lot of considerations -- questions to be answered, variables in the equation -- involved in deciding whether or not to adopt GIS in the first place. Software cost is usually at the top, required functionality is not always apparent, and training and staffing are also costly. The choices you make depend on what you want to get out of your GIS – also not readily apparent within small towns lacking technical GIS expertise among staff.
While pondering how to level the playing field for small towns who want to use Esri’s ArcGIS because of it’s out-of-the-box functionality, and compatibility with Windows OS, I’ve bumped into all of the topics listed above and then some...and GISCNR was born!
Comparing several towns in my geographic vicinity (I know, it’s a convenient sample and not scientifically representative), I found that the cost per capita for towns using GIS varies tremendously from $2.95 per citizen to $10.74 per citizen per year. As you might guess, larger towns, with an economy-of-scale advantage, have a much easier time justifying a low per capita expense not to mention that the need for GIS for planning and infrastructure is really a no-brainer. Conversely, small towns have a much harder time justifying a high per capita expense given that their infrastructures are small and slow growth over the past decade limits justification for the need of GIS.
As you may have noted from the previous paragraph, cost of software combined with the existence of (or lack of) technical expertise among staff drive the cost variable. There are numerous scientific sociological articles and research publications describing how and why education levels of staff among different organizations vary widely. So without going into all of the proven research we’ll focus on this trend: a large proportion of small towns don’t necessarily have staff with GIS skills or computer network skills. These functions tend to be outsourced to organizations who host these services for a number of towns and thereby enjoy the economy of scale function to help keep costs down. Also, when you consider that the cost of earning an graduate-level academic certificate in GIS at nearby universities costs roughly $10k, the majority of small towns just can’t afford that kind of staff. The bottom line in this example is that per capita staff ratios can range from 1:9,260 to 1:28,268, harkening back to economy of scale.
The other cost variable is software. If technological skill sets were equal across municipalities, choices in software would likely be a moot point. However, skill sets are not equal and it is not only easier to choose ArcGIS for it’s well-documented functionality, the positive returns on investment from using ArcGIS have also been well researched and documented. There is not a direct correlation ($ for $) between size of city and investment returns but returns are always positive when GIS is used as extensively as possible. Even if you only use paper maps generated with GIS, the ROI is said to be 1:1.
So let’s look again at the differences between per capita cost of GIS: $2.95 for the largest town and as much as $10.74 for the smallest town. For the larger town, that’s roughly 27% of the cost for a small town. Interestingly, the difference in staffing is very small, from 1 to 2 FTE, but far more impactful ranging from 1:9,260 in the smallest town to 1:28,268 in the largest town. The smaller town with one GIS staffer serves roughly 1/3 as many citizens as the larger town. Also of note, the actual cost of software - 1 ArcGIS Advanced, no extensions + 1 Basic - is roughly 7% of an adequate salary for one GIS staffer in the smallest town. In other words, the cost of staff and software to a very small town for a somewhat limited GIS system is roughly 1 FTE at $24/hr + 7%.
Own It or Rent It?
Centralized GIS services seem to be the way to go for many small towns since a business serving many clients can serve up GIS to a much larger population at lower cost. Options exist in Oregon and vary by county. Many local Council of Governments organizations offer GIS services. In some counties, the county offers GIS services to municipalities within their jurisdiction. A few private companies offer an array of GIS services, one of which is GIS for Communities and Natural Resources, LLC (GISCNR - and here you are!). We offer many services that may suit your needs from system design and implementation to mobile apps to training and more. Please peruse the GISCNR website and the Services page to find out more about what GIS and GISCNR can do for you.
Not sure if GIS is right for your organization? See About GIS for a very brief overview of what it is, what it does, and who uses it. Please also visit Benefits of GIS and Making the Connections to gain a better understanding of how GIS can be of service to you.
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