Delivering spatially aware solutions to business problems takes a lot more than simply plugging in a geographic information system (GIS).
Unless the information is presented in the right context, and linked appropriately to business issues, it will remain just data. Fascinating data, perhaps, but not useful data.
Of course you can’t deliver spatial solutions without GIS either, which is why we regard it as the first of our three key ingredients for success. You need to understand how spatial data works, how to collect it, change it, manipulate it and mash it up with other data.
But that’s just the start. To basic GIS knowledge you need to add expertise in systems development: the ability to design and implement desktop or web-based software that takes the base spatial information and links it to a business process. How do you best serve map data to meet the diverse needs of different employees and departments? What’s the easiest, most efficient way to capture and integrate new data gathered in the field?
Finally, if you’re going to solve a business problem using spatial systems you first need to understand the problem – which brings in our third key ingredient, business analysis skills. It’s this final ingredient that brings together the client’s knowledge of their own business with the spatial knowledge of the GIS specialist to create an effective solution.
Without the business analysis component, what often happens is that clients have to specify a system without truly understanding the potential of GIS; and on the other hand, developers have to implement that specification without truly understanding the business problem they’re trying to solve. Many valuable opportunities are missed along the way.
Much happier outcomes are achieved when the development team includes analysts who can understand the client’s business intimately in a very short time, apply the domain knowledge of GIS specialists to see an innovative solution, then quickly develop and implement that solution.
I’ve emphasised speed because it counts: A brilliant, lovingly developed piece of software that solves a perfectly understood problem from two years ago is no good to anyone. Project methodologies for delivering spatial solutions have to take the need for speed into account.
This is best done, we believe, by running several aspects of the overall project in parallel. We can uncover successive waves of business and user requirements, develop and test a system and take it live, module by module – with the first module being live within a month.
Rapid development can be hair-raising, but it has some serious advantages. We always tackle the most pressing problems first and the client is intimately involved as a design partner from very early in the process. This means we stay focussed on the real problems, the business manager can see real results and if necessary use them to motivate for further changes.
The challenges should not be underestimated, though. The most significant relate to the relationship between developer and client: Invariably the contractor must quote for the project before knowing the full scope, and final costs will almost certainly change. Clear understandings up front and a strong, dynamic partnership between client and contractor are essential.
Mike Steyn, Aspire Solutions Director