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Business Officer Magazine

Get the Picture?

Geographic information systems that display data in map-like formats are gaining ground in higher education. GIS’s visual tools are helping institutions gain efficiencies in facilities planning, recruiting and enrollment, and much more.

By Apryl Motley

O’Brien’s position as GIS coordinator was created five years ago as a response to the university’s assessment of the advisability of applying the technology tool to campus operations. Such systems were introduced in the 1960s as a way to map and display geographic data for land management and environmental planning (for a short history of the development of GIS systems, see the sidebar “Geographic Systems Gain Ground”). Today, organizations use GIS to assess everything from accessibility of deposit options for banking customers to the response rate of emergency medical service units within assigned zones. The technology allows individuals, including leaders of higher education institutions, to sort; analyze; sometimes view (in the form of spatial maps); and make decisions about institutional data generated from computerized maps, aerial photographs, satellite images, databases, graphs, and other sources.

With this in mind, UNC issued a request for proposal for a GIS assessment in preparation for the campus’s $1 billion capital improvement program. The analysis included an implementation plan to be executed by the person in the position for which O’Brien was eventually hired. With O’Brien’s arrival, UNC officially launched its coordinated application of GIS for improving the efficiency of various administrative functions. In doing so, the university joined the ranks of a growing number of institutions that have identified this technology as a key component for managing resources—time, money, and staff—more effectively.

An active market has resulted in lower costs and continual improvements in GIS hardware and software components. Also making this option more attractive is the growing number of GIS packages that can run on a range of operating systems and can be customized to perform specific tasks. Like several other companies, GIS provider SAS offers an application that allows users to organize, analyze, and interact with spatial data. “GIS systems, especially when packaged with business intelligence and predictive analytics, help higher education institutions quickly gain insight for operational improvements and increased efficiencies,” notes Scott Van Valkenburgh, SAS’s marketing director for global alliances and channels. “Key areas that can get immediate uplift include university administration, academic recruiting, and teaching tools.”

These developments are expected to result in a much wider use of the technology. “For higher education institutions,” says Ann Johnson, higher education solutions manager for service provider Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), “GIS is slowly gaining momentum at the administrative level as more people begin to understand it. We are entering a time where its use will become commonplace.”

Early Adopters

As early as 1994, Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, established its Geographic Information Systems Center to manage the increasing amounts of spatially referenced data available for central and northern Michigan. Across time, CMU and the center have continued to play an important role in facilitating the use of GIS. Two years ago, for example, the university spearheaded efforts to obtain an unlimited statewide license with ESRI. The license, which allows any public college or university that signs an agreement with CMU to have unlimited on-campus installations of GIS software, is estimated to save individual institutions thousands of dollars. According to Bin Li, chair of CMU’s geography department, “most higher education institutions in Michigan are participating in the license because it’s the best way for them to utilize the technology.” Other states are working with service providers to allow similar access.

Geographic Systems Gain Ground

According to the United States Geological Survey, researchers began in the 1960s to think more intentionally about how spatial data (computerized maps, aerial photographs, satellite images, and other information) could be grouped and analyzed. In 1962, the world’s first operational GIS, the Canada Geographic Information System, was developed in Ottawa, Ontario, by the Department of Forestry and Rural Development. The idea was to store and analyze data collected for the Canada Land Inventory—an initiative to determine the land capability for rural Canada by mapping information about soils, agriculture, recreation, wildlife, waterfowl, forestry, and land use. Two years later, the Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis at the Harvard Graduate School of Design was formed. Its work resulted in a number of important theoretical concepts in spatial data handling, which, by the 1970s, had been distributed as software code to universities, research centers, and corporations worldwide.

By the early 1980s, M and S Computing (which later became Intergraph); Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI); and CARIS emerged as commercial vendors of GIS software. They effectively incorporated many of the CGIS features into a second-generation approach to organizing information into database structures.

The development of public domain geographic information systems began in 1982, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineering Research Laboratory, Champaign, Illinois, used the technology to meet the U.S. military’s need for software for land management and environmental planning. During the late 1980s and 1990s, industry growth continued with the increased use of GIS on Unix work stations and personal computers.

As the use of GIS grew, so did the need for organizations to facilitate the sharing and standardization of information. Established in 1991, the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) is a nonprofit organization of universities and other research institutions dedicated to advancing the understanding of geographic processes and spatial relationships. (For more information on the consortium, visit In 1994, the National Spatial Data Infrastructure—defined as “the technologies, policies, and people necessary to promote sharing of geospatial data throughout all levels of government, the private and nonprofit sectors, and the academic community”—was formed as a result of President Bill Clinton’s executive order. Interest in GIS has continued to grow, and the technology has now moved to college and university campuses, where administrators are using it to increase efficiency in a variety of areas.

During the same time period that CMU’s GIS research center was coming online, Li’s colleagues at Ohio State University (OSU), Columbus, had started to apply the technology to their university’s enrollment management. In an unusual collaboration between an academic department and an administrative unit of the university, the department of geology worked with staff in the office of enrollment management to determine how technology could be used to improve the institution’s recruitment of freshmen.

The primary goal was to make recruiting more efficient and less costly. One of the tasks the team undertook was to mesh U.S. Census data with other existing databases to map the hot, warm, and cold enrollment spots for the state of Ohio. Analytical factors included the propensity of potential students in a given area to enroll at OSU, the university’s efficiency in prior years in drawing students from the identified populations, and the graduation rate of the students who did attend OSU from the targeted areas. According to the university’s findings presented at ESRI’s 1997 GIS users conference, “the local development of expertise in GIS applications and spatial analysis permits far greater long-run flexibility on the part of the institution and at generally lower cost.”

With work like this underway, the value of GIS and other geotechnologies has been acknowledged on a national level, particularly by the U.S. Department of Labor. In 2004, the U.S. Secretary of Labor named geotechnologies as one of three fields most in demand for 21st century decision making. By 2005, the Department of Labor began funding programs at community colleges and other institutions to improve the number and breadth of GIS courses and resources being offered.

Project Preliminaries

Before moving forward with GIS applications, consider the institution’s objectives. According to Van Valkenburgh, “The biggest pitfall to implementation is starting before you know what you really want to achieve. The questions that need to be answered up front are: What problems are you trying to solve? How will geospatial data help you solve them? What should you be representing on maps?” The best approach for beginners, says Van Valkenburgh, “is to start small with a well-defined scope and timeline. Go after low hanging fruit as you learn the capabilities and grab some early successes.”

Once an institution commits to a project based on GIS implementation, it must address the data issues. “It’s important,” says O’Brien, “to establish metadata—your very basic requirements in terms of how, what, when, and by whom information is gathered. You must also determine who will maintain the data.”

Before the data collection or modification process even begins, says Johnson, “get all the stakeholders together to review data sets. Only then should you develop a specific pilot program or project. Setting up an appropriate database and understanding how to share data across departments is a critical step in implementing GIS. Institutions have lots of data that they could have learned from sooner if they had known it was there.”

When different department representatives started meeting to work on UNC’s capital construction projects, O’Brien discovered that they all had various maps in different formats. “Take utility maps, for example,” she says. “Some were in hard copy and others were created electronically. We had to ask: ‘Which data are most accurate?’” Since that time, the university has implemented “a centralized relational database with many people accessing and editing data,” says O’Brien. “It’s pretty much standardized across the organization, but people still remain independent and can generate their maps on demand.”

“The most costly part of a GIS project is getting data collected, converted, and modeled,” says Li. “The initial investment can be quite large—and perhaps 80 percent of the costs can be for collecting and cleaning up data.” O’Brien acknowledges that this has been the case at UNC, with the biggest investment being in data acquisition. “Because of all the construction on campus and almost daily changes to infrastructure,” she says, “for the past five years we’ve had to acquire aerial photographs to use as a baseline to make subsequent mapping layers.”

“Costs of implementation,” notes Van Valkenburgh, “differ widely depending on the scope of the investment. A single desktop installation will take little time and money, while an enterprisewide project obviously will take far longer and costs will be significantly higher. Of course, the value of wider deployment is commensurate with the investment. It’s all about what the institution is trying to accomplish in terms of faster results versus large-scope objectives.”

Moving From Data to Analysis

Once an institution has collected project-specific data, GIS analytics help identify the opportunities for improving campus operations. “Moving from data to analysis, that’s the beauty of a relational database,” says O’Brien. “Because we are able to query and visualize data, the resulting map becomes a summary page of our available assets. Then we can use GIS to improve efficiencies, particularly in facilities, planning, and grounds management.”

Grounds management. For example, UNC values and wants to preserve its “heritage trees,” older trees that have long enhanced the campus grounds. However, many are located in high-traffic areas, making them vulnerable to damage. “We published a map of these locations,” says O’Brien, “so that we could create buffer zones. To protect the tree roots during campus events, tents can’t be placed in these areas.”

CMU has also used GIS to manage landscaping more efficiently. Grounds-keepers rely on the technology to make staff assignments and schedule mowing, fertilizing, and other important maintenance functions.

Population analysis. CMU’s Li points to market or population analysis as a key area in which GIS can be used effectively. “Everything happens in a place and time, and using GIS we are able to use this locational information,” Li says. “Without GIS, it’s hard to analyze the population in terms of where large groups of people live and where CMU students come from.” This kind of information can be used for marketing purposes as well as for the university’s strategic planning (for examples, see the sidebar “Go GIS and Get Results”).

Campus security. Along with grounds management, UNC has turned to mapping to improve campus security. By tracking the locations of emergency call boxes, the security team looks at pedestrian traffic flow to determine gaps in coverage. According to Van Valkenburgh, campus security support is one area in which applying GIS to university operational processes “can provide significant gains for visually understanding and improving key logistic areas across individual or statewide university systems.”

Risk assessment. Similarly, higher education institutions can conduct risk assessments that incorporate GIS, business intelligence, and analytics for modeling different scenarios. “For instance,” observes Van Valkenburgh, “planners can overlay a map of fault lines and flood-prone areas with a map of current or planned sites of facilities. Clearly, the ability to avoid placing academic classrooms, student housing, or IT centers near these high-risk areas or in places where automobile traffic patterns will create congestion has significant impact on the university’s strategy and its investment decisions.”

Go GIS and Get Results

Three years ago, as the research coordinator for the state of Michigan’s Cherry Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth, Nathan Daun-Barnett learned a lot about the general use of geographic information systems (GIS). But, he also discovered their utility as a diagnostic and analytical tool in higher education research and public policy development. “Initially, I didn’t know this tool existed or the power of it,” says Daun-Barnett. “Even now, I am constantly tapping into new applications for GIS.”

Daun-Barnett got his first taste of the geospatial application when Governor Jennifer Granholm created a statewide commission to study the relationship between higher education and economic development in Michigan. Granholm charged the commission with finding new and innovative ways to meet two primary goals: 1) doubling the number of college graduates in the state within 10 years and 2) more closely aligning higher education with the economic growth of the state. Nearly 40 commissioners, representing K–12, higher education, and the public and private sectors, met to develop a set of recommendations to further the governor’s goals.

During the seven-month exercise, researchers worked to provide commission members with relevant data to help inform their recommendations. They quickly discovered that, while there were numerous sources of valuable information, it was difficult to combine the data to create an understandable and meaningful “picture” of education in the state. That’s where GIS came in.

At the time, Daun-Barnett was a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and had access to the university’s GIS research center. “We didn’t know that GIS was going to be a part of the Cherry Commission,” says Daun-Barnett. “But necessity is the mother of invention. We needed a way to convey complex information easily, and we found that we weren’t able to use tables and graphs effectively.”

Mapping data helped the commission address the politics surrounding its work. “Creating maps—displaying data geographically—helped people to understand that the issues we were trying to address were local issues impacting their communities and not just state issues that were ‘some other’ community’s problems,” says Daun-Barnett. “One map that we created showing the distribution of adults across the state with bachelors degrees or higher was tremendously useful and has had staying power.”

Daun-Barnett says that GIS created a picture for starting an important conversation that helped to shape state policy on education. “Of the 19 recommendations that the Cherry Commission made,” he notes, “more than half have been acted on.”

In his current role as director of university relations and policy research for the President’s Council, State Universities of Michigan, Daun-Barnett continues to advocate for making more people in higher education aware of this technology tool. In addition, he recommends deliberate training, because the presentation of data in this manner resonates with policymakers. “A good place to start incorporating GIS would be in the curricula for higher education administration programs,” says Daun-Barnett. “It’s important for the higher education professionals involved in campus planning to be exposed to these tools.”

Overall, Daun-Barnett sees great potential for GIS in the future, particularly for studying trends in admissions and the distribution of students across the state. “For example, we’ve been looking at how to best reach communities not currently well served by higher education today,” says Daun-Barnett. “You don’t know that you have a tool like GIS at your disposable until you’re faced with these kinds of challenges. Using these systems made me think differently about the questions I was asking—and about new ones that I could ask.”

Staffing for New Systems

While GIS applications can improve institutional management, working with the process poses some challenges, particularly when it comes to people.

Getting the team on board: “You definitely need buy-in from your senior staff,” says O’Brien. “Somebody has to convince them it’s worth the investment.” Like CMU, UNC has a systemwide license from its service provider, which helps make implementation more affordable. Apart from that selling point, “start with a small project with high visibility,” recommends Li. “That way, you have the opportunity to demonstrate results in a short amount of time.”

Finding talent: “To incorporate GIS into the management process—into real operations—you need people who can do programming and application design,” says Li. “It’s not always easy to find these kinds of specialists. Even though the budget situation in Michigan is tight, we are fortunate that we’ve been able to maintain some in-house technical capability. It may be harder for institutions in other areas to find the talent and resources.”

Providing education and training: “A lot of people don’t understand GIS,” says Li. “We still need to convince people what the technology can do. This is not a traditional way of looking at things.”

At UNC, says O’Brien, “we had some people with GIS skills already, and we put them into a users’ group. This group was then able to provide peer-to-peer training to various departments throughout the university.” In addition, O’Brien has had staff take a two- to three-day general course on GIS and then participate in customized training. UNC’s staff includes a GIS-savvy librarian who offers a short introductory course on the systems. Other avenues for staff training include online sessions and in-person classes offered by vendor-authorized instructors.

Managing people and schedules: “In terms of investment of resources, a major factor is time,” says Johnson. “You have to allow time for people to learn to use the applications—and more time for them to learn how to incorporate what they’ve learned into their workflow and overall administrative processes.” Schedules vary depending upon the scope of the project and the institution’s readiness for implementing GIS. “A small, local installation can take a couple days to a couple of weeks before users are truly productive,” notes Van Valkenburgh. “With an enterprisewide project, the time line will vary based on in-house technology capabilities and the directives of the project.”

Gearing Up for GIS

Here are some additional strategies to help your institution implement geospatial technology effectively:

Create hunger for more data and reports. “We put up an interactive mapping system site on the Web,” says O’Brien. “That allowed people to interact with the campus map and make basic queries. Giving people access to that really helped us create interest in GIS.” O’Brien also attended meetings with department heads and demonstrated how the technology works.

Make sure that you have a relationship with your IT department. “You need their support,” says Johnson. “And you may have to help them understand the technology requirements for these applications—as they pertain to software or operating systems.”

Anticipate changes in staff. “It’s important to think about how vendor staffing turnover might impact what you’re doing on your campus,” advises O’Brien. “Give the same consideration to staffing at your institution,” she says, “so that you don’t find yourself in a situation where a project must be discontinued because the necessary skills and knowledge leave when a staff member does.”

Relate the technology to something people understand. “You don’t need extensive knowledge about GIS to use it,” says Li, “but people do need a frame of reference. For example, many people like using Google Maps. Starting with these as a reference point has helped us explain GIS to people and get them started on working with it.”

Start with simpler versions of the application. “One of the best things about these tools is that you can take a little or a lot,” says O’Brien. “Look at the data that you currently have, how data is shared, and how it relates to your organizational structure. Then, identify simple ways that you can begin using geospatial technology to manage resources more effectively.”

The most important advice to follow, if you’re interested in bringing this tool to your campus or expanding its use, is to find a champion. “Use of GIS has to be initiated by a particular unit or department,” says Li. “For example, start with institutional research or facilities management to demonstrate the usefulness and value of the applications. Then, combine this information with data mining to make it even more appealing to people.”

Mapping the Future

Active users of geographic information systems generally hold the belief that the future is today. Much of the technology’s practical application involves making spatial information more centralized and accessible so that it does not reside with only one person or department.

“We only have one staff person at CMU to manually inspect the steam pipes underneath buildings,” says Li. “So, it can take up to two weeks to find leaks. If the university were to use GIS in a project to install censors to monitor leaks, we could save lots of money and help maintain institutional knowledge. Without such mapping, what happens if the staff person leaves the university? We’ll be in a mess.”

If your institution is hesitant to apply geospatial technology, approach it in small bites. “Consider GIS as something incremental,” says Johnson. “Think about long-term goals that you can achieve in steps. Review case studies; see if you are able to replicate what’s already been done.”

Certainly, colleges and universities have no shortage of data with which to work. “Any higher education institution has captured some type of location information in its data,” observes Van Valkenburgh, “whether it’s on students, donors, alumni, or facilities. So, most everyone has a starting point. However, to truly capitalize on that data, they should have an infrastructure that can enable business intelligence and analytics to be packaged with GIS data and presented across the organization. There may be financial or cultural obstacles, but early positive results often overcome those.”

The University of North Carolina’s experience is a case in point. At first, only a few departments on campus were using GIS. Now, says O’Brien, 12 departments are using a “light version” of the technology to create their own maps. In addition, she has identified six to eight “power users,” who participate in updating data for use throughout the university.

As with many strategic initiatives, implementing GIS is an important investment in the future for higher education institutions, but achieving its potential takes patience. “It may not happen as quickly as you would like,” says O’Brien. “But it will happen.”

APRYL MOTLEY, Columbia, Maryland, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.