How to successfully implement GIS in local government

November 27th, 2008, Published in Articles: PositionIT

by Sahr Mandla Tengbeh, Sigodi Marah Martin

Many people know, at least subconsciously, about the power of geographical information and the impact its availability has in our daily lives. For example, when we read newspapers, magazines or watch the news or a documentary on television, as we attempt to understand our world, we process a great amount of information which influences our decision-making.

Critical to our ability to make sense from all this information is not so much the subject of the information but its geography. Should we take away the geographical component from this information, it becomes very difficult for us to relate to the phenomenon in question.

Consider a news bulletin with the headline, “Five girls brutally raped”. After hearing this, the first thing likely to come to our mind is, “Where did this happen?” and then perhaps, “Did it all happen at the same place?”, “What time of day?” As we read or hear such news, we anticipate and subconsciously expect that the discourse has answers to these questions. This is because without the answers, we cannot relate to it. We cannot know how safe our children are. We cannot relate the incident to past events and most importantly, we cannot take initiatives to address the problem.

This reasoning can be extended to the kind of problems that are being faced by local government in South Africa. We cannot address problems affecting our country effectively (through the distribution of resources) if we do not know where the problems occur and how they are spatially distributed? By making maps we can determine the extent and location of these problems and thereby distribute resources to address them effectively.

Geographical information systems (GIS) in local government

In recent years, the use of GIS in local government in South Africa has risen tremendously. Many GIS firms have developed innovative geographical information solutions that have great potential to provide decision-makers with the spatial information they need to address the myriad of problems affecting South Africa.

However, many of the developments in GIS are taking place in a strategic and tactical vacuum because the implementation of the technology in many municipalities in South Africa, is failing. One of the main arguments for this is that GIS practitioners have been more technology and problem focused as opposed to being organisationally focused. In other words there has been more focus on how spatial problems can be addressed than on how we can enable organisations to use GIS to help them solve problems and also how we can overcome the obstacles that inhibit being able to do so.

The outcome therefore has been that GIS is not optimally utilised in local government and the benefits of investing in it are not being fully realised. This is very discouraging because no matter the rate or extent of GIS development in South Africa, municipalities are not likely to benefit as they should. Furthermore, taking into consideration the amount of geographical information municipalities require on a daily basis to support decision-making, their inability to gain considerable benefit from GIS has serious negative consequences for the fulfilment of their service delivery mandate.

Factors inhibiting the successful implementation of GIS in local government

Manner of introduction

One of the main reasons why the implementation of GIS has failed in local government has to do with how it was introduced and how the municipality embraced it in the first place. The development of GIS in most, if not all municipalities in South Africa came about through the influence of a project that required the use of GIS as a tool for capturing, manipulating, analysing and presenting spatial information.

In the Eastern Cape, for instance the Department of Water Affairs’ (DWAF) Water Sustainability Audits in District Municipalities that are Water Service Authorities (WSAs) are an example. Projects such as these would fund the purchase of GIS hardware, software and the hiring of GIS technicians. As the projects near completion or are shelved, the drive to move GIS development to the next level would noticeably diminish, thus causing frustration among the potential users who become unable to access quality geographical information. This also frustrates the specialists who are tasked with the responsibility of developing their units and disseminating information, to the point where they may consider leaving the organisation, leading to a further collapse in GIS operations.

GIS organisational context

The location of GIS in an organisation has an effect on people’s access, perceptions and ultimately people’s use of the technology. In many municipalities in South Africa, GIS is situated in a planning, information technology or engineering department. This limits potential users’ access; it can also create the perception that GIS is a tool that is meant solely for the department in which it is situated. Preference in terms of imparting knowledge and creating awareness on how GIS can assist potential users in their work may also be department specific and thus may not encourage potential users to want to learn more about it.

Funding

Funding is a key obstacle to the successful implementation of GIS in local government. Sufficient funds are annually required to sustain the development of GIS in a municipality. Sustainability is achieved through the maintenance of up-to-date hardware and software, the recruitment of qualified GIS practitioners and the ongoing training of staff. Funding is directly linked to the municipal department in which the GIS is situated. The more money a department is allocated, the better chances of an increased subvention. In most municipalities in South Africa, the budget for GIS is miniscule when compared to other disciplines and this is primarily due to the lack of understanding, by municipal officials of its role in operational management and decision-making. With a limited budget, very little development in GIS can be achieved.

GIS skills shortage

The shortage of GIS professionals in South Africa is one of the main reasons why the obstacles to the successful implementation of GIS have prevailed. Operators/technician practitioners, generally lack the expertise to convincingly sell the concept of GIS to their municipalities. They are easily intimidated and find it difficult to answer tough questions with regards to how GIS can help the municipality raise and save substantial income and how it can assist the municipality in meeting its service delivery objectives. GIS practitioners in many municipalities are thus underutilised because the municipalities know very little in terms of how they can best use them. However, the lack of GIS specialists in South Africa should not be allowed to hinder the successful implementation of GIS in municipalities. Ways of overcoming this problem need to be explored.

How we can successfully implement GIS in local government

For GIS to be successfully implemented in municipalities, the following needs be considered:

  • The GIS department must be centrally positioned (situated) in the organisation. This means, it needs to be a fully fledged department where the official responsible reports directly to the municipal manager/council. The logic behind this argument lies within the principle of having an Integrated Development Plan (IDP). The IDP forms the guidelines for the achievement of the municipality’s service delivery objectives and to a large extent (in accordance with municipal laws) the operations of the municipality. In order to achieve its objectives, the municipality makes use of various departments which comprise of sub-departments. Now, the most crucial requirement in the fulfilment of the IDP is information, geographical information. This stems from the simple reason that most of the problems that are key to the service delivery mandate of municipalities have a spatial/geographical significance and until the municipality is able to determine where these problems are, and describe how they are spatially manifested (distributed), it cannot be in a position to distribute resources to address them effectively. A GIS department can support all the various departments by providing them with the spatial information they need to address the problems affecting them.
  • Over and above the normal subvention the municipality gives the GIS department, a percentage of all other departmental reserves must be diverted to the GIS department. This is because the purpose of the GIS department is to support all other municipal departments in their fulfilment of their service delivery mandate and because that support is valuable and critical in enabling them to do so. All departments must provide financial support to sustain the service and make such a marriage viable. This will guarantee GIS growth and development in the municipality.
  • Municipalities should invest in training their staff to become geographically literate. Unless the senior and middle managers develop a stronger spatial awareness and become more geographically literate, the problem of GIS under-utilisation will persist. It is understandable that a person with no or little knowledge or understanding of what spatial analysis and modelling entails will shy away from such an unknown approach. Because they do not know what the capabilities of GIS are, they don’t know what questions to ask or what answers to expect.
  • The dependence on professional GIS consultants is a reality that municipalities which do not have in-house GIS expertise have to accept (in the same way that they depend on engineering consultants) until the skills shortage issue is successfully addressed in South Africa. Many municipalities are failing to spend millions of rand every year and their argument is that it is due to lack of capacity (skills). This may be true; however, it is not the only problem. The fact is that many of these municipalities lack spatial information. The basis of financing projects to address spatial problems should be primarily on a sound geographical understanding that problems exist somewhere and therefore need to be addressed. Therefore, more emphasis needs to be placed on using GIS experts to support municipalities in making geographical information readily available and assisting them in using this information for supporting decision-making.

Conclusion

Geography forms an integral part of enabling us to understand who we are, what problems we face and how we can address them. Many of us are fully aware of this subconsciously but do not actively appreciate its significance in our work. Yet we wonder why the same problems continue to haunt our country, our continent and the world year after year. The time has come for us to employ smarter ways of solving our problems.

Contact Sahr Mandla Tengbeh, Sigodi Marah Martin, Tel 035 789-0223, sahrt@smmdc.com