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Valuing GIS

Valuing GIS…

GIS provides value! We keep saying that, but it's not always straightforward how to communicate how much value it actually provides to our work or to our organizations. TLDR: We show how a GIS employee might be producing a 3.5 value multiplier (in this fabricated case study, that's over $1,200 in value).

We are going to explore how we can value GIS within our organizational context from the perspective of an individual within the GIS group. Simililar methods can be used to examine the value of the GIS group as a whole.

Before we begin, it is important to take a step back and consider some definitions (within the context of this post).

GIS - Geospatial Information Systems... or spatial information technology (IT - we are including the technology and its specialized practitioners).

Value - The importance, worth, or usefulness of something. In this case, we're focusing primarily on the value that we can quantify, which is focused on saving time and saving or making money. Intrinsic or unquantifiable value is important, but we won't be digging into it too much for this post.

Next, let's consider a framework under which we can begin to consider the value of our GIS:

  1. Understanding the Context.

  2. Estimating Value

1. Understanding the Context. First, let's try to put your GIS in context. Do you know your organization's goals and values? Does your organization supply goods or services? How does GIS fit within that context? Where is your organization trying to improve, or, how does it excel? Is the leadership of the organization actively addressing its weaknesses?

Simplified Case Study - Pt. 1 Carolyn is a GIS analyst for a publicly funded agency (Evergreen Regional Planning, or EG for short) that is operated at the regional district-level. EG is tasked with supporting regional planning initiatives. EG's stated role is that "EG analyzes and communicates data, conducts policy research to support and guide decision makers, convenes stakeholders on planning issues of common interest, advocates to other levels of government, acts as a planning resource for municipalities and others, and aspires to leadership and innovation by looking at best practices and tools around the world and finding innovative ways to land them in the region."

(it should be noted that there are probably public agencies with GIS data both at a smaller and larger scales, including participating municipalities, and at the State or Provincial levels).

Now we have some context, but how is GIS currently placed within the organization? Is there a CIO or CDO (Chief Data Officer)? or equivalent IT director? A review of organizational structure reveals a Board & Information Services department. Information Management services provided by this department include management of records and document solutions, as well as customer service support for the public accessing information, including through open data, transparency regulations, and, out Library research services... This would seem to at least include responsbility for an Open Data site.

2. Estimating Value

Back to the task at hand: defining GIS value. We have some organizational context. It appears our stakeholders are likely to include: internal users, GIS departments within member municipalities, GIS departments within larger governmental organizations, and members of the public.

The GDP of the region is considered to be approximately $130 billion. Based on the mission statement of the organization, we can potentially consider its corporate GIS as being among the largest providers of open data in the region, and we can consider the macro-economic contribution of open data to the regional economy.

So, taking the average, 1.8%, and multiplying it by $130 billion, we can estimate that the value (benefit) of open data is approximately $2.34 billion.

However, this “big picture” value still doesn’t tell enough of the story we want. It abstracts away the immediate value of Carolyn, or the GIS group she’s part of… Let’s dive back in:

Case Study - Pt. 2

Carolyn does a variety of tasks on a day to day basis, including:

  • Discussing options for geospatial problem solving with interested colleagues who work with spatial data, but aren’t GIS experts. This might include: looking for demographic data, producing figures representing analytical facets of a particular topic area, and creating an image for the colleague to incorporate into their report or presentation;

  • Reviewing some incoming data for potential quality issues, and using it to update an authoritative data-set (such as building footprints);

  • Responding to an email from a field inspector regarding their use of field data capture technologies;

  • Writing an email to IT regarding the need to update their software to the latest version;

  • Reading a blog post on working with demographic data, and emailing a colleague regarding the sources of the data.

Carolyn works for 7.5 hour days, and has been working at this job for about 5 years. We’ll assume that she’s paid $30/hr (CAD), with benefits and 3 weeks of vacation a year. This is equivalent to $55,125/yr (CAD).

How does Carolyn answer the question of how much value she is delivering?

We can estimate the value of each of her daily tasks.

First, let’s consider some options for valuing the two tasks that contributed to the work with demographic data.

Let’s consider a process where someone might have brought their geospatial problem to Carolyn to discuss.

  1. A developer has begun to formulate a plan for a new development that crosses jurisdictional boundaries between two of the municipalities within the region. They have begun a formal inquiry process into how this might be accomplished.

  2. To support this process, the planners from both of the potentially impacted municipalities have contacted the regional planning agency to help consider this potential development within the current regional context.

  3. One of the planners involved is working with Carolyn to understand the current context of the potential development. They are also tasked with communicating this context back to various other stakeholders. Carolyn is helping to both source and present some of the more relevant data. (Carolyn has contributed perhaps 1-5% of the total effort it takes to deliver the information that will lead to the final decision.)

  4. The planner takes the data, analysis and figure that Carolyn has developed and incorporates it into a presentation that helps to provide critical context for potential development. The presentation helps to provide the necessary context for an inter-regional decision to be made, and the development is advanced to the next stage.

In this example, we can estimate the value of the development to be: $150 million ($50 million construction, plus various corollary benefits to the community, such as increased economic activity, and improvement to surrounding land values over the next 5 years). The regional authority, of which the planning department is a part, is funded through a variety of regional fees and mechanisms, including water, waste management, etc. The approximate percentage impact they have to a $60,000 household is $600, or 1%. It can be estimated then, that the revenue gained by the regional planning initiative is $1.5 million (1% of $150 million) over 5 years.

Of course, this revenue is divided among a number of different functions throughout the regional authority, and Carolyn is only one of 150 employees who were involved in the permitting, inspections etc., and in fact, her total efforts could be estimated to only be worth 0.05% of the total. This still is a result of $750, which is a fairly reasonable return on the 4 hours spent by Carolyn to complete the analysis and prepare the figure, even though it’s amortized over 5 years.

Though this might be a reasonable estimate, there are many more complex models that can be used to evaluate the value of information to a decision making process. It is not necessary to over complicate these processes though (unless the potential impact of the estimate is substantial, in which case, it can become important to work to understand and reduce the sources of error). Some examples to consider would be:

Unlike in consulting, or in some private enterprises, the value that one member of a team plays in a process in the public agency can be somewhat difficult to estimate. If your group, or organization, has put together any estimates, published numbers, or has models related to the time or monetary value that they have provided, an estimate of the portion of the value provided a system or individual can likely be arrived at.

Understanding the economics of your organization can be complex, but it can be extremely useful.

An alternative method of estimation would be to ask various members of the project team how much they thought the data or presentation figure was worth (i.e. either how much they would pay for it, or how much time it would have taken them to get the data and prepare a comparable figure by themselves), and value the effort that way.

The second piece of Carolyn’s day included updating a record in an authoritative data layer - a building footprint, in this case. We’ll estimate that it took a half hour (probably an overestimate) to maintain this data. This data then gets used in a number of different ways by the relevant member local governments and partner agencies, including property taxes, population modelling, way-finding, and cartographic layouts. In fact, the uses of this datum are so varied, it’s difficult to estimate all the ways that this piece of data will potentially be valued.

For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to ballpark estimate that this piece of data, over the approximately 25 years of the potential lifespan of the building, will be used a number of times, and might, in aggregate, provide approximately 4 hours in total time savings for each of the partner agencies if it’s accurate (as opposed to something provided by a non-authoritative data-set with imperfect attributes, or the null case of no data at all). In this case, that would produce approximately 3 1/2 hours of total value (1/2 hour per use per agency), which is a decent return. It may be worth talking to your co-workers, managers, and even members of the public to help validate these estimates.

The third piece of Carolyn’s day, supporting a field worker in the use of field data capture technology, provides value through the process of ensuring that another process is fully supported, efficient and precise. Using a digital data collection process can make a workflow substantially more efficient. We’ll estimate that in this case, it allows for a field worker to accomplish the same amount of work in 8 hours that it previously took 9 hours to do (including data entry, etc.). By providing 15 minutes of support to the field worker, Carolyn not only enabled the saving of that hour, but also improved the likelihood that the solution would continue to be used, and that the field worker would act as an advocate for further digitization of data collection processes. In total, we can estimate that spending 15 minutes providing support may have saved 5 hours of time per week. This might be validated by asking the field technician to review the estimate.

Finally we can consider reading the blog post and emailing IT to consider updating their geospatial technology stack. Both of these actions would lead to ongoing education, and to a potentially improved productivity (both in efficiency and in quality). While these might not seem valuable on the surface, they both have potential future value. It’s important not to forget to continue to invest in technology and ongoing education, as these have been proven to show a return on investment in multiple studies. We can estimate that an investment of 1/2 hour of Carolyn’s time will result in an increase in her productivity and value of $50/yr, which might include an improved likelihood of staff retention, improved efficiency, and an increased ability to lend value to a complex task.

In summary:

  • A simple figure can be worth $750

  • A half hour producing an authoritative record is worth 30 minutes per agency or 3 1/2 hours over the estimated 25 year lifespan of that record. $30 * 3.5 hours for a record=$105

  • 15 minutes invested in field data capture saves 5 hours per week, Valued at $30.00/hr * 30 hours = $900

  • $50 in performance improvements.

One day of Carolyn's work is worth $750 + $105 + $900 + $50 = $1,805 We can estimate costs with some degree of accuracy (check with your finance dept. or manager, they will likely know these numbers):

  • Carolyn’s hourly wage of $30 * 7.5 hours = $225

  • 40% in additional costs (HR, health benefits, retirement plan, etc.) = $90

  • Hardware/software/IT support/Office Space = $200

One day of Carolyn’s work costs $225 + $90 + $200 = $515

The value multiplier is $1805/$515 = 3.5

Additional value may also be unaccounted for in risk management!

In conclusion, estimating the value of what you do, in either time or in monetary value, doesn’t have to involve complex economic models. Sometimes, a quick estimate is sufficient, though it’s better to validate them as much as you can with your colleagues and clients (note familiarity breeds value). Understanding that value can help both your career and your organization in a number of ways. Remember that you should always be working to deliver at least two to three times your salary as a general rule of thumb (this may vary depending on your organization… higher is better, but too high may indicate a problem with your estimation, your organization, or the sustainability of your position). If you’re not providing as much value as you want, you can consider ways of improving your value. If you’re already providing substantial value, you can consider whether or not there might be room to ask for more resources, or otherwise use your high value delivery to advance the goals of the organization (a future blog post on GIS business cases forthcoming).

This estimate indicates that there is potentially room for growth, and might be used to justify an additional expenditure of time to promote the services of the GIS group, expansion of the capacity of the group through new hires, or expansion of available software/hardware.

Note: You shouldn’t just go through this process to simply justify a higher salary… If you’re looking for a higher salary, it’s likely going to be more important to review the salaries of people in similar positions in your geographic region (use something like Payscale, URISA Salary Survey or similar information). It might also be worth considering the parts of your role that don’t fit into the standard boxes…


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