Between a Product and a Service

Adena Schutzberg

From GIS Monitor

April 17, 2003

A few weeks ago I summarized a new offering from MapInfo, the Critical Area Response Manager, or CARM. I suggested that though the product can be run out of-the-box, MapInfo offers customization to tailor the solution. That started me thinking about those products that are essentially platforms for custom development. In my mind, they sit on a continuum between pure product offerings (shrink-wrapped boxes) and services offerings (contracts with a promise to create a solution).

PlanGraphics, a services company, has an offering in this continuum between product and service, called STEPs (Spatial Templates for Emergency Management). I interviewed Rich Goodden, Vice President, Eastern Region, about how technology moves into this role as a basis for consulting and how end-users can benefit. An expanded version of this review is available.

I understand that your STEPs, Spatial Templates for Emergency Management, was built on your experience in New York City after 9/11. How do you move technology from "project work" like this to a more general solution?

Not all project work can be moved successfully to broader offerings. But if the work fits into a larger strategy that is in line with market direction, and the firm has the experience and methodologies to make that transition, then such a transition is possible.

The experience we had in New York City required us to apply the knowledge gained over 22 years of local government consulting to the task of saving lives and helping the City recover. The key to STEPs is really the application of lessons learned not only from 9/11, but also through the cumulative experience of our consulting staff. These lessons have been channeled into a solution that is supported by technical trends that we have been implementing over the past few years.

9/11 clearly demonstrated the value of GIS in emergency situations, but it also demonstrated the value of integrating GIS data with other systems. The IT/GIS industry has reached a point where enterprise approaches and interoperability standards are making it possible to develop solutions such as STEPs that offer "total situational awareness" in a real-time environment for operational emergency response. We achieve this through the integration of what would normally be disconnected, or "stovepipe" systems using a transactional database at the back end. High-level officials in state and local government are seeing the strategic value of this concept and are placing emphasis on the need to create a Spatially Enabled Enterprise (SEE) that integrates the data created by traditional GIS operations with other critical systems. The SEE concept, which is the basis of STEPs, is different from the notion of "Enterprise GIS" in that it begins with the broader IT mission and seeks a method of incorporating spatial data into it. Enterprise GIS on the other hand is aimed at increasing the number of people who have access to the GIS, primarily for map-making and viewing purposes. Both approaches result in a higher level of integration, but they are coming from opposite ends of the IT-GIS spectrum.

At the same time, constrained budgets make it necessary to develop solutions that maximize return on investment. One element of achieving this is to create a solution that is as widely applicable as possible, thereby reducing implementation costs on a per-user basis. A key criteria in the design of STEPs was to make it a system that is easily customized to support many day-to-day government operations. We didn't want to create a system that sits on the shelf until there is an emergency preparedness drill or a real emergency.

This isn't an off-the-shelf product, nor is it a "from scratch" consulting project. Where does it fit on the continuum in between a product and consulting services?

In that continuum, STEPs would fall more toward the services end and involves both system and data integration activities. At the heart of STEPs is a web portal, a database and a metadata manager that allows the user to view and manipulate graphic data from the various GIS vendors along with tabular data and unstructured rich content data from other databases and services available over the Internet, as described under the OGC model. For Oracle-based implementations, we utilize Xmarc technology for this portal, so part of the solution can in fact be "off-the-shelf". But, accomplishing a meaningful integration of the many systems that house valuable information in a local government presents technical as well as organizational challenges. These challenges require a broad range of expertise to overcome, so services often play a major role.

I mentioned Oracle there and I wanted to make sure the readers understand that STEPs does not strictly require Oracle. It can be implemented with other database programs as well. The Xmarc technology is also not strictly required, but it does provide an advantage when GIS data resides in multiple vendor formats.

[Editor's note: PlanGraphics acquired the rights to Xmarc's technology in early 2002. The FAQ on the arrangement is here, as well as an interview I did with PlanGraphics CEO John C. Antenucci on the matter.]

How do you "package" STEPs?

STEPs is sold in phases. The first phase involves a situation assessment and preliminary design. The second phase is the building of a prototype using rapid prototyping methodologies. The third phase is deployment, which may occur iteratively throughout. Costs for the second and third phases are calculated at the completion of the previous phase.

How do organizations measure the value against the other ends of the spectrum?

Client organizations are evolving right along with the technology and they have become very adept in recent years at gauging the value of solution offerings. Many of these governments have made substantial investments on large data bases and single point solutions that can be broadly leveraged through a STEPs portal. The STEPs design concept has emerged from years of experience with local government and utilizes interoperability standards to yield what we believe is the right mix of off-the-shelf components and customized services to make it a high value proposition.

I've seen offerings like this in GIS off and on for some years. How do they fit in the evolution of GIS?

STEPs is not a GIS and it is not intended to compete with the traditional GIS vendor products. In our view, GIS is the sum capability of GIS software, GIS data, and GIS expertise. Although some in the GIS industry are trying to position it at the center of the IT enterprise, most CIO's and non-GIS end users choose to deal with their needs, including those that have a locational component through other application environments. PlanGraphics believes that the key ingredient that GIS can contribute to the enterprise is the data that it produces. The purpose of STEPs, then, is to take that data and use it as the indexing mechanism for data sets contained in other systems. Once that is accomplished, STEPs users quickly move beyond the maps and into areas that are decidedly not GIS, but directly pertain to the situation at hand. Browser access to monitoring systems, automated emergency notification, asset management, and other systems that can impact a response and recovery activity are made available through STEPs.

This is not intended to downplay the significance of GIS and it does not signal a shift by PlanGraphics' away from the traditional GIS services we have always provided. We will always support our GIS clients. We simply recognize that there is a difference between GIS and IT, but there is also significant overlap. Our solution leaves the GIS expertise in the hands of the GIS experts, but we bring the most useful parts into the IT mainstream. In designing STEPs, we have gone to great length to avoid creating a system that requires a GIS expert to operate. STEPs is designed to allow people to be productive with 30 minutes of training or less.

Does the renewed interest in these types of solutions indicate GIS is maturing?

Perhaps, but it depends upon one's point of view. In one sense, GIS matured long ago. The basic functions required of GIS are well established and most vendor products are focused on enhancing those functions and/or taking them to the web. STEPs is more accurately described as the expansion of traditional IT to exploit the product of GIS, i.e., the data. In that sense, it really represents a maturing of traditional IT.

These types of solutions are offered both by vendors (MapInfo recently announced CARM, for example) and by consulting organizations. How should interested organizations approach selecting one or the other team?

As with all technology purchases, the goals of the activity must be clearly defined. I don't think there is any hard-and-fast rule that says one should always turn to a consultant or a product vendor. The key questions that organizations have to ask themselves are: Do I understand clearly what I am trying to accomplish? Have I dispassionately evaluated the alternatives? Does the firm I have selected understand my requirements and will they work in my best interest?

If the goal is the design and implementation of something like STEPs, then the best choice is an independent integrator with a strong appreciation for interoperability and broad knowledge of the systems involved. GIS vendors create solutions like CARM to enhance the usability of GIS in emergency situations, but they are still bounded by the GIS model. If the GIS Manager wants to increase her emergency management capability, then such products may be the right choice. The CIO and Emergency Managers, however, should be thinking more broadly.

Is there a time when the configuration and customization of this type of solution does not require extensive services?

For now the services portion of a STEPs implementation is reduced if:
� The number of proprietary systems is minimal
� The communications network has ample bandwidth and reliability
� There is a mature GIS capable of providing reliable spatial data
� There is a cooperative working relationship between the IT group and the Emergency Management group
� The organization has staff with the mandate, expertise and available time to assist in the implementation

Because every client is different, success is achieved through different approaches. A STEPs implementation utilizes methodologies that lead to well-defined goals, but is flexible enough to address the particular circumstances of the organization.