Jonathan W. Lowe

From Consultant-generated to City-owned--Technology Transfer in the City of Oakland

Accurate and current datasets are the cornerstone of any successful information system. How can a city with high staff turnover establish a staff-maintained enterprise-wide up-to-date GIS data structure without an ongoing need for consultants?

In the City of Oakland, consultants and city staff worked together to customize ArcView (with Avenue) and Arc/Info (with AML) so that the tasks for maintaining the most critical and rapidly changing datasets were embedded into the maintenance interface. To get training in the maintenance of any layer, users simply begin using the system and learn as they go.

After working directly with City staff to capture and convert the most critical datasets (streets, parcels, zoning, utilities), consultants customized ArcView and Arc/Info for specific tasks such as zoning updates, parcel subdivisions, and other daily maintenance activities. The customized sessions included step by step, cartoon-like directions permanently displayed during the editing process. The GUI is designed for untrained users so that the maintenance process for critical layers remains intact despite staff turnover.

The customized applications were created using Avenue, AML, ArcView, and Arc/Info. They sometimes rely on client-server sessions between ArcView and Arc/Info, sometimes over a network. The purpose of this paper is to highlight the application and its functions as well as to review the technical challenges encountered during the implementation of a staff-maintained enterprise-wide GIS.

FROM CONSULTANT-GENERATED TO CITY-OWNED--Technology Transfer In The City Of Oakland

City government workers do not always give a warm welcome to consultants pushing proposals for new computer systems. "What about training?" they ask. "And who is going to maintain the data when the consultants leave?" Because there are few people in city government who have the time to develop advanced GIS skills, those who do receive training may leave for better positions in other cities as soon as they acquire the skills. Given these challenges, how can a city with high staff turnover establish a staff-maintained enterprise-wide GIS dataset without an ongoing need for consultants?

Consultant-generated interfaces--the meaning of "jump-start"

The cornerstone of a successful enterprise-wide GIS is reliable data. In Oakland, the first step in building reliable GIS data was nicknamed the "jump-start". The plan was for the consultants to perform most of the data conversion tasks and then to pass ownership of the GIS layers to the city staff as soon as each layer was in good working order. In the early phases of the project, consultants acted as mentors and/or trainers to city staff, who then took over the data conversion process as soon as they felt technically able to do so. In this model of technology transfer, however, the knowledge for updating datasets was stored in the city staff person's head. Only after one of the City's zoning specialists accepted a position at another city government and took her GIS skills with her was this plan's weakness revealed. No other city staff could easily pick up the GIS maintenance tasks without training. The zoning specialist had left before training a successor.

The new goal of the GIS jump-start became not just a working dataset, but a sustainable update process controlled entirely by City staff and requiring no more than one to two hours of training for a person new to GIS. To reach this goal, the instructions for editing each layer were embedded into the graphical user interface used to edit that layer. For instance, if the layer was to be maintained with ArcView, then the instructions for maintaining that layer would be part of a customized ArcView project. To succeed, the instructions could not be part of help screens that were seen only when the users were confused; rather they would be constantly part of the visible project, prompting the user every step of the way.

In the case of zoning, the update system has multiple user screens leading the way through any of four different edit routines. Following is the series of steps through the process of maintaining the zoning GIS dataset to document a newly sub-divided zone.

Users opening the ArcView project designed for maintaining the zoning GIS dataset are greeted by the following series of four possible edit routines:

Introductory zoning edit screen

Notice that the four possible edit routines for the zoning layer are described with both words and pictures. Many users prefer a picture or cartoon-like direction rather than a written direction. To the right of the directions are colored polygons. These are features of a polygon shapefile with hotlinks to Avenue scripts that activate other projects.

In this example, the user wants to subdivide one parcel into two parcels, so she clicks the "Add New Boundaries" button. The result is the following screen:

The Add New Boundaries editing screen

Because the task of adding new boundaries could involve splitting an existing zone or creating an "island" zone within an existing zone, both options are the topic of this user screen. In this example, the user wants to sub-divide zone boundaries, and so clicks the blue box to be taken to the next screen.

The next screen has step-by-step directions for subdividing zones. It looks like the following:

The user chooses to sub-divide a zone

Notice on this screen that the only tools available to the user are the ones described in the directions at the right of the screen. Even tools like the pan tool or zoom tools, which are often assumed to be intuitive, are mentioned in the help screen (although not defined in detail).

Also notice that the tool icons have not been altered from their standard ArcView appearances. If users advance to the full functionality of regular ArcView, they will still recognize the editing tools from these maintenance sessions."

The edit screens are customized such that changes to the data are possible, but changes to the editing screens themselves are not possible without a password. This way, the users can return to the same familiar edit screens every session but see the consequences of their edits.

Further steps in this example would lead the user back to the introductory screen and then through the zone renaming edit steps. In all, there are eleven possible screens for performing edits to the zoning layer. In a typical edit session, most users would only encounter two or three of them. Similar interfaces to the maintenance of GIS datasets are also designed for large, critical coverages such as the Assessor's Parcels and the Center-of-Pavement (streets) datasets. The managers of these datasets are relieved that they do not have to send their staff to long training sessions in order for them to be able to perform a few simple edit routines.

All of these interfaces rely upon Avenue and ArcView with occasional use of interapplication communication with Arc/Info and AML to update changes to a master repository of datasets. For the users, this step is either invisible or a single button click event. For the programmers, the interapplication communication posed the greatest technical challenges.

CONCLUSION (Technology Transfer in Oakland)

To successfully implement a current and accurate enterprise-wide dataset that is owned and operated by city staff, design interfaces to the data that prevent confusion from ever arising and that can be learned quickly, by novice GIS users. To do this, embed the directions for use into the maintenance interface as permanent displays. Include directions in both textual and cartoon format. And above all, work with the users the whole way through the design process. Their involvement in the early stages of the process will guarantee their faithful use into the future.


Thanks to the consultants and City of Oakland staff who participated in the project illustrated by this paper: Frank Kliewer, Joan Curtis, and Jonelyn Whales (Office of Planning and Building), F. Michael Smith (Office of Communication and Information Services), and Jake Schweitzer, Kyle Draganov, and Julia Howlett (The GIS Consulting Team).

Jonathan W. Lowe
GIS Consultant
Local Knowledge Consulting
2007 Delaware St.
Berkeley, California 94709
Telephone: (510) 540-5482