Bridging the Gap between IT and OT

GIS: The universal language

To understate the obvious, there appears to be a communication gap in many public works departments between information technology (IT) and what could be called operational technology (OT). However, clear communication between these departments is critical for the successful completion of city projects.

Communication relies on mutually accepted rules so that it is clearly understood. IT must follow data standards to make sure that the data is reliable, trustworthy, and available across the entire enterprise. While not always understanding back-office data requirements, OT has its own rules that must be strictly followed. For example, you don’t jump into a trench to fix a water main break wearing open-toed sandals, and you use protective equipment when necessary to perform a job safely and effectively.

A critical part of understanding the perceived IT/OT dichotomy is that operational functions tend to be the reason for the public works department’s existence, and IT is there to support the operational business function. GIS represents a bridge between IT data management and OT fieldwork.

Maps have been a common communication tool for thousands of years. Even today, paper maps spread out on the hood of a work truck are a familiar sight. However, the moment we moved those paper maps into the digital realm, things seemed to get unnecessarily complicated, even though effective communication is still vitally important. Today, with the abundance of data collected by the IT department and the ability to serve it directly to the field, GIS is critical for all public works operations.

GIS provides data integration, analytical functions, and visualization displays that allow many disparate pieces of information to be examined together. For example, the analysis of a toxic plume infiltrating local groundwater may have been performed for an Environmental Protection Agency study completely unrelated to public works operations. However, because the IT department collects and maintains all municipal data, it can provide a map of toxic areas to public works field crews, so that they are aware of potentially dangerous contaminants in excavated soil. This analysis is possible because the IT department has worked out data sharing agreements with other departmental organizations and worked with operational supervisors to identify their requirements. With its ability to communicate information that is relevant to operational needs throughout your enterprise, GIS is truly a universal language.

How has GIS streamlined communication between your information technology and operations departments?

David Totman

About David Totman

David Totman is the Industry Manager for the Global Water Practice at Esri. He has been using GIS for nearly 25 years in business process optimization, project analytics, and infrastructure management and has extensive experience in the water, engineering, and asset management disciplines.
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  1. Jason Tuck says:

    I am a firm believer in GIS being its own department in the utility or public works. So many times it is located in the engineering department or the IT department. In this scenario GIS can be and many times is used based on the direction of those departments versus having the ability to serve all departments equally. Being its own department allows greater flexibility and greater service to the organization. It can then be the true bridge between IT and the whole organization.

  2. David Totman David Totman says:

    This subject tends to drive “the chicken or the egg” sort of conversation. In my 25+ years of GIS, 10 was spent in pure IT whereas 15 were spent in Operations. I tend to support a structured GIS organization that leverages best practices across multiple disciplines, but I myself had a strong enterprise GIS group over in Operations. We definitely had a strong synergy with our IT department and could not be successful without them, but I believe we inherently supported our internal customer base more effectively by being organizationally in the very business process that we supported.

    Could it have been a trust issue due to the complexities of IT today? Is it an education issue?

    Regradless of organizational structure I believe the bottom line comes down to leadership and the vision of using GIS as a true communication vehicle across multiple disciplines.

  3. We see successful cooperation within agencies we work with when the boundaries of data owenership/maintenance are clearly defined. Historic record data for public works assets are typically managed within an enterprise GIS – by Engineering, IT or GIS departments. New and updated data is typically obtained from Public Works during their day-to-day activities (maintenance and inspections), which are managed within an asset/maintenance management system – the departmental/divisional OT. Effective agencies clearly communicate data standards, follow established workflows for approving and applying new/updated data, and efficiently distribute data through the IT and OT channels. Tight integration of the GIS and asset/maintenane management systems, delivered through COTS solutions configured to agencies’ specific needs, is a must-have.

  4. Edward Langdon says:

    My own experience tells me that no matter where GIS is located in the organization it is still people in that organization that determine success. Clear objectives must be defined, obtained and evaluated. Clear data management principles must be practiced with three concepts at its core, geographic location, temporal accuracy and content. Only then can good decisions be made using GIS. No matter where GIS resides that person or a group of people must understand these principles, without this it just does not matter where GIS is located. Years ago the term “People” was part of the definition of GIS, from my perspective it’s everything and should never have been removed.