KE-21 - System Modelling for Effective GIS Management

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A geographic information system in operation is highly complex, as the scope of the GIS&T Body of Knowledge demonstrates. Modern society relies on many complex systems, but most are self-contained mechanisms with limited and well defined interfaces. A GIS is a complex open system that extends across the realms of hardware, software, data, science, and human processes. A conceptual model of a GIS can be an effective tool to design, implement, operate, maintain, manage, and assessment tool.

Author and Citation Info: 

Babinski, G. (2018). System Modelling for Effective GIS Management. The Geographic Information Science & Technology Body of Knowledge (3rd Quarter 2018 Edition), John P. Wilson (Ed.). DOI: 10.22224/gistbok/2018.3.7

This entry was published on September 21, 2018.

This Topic is also available in the following editions:  DiBiase, D., DeMers, M., Johnson, A., Kemp, K., Luck, A. T., Plewe, B., and Wentz, E. (2006). System ManagementThe Geographic Information Science & Technology Body of Knowledge. Washington, DC: Association of American Geographers. (2nd Quarter 2016, first digital). 


Topic Description: 
  1. Definitions
  2. The Nature of Systems
  3. Why GIS Succeeds as a System
  4. Identifying and Addressing GIS Under-performances or Failures with the GISCMM


1. Definitions

For a comprehensive list of definitions relevant for GIS Systems Modeling, consult the URISA GIS Management Institute Glossary (pdf), which was developed specifically to accompany the GIS Capability Maturity Model and the companion Geospatial Management Competency Model.


2. The Nature of Systems

Social utilization of geographic information science and technology typically depends on access to a geographic information system (GIS). The typical GIS is designed to meet the business needs of an organization, including government agencies, utilities, universities, business, commerce, and industry. GIS meets these needs by enabling new types of business functions, making existing business functions more effective, or by making business functions more efficient.

A system can be defined as a set of interacting or interdependent component parts designed for a specific purpose and forming a whole of varying complexity. System design should be driven by the specific functionality required for the GIS to meet the business needs identified, to justify the investment in the GIS. Society depends on many systems from the simple (a pair of shoes with laces) to the complex (a square-rigged sailing ship or a hybrid automobile). Systems can fail when critical components fail: a broken shoe lace, a jammed block on a sailing ship, or a faulty ignition switch on an auto.

Conceptually, a modern GIS comprises four major categories of architectural components: data, hardware, software, and people. Within each of these components, there are many sub-components, with significant variability driven by the purpose of the GIS and the nature of the sub-components available. Specific components and sub-components are chosen and configured when a GIS is first designed and then developed, implemented, and maintained. Advances in geospatial information science and related developments of commercial technology create an environment where the choice of components for an individual GIS presents continual architectural and operational challenges (Wellar 2012).

Models are useful tools to assess and manage complex systems. Several types of models have been proposed for assessing various aspects of GIS (IndraStar 2016; Karalopoulus and Kavouras 2015; Makela 2012; Mangan et al. 2009). The Zachman Framework is an enterprise ontology for viewing and understanding the elements of an enterprise, and it too has been proposed as a useful conceptual tool for the design of a GIS (Croswell 2009). It can be used to classify and describe the components of an information technology system around six questions (what, who, how, where, when, why) from the perspective of five stakeholder groups (planner, owner, designer, builder, and subcontractor) (Zachman Framework 2018).

Within the recent past modeling of geospatial system completeness and maturity has been developed at the national level. (Sparks et al. 2014; Bossler et al. 2015). System modeling has also been applied to other domain, for example municipal financial systems (Bailey et al. 2011).


3. Why GIS Succeeds as a System

As a system, the factors that contribute to the success of a GIS fall into two broad categories. First are the broad enabling components of a GIS: data, software, hardware, and people. These are the components that are acquired through purchase, development, access, hire, or other forms of acquisition. Second are the execution ability components related to the process maturity of the people and organization responsible to operate, maintain, and manage the GIS (GIS Management Institute 2013).

3.1 GIS Operations

The URISA GIS Capability Maturity Model (GISCMM) was developed to provide a manageable framework to assess a GIS operation throughout its development life-cycle. It provides a means to assess the data, software, hardware, and staff that comprise a GIS to a meaningful level without excess detail that would make its use too complex or costly. The GISCMM also allows a GIS operation to assess the core processes required for successful operation, without being excessively complex. This balance of adequate detail versus excess complexity within the GISCMM allows a GIS assessment that is meaningful, can be easily repeated over time, and that support comparison with other similar GIS operations.

3.2 Fitness-for-Use and Requirements

A GIS succeeds when its design, implementation, management, maintenance, and operation suit the purpose for which it was established. Continued success requires that each component is well maintained to ensure fitness for its intended purpose.

A GIS succeeds when it evolves to meet new requirements placed upon it. Many enterprise GIS operations are considered successful when they meet the needs of a small handful of core user groups. In municipal GIS, planning, public works, and permitting applications are often early adopters. These applications can represent less than five percent of a municipality’s total workforce. However, evidence suggests that for some municipalities, more than 40 percent of the workforce can use GIS effectively (Babinski 2017).

3.3 Sustainability

Most of the core components of a municipal GIS can support increased usage without significant increase in GIS cost. The costs for data maintenance, database infrastructure, server and application software, and associated labor costs for maintaining the database and core applications are by far the largest GIS budget items, but they do not typically increase with increased usage.

GIS end-user costs are small in comparison. Most municipal office staff and many field staff work with computer equipment that is suitable for GIS applications. GIS-based web mapping applications have no significant end-user cost. Some municipal staff may require access to commercial GIS software and to GIS end-user training and support. A key responsibility of GIS management is to increase business utilization of the GIS system within the enterprise to spread the cost of the system infrastructure to as many end-users as possible.

Another key role for GIS management is to evaluate new geospatial technology. As the science and technology of GIS evolves, new products provide potential efficiencies or enhanced end-user capabilities. Integrating new technology into a GIS system requires careful planning and implementation. Typically, the GIS cannot be taken out of operation while new components are integrated, tested, and put into operation.

A successful and sustainable GIS requires management that understands the maintenance requirements of the core components of the system. It requires a management focused on optimal performance of the system based on standardized procedures coupled with detailed performance metrics.

A geographic information system is a complex and expensive part of municipal government and many other agencies. Its big budget and staff are often prime targets for cost-cutting. It is natural that GIS operations be stressed by demand or resource allocation. However, a successful GIS requires a management that understands the core components of the system and their current and potential state of suitability to ensure a continued functioning and efficient GIS.


4. Identifying and Addressing GIS Under-performances or Failures via the GISCMM

A GIS can under-perform, struggle, or even fail if key components are lacking or underdeveloped. As is the case with other systems, when the components are out of alignment or uncoordinated, failures are more likely. A GIS differs from other complex systems, like a hybrid automobile or USGS Eagle, in that many of its components can be owned, managed, and maintained by another organization, but implemented and used in a separate GIS. For example, many GIS operations share geography with other discrete GIS operations. A county, large city, water utility, and regional transit agency might each share substantial common geography. Ideally, there is no reason that each agency must develop and maintain redundant framework spatial data layers. Within an operational framework of distributed responsibility and shared resources, many data sources can be maintained by one lead agency and utilized by many, saving cost. Core end-user desktop or online GIS applications can also be designed, implemented and maintained by one agency for use by other local agencies, reducing costs and accelerating GIS use by agency staff.

While all of these seem perfect approaches to having effective operations, these connections also represent potential locations of problems. An assessment of a GIS system will need to cover a wide range of system components to determine where the trouble spots may be.  

As was described earlier, the GIS Capability Maturity Model (GISCMM) provides a framework for evaluating the completeness of the system and suitability for the designated business purpose. It can help identify weaknesses and help to prioritize investment or development efforts to achieve a balanced and complete enabling capability to meet designated business needs. The GISCMM also provides a framework for analyzing the process maturity of the staff that manages and operates the GIS. Deficiencies can negatively impact the effectiveness of the GIS. In this way it helps to identify execution ability deficiencies to help prioritize corrective actions to improve execution ability and achieve a balanced level process maturity to maximize ROI from the GIS investment and operational costs.

4.1 Using the GISCMM for Domains of Systems

Domains of systems are defined by the purpose for which they are designed. Financial systems, asset management systems, work-order management system, and others each have a designated business domain that they serve and benefit. The GIS Capability Maturity Model is designed to assess systems designed to store, maintain, analyze, and visualize data sets with business-focused spatial features.

4.2 Using the GISCMM for Design of Systems & Fitness-for-Purpose

The GISCMM provides a useful framework for assessing the architecture and detailed design of a GIS. Despite its general nature, it makes frequent reference to assessing "fitness for purpose" in assessing individual components.

4.3 Using the GISCMM for Completeness of Systems

The GISCMM is a high-level model. For mission-critical GIS-based applications, products, and services the GISCMM should be supplemented with life-cycle analysis. In most GIS organizations, individual processes are rarely evaluated as long as they work to keep the systems components functioning, to deliver expected GIS outputs, and achieve the hoped for organizational outcomes.

The GISCMM framework can be used through the GIS development life-cycle as a checklist to ensure completeness of the system to support its intended business purpose. It recognizes that some components may not be required for a GIS designed for a limited purpose but requires a rationale statement for excluding a component.

3.4 Using the GISCMM for Assessment of Enabling Capacity and Executing Ability

The GIS Capability Maturity Model assesses a GIS based on two broad categories of components: the enabling capability and the execution ability, each with its own metrics.

“Enabling capability can be thought of as the technology, data, resources, and related infrastructure that can be bought, developed, or otherwise acquired to support typical enterprise GIS operations. Enabling capability includes GIS management and professional staff” (GIS Management Institute 2013). The GISCMM includes brief descriptive characteristics of each enabling capability component, to aid in objective evaluation that will support future re-evaluation or comparison with peer agencies.

To use the model, a rating is determined for each of the 23 separate enabling capability components. The ratings are metrics designed to chart the development status of the component (Table 1).


Table 1.Enabiling Capability Components Measured within the GISCMM
  Ratings for Enabling Capability Components
Enabling Capability Component 0.00 Desired but not Planned 0.20 Planned but with no resources available to achieve the capability 0.40 Planned and with resources available to achieve the capability 0.60 In progress but with only partial resources available to achieve the capability 0.80 In progress with full resources available to achieve the capability 1.00 Fully Implemented NA
EC1. Framework GIS Data1              
EC2. Framework GIS Maintenance1              
EC3. Business GIS Data2              
EC4. Business GIS Data Maintenance2              
EC5. GIS Data Coordination              
EC6. Metadata              
EC7. Spatial Data Warehouse              
EC8. Architectural Design              
EC9. Technical Infrastructure              
EC10. Replacement Plan              
EC11. GIS Software Maintenance              
EC12. Data Backup & Security              
EC13. GIS Application Portfolio              
EC14.GIS Application Portfolio Management              
EC15. GIS Application Portfolio O&M              
EC16. Professional GIS Management              
EC17. Professional GIS Operational Staff              
EC18. GIS Staff Training & Professional Development              
EC19. GIS Governance Structure              
EC20. GIS Linked to Agency Strategic Goals              
EC21. GIS Budget              
EC22. GIS Funding              
EC23. GIS Financial Plan              

1 A rating is performed for each of the seven (7) NSDI framework data sets.

2 A rating is performed for up to 10 (10) agency designated critical non-framework geospatial data sets.


The GISCMM also evaluates the execution ability components of the GIS. “Execution ability can be thought of as the process maturity of the GIS management and staff responsible to operate the GIS. For the GISCMM, each execution ability component is assessed against a classic process metric that charts progression towards operational maturity” (GIS Management Institute 2013). As is the case with the Enabling Capacity model, each of the 22 execution ability components must be assigned its own rating (Table 2).

Table 2. Execution Ability Components Measured within the GISCMM
  Ratings for Execution Ability Components
Execution Ability Components Level One: Ad-hoc Processes Level Two: Repeatable Processes Level Three: Defined Processes Level Four: Managed and Measured Processes Level Five: Optimized Processes
EA1. New Client Services Evaluation and Development          
EA2. User Support, Help Desk, and End-User Training          
EA3. Service Delivery Tracking and Oversight          
EA4. Service Quality Assurance          
EA5. Application Development or Procurement Methodology          
EA6. Project Management Methodology          
EA7. Quality Assurance & Quality Control          
EA8. GIS System Management          
EA9. Process Event Management          
EA10. Contract & Supplier Management          
EA11. Regional Collaboration          
EA12. Staff Development          
EA13. Operation Performance Management          
EA14. Individual GIS Staff Performance Management          
EA15. Client Satisfaction Monitoring & Assurance          
EA16. Resource Allocation Management          
EA17. GIS Data Sharing          
EA18. GIS Software License Sharing          
EA19. GIS Data Inter-operability          
EA20. Legal and Policy Affairs Management          
EA21. Balancing Minimal Privacy with Maximum Data Usage          
EA22. Service to Community and Profession          



Albrecht, J. (2015). Towards a Theory of GIS Program Management. In Kuhn, W. and H. Onsrud (Eds.), Advancing Geographic Information Science: the past and the next 20 years. Needham, MA: GSDI Association Press, pp. 9-10.

Babinski, G., Butler, A., and Ibaugh, A. (2014). GIS Capability Maturity Model, URISA Certified Workshop, 2014.

Babinski, G. (2017). King County GIS Center 2015 Assessment Report. URISA Journal. Vol 27, No. 2, pp. 21-36.

Bailey, M., Feher, K., Kavanagh, S. (2011). Improve Performance Using the GFOA’s New Financial Management Assessment Tool. Government Finance Review, August 2011, pp. 18-22.

Bossler, J.D., Cowen, D.J., Geringer, J.E., Lambert, S.C., Moeller, J.J., Rust, T.D., and Welch, R.T. (2015). Report Card on the U.S. National Spatial Data Infrastructure - Compiled for the Coalition of Geospatial Organizations. February 6, 2015. See: P. 15.

Croswell, P. (2009). The GIS Management Handbook. Kessey Dewitt Publications, Frankfort, Kentucky, 2009.

GIS Management Institute. (2012). Geospatial Management Competency Model. URISA. June 8, 2012. See:

GIS Management Institute. (2013). GIS Capability Maturity Model. URISA. September 2013. See:

IndraStar (2016). A View on GIS Capability Maturity Model. April 11, 2016, see:

Karalopoulus, A. and Kavouras, M. 2015 Survey on Maturity Models for the Geospatial Domain, 18th Agile International Conference of Geographic Information Science, Lisbon, June 9-12, 2015.

Makela, J. (2012). Model for Assessing GIS Maturity of an Organization, Aalto University, Helsinki, 2012.

Mangan, M. (2008). Introducing a Maturity Model for Enterprise GIS. Even Keel Strategies, Inc. Chicago. 2008.

Sonnen, D. Moeller, J, and LaBranche, D. (2009). Geospatial Enterprise Integration Maturity Model. ISSI, Bellingham, Washington, ISD 2009-0054. June 24, 2009 revision of White Paper originally published March 2009.

Sparks, J., Worall, P., and Mickey, K. (2014). A Distributed Model for Effective National Geospatial Data Management: Building a National Data Sharing Infrastructure. GIS Management Institute Discussion Paper No. 1, March, 2014.

Wellar, B. (Ed.) (2012). Foundations of Urban and Regional Information Systems and Geographic Information Systems and Science. Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, Des Plaines, IL. 2012.

Zachman Framework. (2018). Zachman Framework, April 17, 2018, See:

Learning Objectives: 
  • Describe how system design and management concepts can support effective GIS operation
  • Describe how to articulate GIS design and operational needs to internal technical support staff
  • Describe how a system management focus can ensure well balanced GIS capability development and effective operational practices
  • Describe how a system model can be used to design, implement, operate, maintain, assess, and manage a GIS.
Instructional Assessment Questions: 
  1. How does modelling aid in the design, development, implementation and management of a GIS?
  2. What is the primary driver in design of a geographic information system?
  3. What are the two main components of the GIS Capability Maturity Model?
  4. What are the process maturity level descriptions within a classic maturity model?
  5. What is a method that can be used to improve the GIS-related process maturity of an existing GIS operation?