In my former life I was a GIS analyst and ESRI Geodatabase Manager
My GIS Story
I was hired by the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) in 1999 as a Graduate Civil Engineer. I left in 2007 as the Geographic Information Systems (G.I.S.) Manager. I was very lucky to be hired at the start of an enormous, fascinating and challenging project. 250,000 paper documents and a trove of digital AutoCAD files needed to be migrated into a CMS (content management system) that could be used throughout PWD and other City agencies.
PWD standardized on Microsoft products and the ESRI ArcGIS Suite for G.I.S. data management. I was tasked with investigating various software options for having this CMS be available in a web interface visible on the City’s intranet.
Research and Gain Trust
I did an enormous amount of research and found at the time that the Autodesk Mapguide ActiveX control would be a viable solution. I was also tasked with learning all the inner processes of PWD in maintaining engineering documentation for the 6,620 miles of water, sewer and high pressure fire infrastructure.
I had to gain the trust of so many people who worked on maintaining the system every day, some for decades.
Two consultants were chosen to work with PWD to manage such a monumental task. I was part of the in-house team interfacing with the consultants. I would facilitate data acquisition, keep them apprised to any internal work flow changes, and participate in data scrubbing. Eventually I apprenticed with with two high-level programmers to learn the inner workings of ERV (Engineering Records Viewer) which was the web application CMS interface for all the GIS deliverables.
Promote Positive Cultural Shifts
It was important to promote a culture of data sharing among various units and departments including, Water main records, Engineering and Survey. It was key to learn the points of overlap of each department’s work in the ultimate process of keeping the records up to date.
Clear communication, responsiveness, cognitive flexibility, humility, empathy and willingness to take on challenges were key factors in my success during my tenure at PWD.
Wear Many Hats
I would eventually take over the code, maintain it and extend its functionality. (At the time CSS stylesheets were just becoming an important part of web design).
My role grew over the years, and I was a key player in transitioning the final contract deliverables, ArcGIS shapefiles of the water, sewer and high pressure systems, into aa fully functional Geodatabase that could have multiple simultaneous editors, with versioning, housed in a SQL server database.
Once the system was online and being maintained, I often interviewed the user base to compile ways to improve the user experience. One way I improved the experience, was to compile the most need queries of the data users and maintainers and coded ways for the users to create these custom data views to more easily accomplish their work.
I conducted user testing, presented the results to supervisors and made changes as needed to ERV. Accessibility was an important issue as one known user was color blind and most likely others were as well.
The response was extremely positive and many users who were reluctant to use the system, acquiesced. I also pinpointed ERV ambassadors /power users in the different departments. I would train them first on new functionality and they would train others, promote the app, and report back feedback.
The screens are very old and quite dated. And I had absolutely no design training at all at this point in my career. But I knew that the user experience was key to the success of this application which was a huge paradigm shift in the way people maintained important documents at PWD. I made it my mission to provide the best user experience available using the tools and training I had at the time.
Managing Future Functionality
As soon as an app is launched, there is usually already a backlog of phase 2, 3, 4 functionality. ERV was no different. The managers, who were used to Waterfall development at this time, were not happy that it was not perfect. But I made promises to not lose the list of what was needed and what users discovered and to manage future improvements.
Improvements requested were often inclusion of datasets that had been missed, research needed for unknown age of pipes, elevation corrections for manhole rims, etc. But I also put on the timeline, needed hardware and software upgrades so that users would know when a downtime was imminent. The idea was that PWD, as ERV users and maintainers, were a whole team and we were all in the work together.
I created a way for users to upload a PIF file (A Project Improvement Form that I created) which allowed users to describe the improvement needed and give background and a way to follow up. I would follow up and assess the needed improvement, placing it on a user accessible board with a timeline. The idea was to allow users to see that their idea was important and to provide them a way to see where the functionality was on the improvement timeline.
This was a level of transparency for requests that users had not experienced before at PWD
- Enterprise web applications are a long term commitment
- Users want to be heard and understood
- Transparency helps manage expectations
- Better user experiences in a web app helps users make better decisions
- Good, responsive communication promotes trust and security