Results of the NYS GIS/Geospatial Business Survey

Survey Background

Late last spring eSpatiallyNewYork published an online survey with the intent to collect and establish baseline data on the New York State GIS/Geospatial business community.  At face value one might find this peculiar in that I am a career civil servant but I have increasingly realized over the past several years how important the geospatial business and industry sector will be in providing long term support and sustainability to statewide public GIS programs.  Fortunate as I have been over my career to have been in on the ground floor in the 1980s when government GIS programs began to lay the foundation of the geospatial technology as we know it today, these same tax-payer funded programs and systems have changed profoundly.  While geospatial is embedded – and to the point of almost expected –  in nearly all elements of daily government and managing the public good,  the equivalent funding for expanded government staffing and infrastructure has not been realized.  If anything, capacity has been reduced in context of tax caps, reduction in the government work force, and on some level, the growing belief and understanding among government decision makers that GIS solutions can be accessed and provided outside their organization (i.e., The Cloud, etc.).  And in doing so, eliminating the need to build the infrastructure and capacity with their own resources.  And there is no end in sight.    And it’s my belief, rightfully so.

Having served on the statewide GIS Coordinating Body (now dba the Geospatial Advisory Council [GAC]) for 17 years, I saw many attempts, with little coming to fruition, to bring private sector input into the statewide GIS planning and coordination efforts.   And I suspect that much will be the same with the current GAC alignment as industry representatives ultimately realize there is no real business incentive to participate in such “committees” so closely aligned with government.    And the statewide geospatial business climate has only become gloomier since 2011 when “GIS Services” were removed from the NYS Office of General Services (OGS) contract – making it much more cumbersome and difficult for governments to secure geospatial consultant services.   The good news on the landscape is that there appears to be healthy dose of private sector participation the NYS GIS Association.  A much more logical and independent place for the geospatial business community to promote its services and products to both government and industry.

Which leads to the survey.  Upon developing and finally publishing the survey, I made significant efforts to reach as broad representative sample of the geospatial business community as possible.  This included posts to the New York State and GISMO listservs as well as through geospatial Meetup groups (i.e., GeoNYC).    Contacts were also made to announce the survey through the New York State Society of Professional Engineers, New York Business Council, New York City Technology Council, and the NYS GIS Association.  I also announced the survey to a list of professional contacts I maintain and through my LinkedIn account.  The survey was short (15 total questions) consisting of a combination of multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions.  Respondents had the option of leaving their name and contact information – of which 32 of 52 provided.  (While I made the survey accessible via the hyperlink above I am no longer collecting data).

Rather than simply providing direct access to the survey URL in the various posts and outreach efforts, I requested that any business interested in taking the survey contact me directly and I would then provide the URL.  In doing so, I could monitor who was actually filling out the survey and avoid obtaining data from non-qualified respondents.  Not the most scientific approach, but for the most part it worked.  In all, a total of 52 surveys were returned that provided useable data which could be summarized for discussion.

Broad categories which are summarized below are not necessarily unique with individual firms potentially being included in several categories.   This is a long read and certainly does not fit into the traditional “shorter” blog postings, includes a lot of statistics of which I apologize, but I wanted to provide as much detail as possible.  Here you go.

Survey Result Highlights

Quick Facts (All Respondents):

  • Nearly 65% of the respondents have been doing business in the GIS/Geospatial space for more than 10 years
  • Almost half of the survey respondents stated they have a staff of 1-5 people dedicated to GIS/Geospatial work
  • 48% indicated that GIS/Geospatial was the primary focus of their business with another 30% being part of larger engineering/photogrammetric/environmental services company.
  • Only 7% of all respondents indicated they were a Minority Women Enterprise Business (WMBE).
  • Most of the respondents (52%) indicated one-third or less of their GIS/Geospatial business was within New York State.  Just 13% (7 respondents) stated that all of their GIS/Geospatial business was in the Empire State.
  • Among all respondents, state and local government (including nonprofits, schools, and academia) business work is a limited within the State of New York
  • Over half of the respondents indicated they do not do any federal work
  • About one-third of the respondents indicated one-third or more of their work was from business and industry
  • Both the “overall” economy and removal of GIS contract services from the NYS OGS contract were both seen as major factors in negatively impacting business
  • Development of mobile/smartphone technology  and web services are seen as the primary business development space over the next 2-4 years
  • Overwhelmingly, the New York GIS Association is the professional organization respondents are aligned with and participate
  • Surprisingly, only 20% of the respondents communicate business issues/concerns/opinions with NYS elected representatives
  • Good news is nearly 90% of the respondents state their level of business has remained constant or increased in the last five years

Selected Cohort Facts:

New York State GIS/Geospatial Businesses with 10+ Years  Respondent Total = 17

  • Includes  businesses in which GIS/Geospatial is both sole focus or as part of a larger engineering firm
  • Few Minority Women Business Enterprises (MWBE)
  • Half of the respondents (17) stated that about  50% of their business in generated in New York State of which only one-third is from state and local government
  • These “older” GIS firms do minimal work in the federal space
  • Most have had stable staffing over the past five years and feel that the “overall” economy is impacting their company’s GIS business development and growth
  • One of the few cohorts which believe that some of the decline in business is because clients are building more in-house capabilities
  • Most believe the greatest potential growth is in mobile and smartphones markets including social media
  • In context of professional affiliations, a majority of the respondents listed the NYS GIS Association
  • Few firms communicate their business concerns and needs with elected representatives

Comments on “improving the business climate” include:

  1. More information/education about the integration of GIS into business operations and various financial levels that can be utilized (ArcGIS Online, dedicated desktop or server, open source, etc.)
  2. Awareness. I think we need to raise awareness that the geospatial component of what people are doing and need to be done is increasing.
  3. Increased grant funding for Local Governments, not related to shared services
  4. More open data sharing, particularly in NYC and Long Island; more widespread public awareness and usage.
  5. I believe that the GIS business climate is largely subsumed by the IT realm; its growth will primarily be a function of demonstration of value add to business processes.
  6. It would be huge if grant programs were more readily available to help complement our significant R&D investment to continually bring new geo-spatial and mobile technologies to bear for our clients.
  7. Streamlined/improved procurement procedures for State and municipal government entities; this would be achieved primarily through a more efficient NYS OGS contract approval and updating procedure.
  8. Increased Grant Funding for GIS Initiatives. Many municipal governments still see GIS as a ‘nice to have’ and will not see the benefits until they have the opportunity and funding to implement.
  9. OGS contract. Renew SARA Grants
  10. More funding for Municipal GIS related projects
  11. More positive action at the State level. The state has done very little to encourage GIS growth at the local government level. In addition, their cooperative funding for GIS has been deficient.
  12. I think that there is a need to bridge the “flat” GIS in government arena with the surging GIS in business arena. I believe that there are a lot of untapped resources and un-met needs on both sides
  13. The New York State Help Desk is an outstanding help to small organizations and Local Government.
  14. Having worked in other states, I rank NY as one of the better states in terms of geospatial infrastructure and professional communities.
  15. When you try doing work in states outside of New York, you realize how lucky we are to have such helpful GIS people and resources like the NYS GIS Clearinghouse and the various County websites

 Smaller Firms (1-5 dedicated staff) Respondent Total = 12

  •  In general,  GIS/Geospatial is primary focus of business in this cohort
  • Half have been in business only 1-5 years
  • Over half of the respondents indicate that only one-third of their business is in New York State
  • Five of 12 respondents indicate they do no local or state government work
  • Overall, contract work with state and local government (including  nonprofits, schools, and academia) is not currently a major revenue generator
  • Of all the cohorts responding, smaller firms appear to engage in more federal work (albeit this is based only on 12 respondents)
  • Business has grown over the past five years

This group provided some of the most detailed comments and suggestions:

  1.  Increased marketing
  2. General awareness. I think that a lot of clients generally didn’t realize they needed a map right away. Making businesses and government agencies aware of what maps can do would be great.
  3. Better ROI documentation- connecting the cost of geospatial programs to the cost of doing business.
  4. GIS education at executive level. Dedicated funding sources. GIS generally gets “scrap” money.
  5. I think those in the GIS/Geo industry in NYS need to partner with strong programming/IT partners or build these capabilities on their own. There are plenty of clients that have the need for geospatial tools – direct mailing companies, beverage companies, and telecom. At the same time these clients are not interested in large proprietary installations of GIS software. They certainly are not interested in paying high licensing fees. If we could find a way to bring together those in the IT sector with the traditional GIS professionals and let them build partnerships I think GIS people would find themselves in a much better position to compete in this new world of GIS/IT. At a small scale in Buffalo, we present at events like Bar Camp Buffalo, Database Meetups (we talk about PostGIS), and Open Data Meetups. The people attending these events are inherently interested in geospatial technologies and are doing some pretty cool things even though their exposure to geospatial concepts is very superficial. We are starting to build partnerships with these people/firms. The common bond with these people is the ability to develop web applications using non-proprietary programming languages and frameworks. The niche we bring is geospatial.
  6. Additional funding for the NYS Archives Grants. State mandated parcel data structure similar to MassGIS Level III.

Firms with GIS/Geospatial as Primary Focus of Business Respondent Total = 25

  •  In general, business is spread out over all sectors including state and local government, industry and business, and federal work
  • Includes businesses with a wide range of staff sizes
  • Small number of WMBE firms
  • Over half of the 25 respondents in this category indicate only a one-third of their business is generated in New York State of which only one-third is associated with state and local government contracts.  (Said another way 1/3 of 1/3 = state and local government work).  One of the major findings of this survey
  • A majority of this category indicate at least one-third of their business is generated by business and industry
  • Over half indicate their business has grown over the past five years
  • Like other cohorts, this business sector indicates removal of GIS services from state contract has impacted business in a negative way as well as the overall economy
  • In context of professional affiliations, a majority of the respondents listed the NYS GIS Association
  • Few firms communicate their business concerns and needs with elected representatives

Comments from this group included a mixture of comments above as well as these unique statements:

  1. Procurement at any level of government in New York State is incredibly painful. The contracting process is very unfriendly to anyone but particularly to smaller vendors.
  2. It would be great to establish contracting vehicle(s) similar to the OGS vehicle – contracting can be quite challenging at the present time.
  3. NYS is poorly represented in MAPPS, arguably the largest and most influential professional organization representing private sector firms in the geospatial industry. I would be interested in pursuing a stronger relationship between the NYS Geospatial community and MAPPS.
  4. There are no statewide conferences or other forums that “work” for private companies. The NYS Geospatial Summit and NYS GIS Conference are centered on government. Recently private industry has not been able to present and there are limited networking opportunities for private industry. The organizers want private companies to pay significant sponsor fees (our company recently paid $2,000), but won’t let us speak – crazy. We are made to feel like we are the enemy. These constraints were loosened at the recent NYS GIS conference, but it’s still not a fully inclusive environment for private industry. There are similar problems in NYC. The primary technology event every year is the Technology Forum each fall. Private industry can not officially attend unless the company has a booth, which costs at least $10,000. This keeps all the small and medium-sized firms away, but let’s Accenture, IBM and the other “gorillas” participate.
  5. Wonderful, welcoming bunch of GIS professionals in NY (having lived/worked in other states). Majority love what we do, but GIS is not seen as essential. Under appreciated. Possibly our fault as an industry. We need spokespeople.

 Firms with 100% of Business in New York State Respondent Total = 7

  •  Only one recorded that GIS/Geospatial was primary focus of business
  • Business spread out over state and local government and to a lesser extent business and industry
  • None are a MWBE
  • Very noticeable that little comes from federal business contracting
  • Company size has remained level over past five years
  • Professional affiliations were a mixture including NYS Association of Professional Land Surveyors (NYAPLS)
  • Interesting, albeit this is a small cohort, over half of the respondents indicated they communicated business concerns and issues with elected representatives

Comments from this group included a mixture of comments above as well as following unique statements:

  1.  A more knowledgeable public of what GIS is and where it can be applied.
  2. More training for end users in municipal roles
  3. Increased grant funding for Local Governments, not related to shared services
  4. Adoption of GIS delivery of any land/utility/transportation related public information by all local municipalities and state government
  5. The New York State Help Desk is an outstanding help to small organizations and Local Government.
  6. When you try doing work in states outside of New York, you realize how lucky we are to have such helpful GIS people and resources like the NYS GIS Clearinghouse.
  7. ALL counties in the State should be required to provide land parcel level vector files to the public for the cost of reproduction and delivery. The situation in Suffolk County is ridiculous!

 MWBE Firms Respondent Total = 7

  • Five of seven firms indicate GIS/Geospatial was primary focus of business
  • A majority indicate that at least one-third of their annual business is in NYS
  • Five of seven are not involved in any state and local government (including  nonprofits, schools, and academia)
  • Six of seven do not do any federal work
  • Four of seven indicate all work is with business and industry
  • Six of seven have seen their staff increase or significantly increase in the last five years
  • Similar to other cohorts, most state the greatest potential growth is in mobile and smartphones markets including social media
  • There is a mixture of  professional affiliations
  • Not one communicate their business concerns and needs with elected representatives

Summary and Conclusions

The New York State GIS/Geospatial Business Survey is not intended to be an end-all towards assessing and summarizing the geospatial business climate across the Empire State.   Results from a simple 15-question multiple choice/fill-in-the blank survey, completed by 52 statewide respondents, is hardly a mandate or implied to be definitive.  If anything it is meant to start the discussion and look deeper into how business and industry can better serve and support the statewide GIS community.

With that in mind, here is what I believe are ten relevant takeaways from the survey and the basis for further discussion:

  1. Based on data collected as part of this survey, consultant business activity in state and local government (including  nonprofits, schools, and academia) is abysmal.  While business outlook for many of the respondents can be generally considered optimistic, it is definitely is not because of government spending and procurement.  With the anticipated need for more industry and business support in government geospatial programs in the future – state and local government spending should be the opposite of this trend.
  2. Looking for a solution to change and this trend will take time and thoughtful review.  Bringing the GIS/Geospatial business community together, along with selected elected officials and representatives for a focused meeting on this issue may be a start.    With so many respondents involved with the NYS GIS Association, it seems like this would be a good place to elevate the issue to a broader audience.
  3. GIS/Geospatial firms appear to becoming smaller and with government contracting being less of priority and more of a focus on industry and business contracting.  At the foundation of this is the burgeoning grassroots startup companies focusing on the mobile/smartphone market of which all respondents state will be a priority business development environment in the next 2-4 years.    Business and industry will follow the money trail – little of which is coming out of the New York public sector right now.  Smaller firms have pros and cons, but at the end of the day, efforts to promote and use their services are important. Several smaller firms are a MWBE.
  4. Removal of GIS services via state OGS contract was echoed and viewed by many respondents as detrimental to business.  Though this is not a new issue and has been discussed in the Albany circles prior, at least these results solidify the concern among the consulting community.  This needs to change.
  5. While there is a reoccurring theme in government about the need to educate elected officials and decision makers about the benefits of GIS – industry and business respondents feel the same way.  As if we need to start anew every election cycle.  One small change is offered by the author:  The awareness and benefits of geospatial also need to be conveyed to the business community as well.  On a reoccurring basis. Systematically.
  6. A lack of “GIS education and awareness” was voiced broadly as a concern from the survey respondents.   We tend to often talk about this within government with regard to educating politicians, decision makers and even the general public about the benefits of GIS.  Interestingly the business community sees this same issue raising the question, if not the possibility, that such outreach efforts could be more fruitful if done together  (government and business).  Perhaps.
  7. With the intent of not sounding like an academic, I submit that more research and analysis is needed on the statewide GIS/Geospatial business community.  While results of this survey may only begin to understanding the evolving nature of the more recognized traditional GIS consulting market, better alignment and understanding of larger statewide firms such as IBM, Verizon, Cablevision, among others, in the GIS space also is warranted. To say the least of the escalating “start-up” technologies entering the GIS/geospatial space.  The big business companies rarely interact with the traditional GIS community and the impact of the smaller “start-up” community is relatively unknown.   Umbrellas organizations such as the New York Business Council also need further nurturing.
  8. The need for additional funding for GIS/Geospatial development was noted by several respondents.  Data from the survey suggests the GIS consultant community is looking more and more to business and industry for contracts and revenue due to the dearth of government grants and annual tax-payer spending in the GIS arena.  Options to establish traditional grant funding programs to support the statewide geospatial community currently appear to be suspect though recent programs like the New York Certified Business Incubator and Innovation Hot Spot Program through the Empire State Development Office illustrate how the geospatial business community could be expanded in a similar fashion.  With a little thought out choreography, one would have to assume there would be a positive “bump” in expanded statewide geospatial business activity associated with the Unmanned Aerial Systems (drones) research work at the Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y.   At press time, suitors to champion this cause are still TBD.
  9. The role of MWBE firms in the statewide GIS/Geospatial business arena is limited.   The survey only recorded seven MWBEs with very little federal, state and local government work associated with this group.   Most of the focus appears now to be with business and industry though closer analysis of individual responses in this cohort indicates this may be due to the work of the newer, smaller, start-up MWBE tech companies.  With most government contracts requiring at least some level effort to reference or include MWEB firms, this is one group that should have an expanded presence in the statewide GIS/Geospatial projects.  If procurement does not improve within the public sector, expect a continue migration of their work to the greener pastures of business and industry.
  10. And finally, there remains a significant lack of interaction, communication, and defined communication between the GIS/Geospatial business community and NYS elected officials and representatives.   This generally supports previous blog posts I have made noting that until the statewide GIS community (both government and industry) evolve and find a way to sharpen their tools to effectively work – and influence – representatives in Albany, our discipline will continue to chase funding bread crumbs.  Sustained funding for a recognized and acknowledged statewide professional – the GIS/Geospatial industry – is still to be realized.


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