10 Questions: Dale Morris

Dale Morris is one of New York State’s most recognized and senior GIS statesmen.  With a distinguished civil service career spanning 38 years, he has contributed significantly to the NYS GIS community in many capacities to say the least of directing one of the most established GIS programs in the state at Erie County – and its far reaching influence in western New York.  Ten questions seemed like a slight to an individual with such a body of professional work, so the eSpatiallyNewYork editorial team gave him permission to push it to 15 questions. Or something like that.  Enjoy.

eSpatiallynewyork:  How long have you been with Erie County?

Morris:  I’ve been in the Department of Environment and Planning since 1981. Prior to this I worked as a Planner for the Town of Amherst, NY and before that the Erie and Niagara Counties Regional Planning Board. I graduated from Cornell University with a Master’s Degree in Regional Planning in 1977.

eSpatiallynewyork:  When did you start doing GIS work?

Morris:   Working initially as a Planner for Erie County presented  many opportunities for making and using maps. In the 1980s we were still using Mylar, zipatone, and Leroy Lettering Sets for making maps, which is tedious, time consuming, and not easy to change. I began to investigate the world of digital mapping, which was still in its beginnings as a desktop product. I started with the DOS version of MapInfo. I recall how amazed we all were that we could do something as simple as draw the County and municipal boundaries on-screen. Looking back on it now it all seems so rudimentary!  Regardless of how basic it was, my Division became known for our ability to make computer drawn maps. At that time there wasn’t much concern about the database behind the maps- it was enough to be able to draw and edit maps digitally rather than by hand.

As desktop mapping grew in popularity through the 1990s a number of County departments began independently looking into it. This usually resulted in them calling me to ask for advice or data. Of course, this also meant that everyone was using different systems, and at that time it made exchanging data between systems very difficult or impossible. It was a classic case of disjointed silos of data and applications.

A change in County administration in the late 1990s brought new management in our department, and I was challenged to prepare a white paper for moving the County further forward into the digital mapping world. I proposed creating a new County Division that would be empowered to centralize decisions relating to geospatial technology (by then we could use terms like “geospatial” without getting blank stares!). The Office of Geographic Information Services (OGIS) was born in 2001, and I have been the Director since then. So for me personally, my career started with both feet in the urban planning field, then a gradual shift to one foot in planning and one in digital mapping, and then finally both feet in GIS. I do very little “typical” planning anymore, even though OGIS is part of the Planning Division.

While OGIS is an Office within the Department of Environment and Planning, only a portion of our work is related to this department. We work very closely with our IT shop to maintain and operate the County’s GIS technology infrastructure, and with other departments and outside agencies who either use our enterprise GIS technology or who need direct assistance with their mapping needs.

eSpatiallynewyork:  What’s the relationship between your office and Niagara County?

Morris:  We have a formal Intermunicipal Agreement (IMA) with Niagara County for GIS Services. The agreement is for a five year period and we are well into the second of these five-year agreements. Erie County hosts Niagara County’s geospatial data and provides on-line mapping services to Niagara County. The two counties are connected by a high-speed microwave link, which operates very well. In essence, Niagara County is simply like any other Erie County department that taps into the Erie County enterprise GIS network. In addition to providing Niagara County this service for a fee, the IMA provides a framework for backup of GIS data between the two counties, and as well defines a GIS “mutual aid” protocol for sharing of GIS resources and staff in the event of an emergency.

eSpatiallynewyork:  What GIS software products do you now use/promote?

Morris: Both web and desktop. We are an ESRI shop for almost all of our desktop and enterprise applications (ArcMap/ ArcGIS Server Enterprise). We are using ArcGIS Online more frequently but still are not making very effective use of it as one of the tools in our GIS toolbox. In addition we employ Geocortex Essentials to help us manage our ArcGIS Enterprise applications. Geocortex makes it easier for our staff to deploy and maintain on-line mapping services without the need for complex programming.

eSpatiallynewyork: What agencies/organizations do you work with most closely?

Morris:  In-house, one of our most valuable relationships is with the County’s Tax Mapping office. They do all the maintenance of the County’s 350,000+ parcels in ArcMap, and we use their data daily. We are also closely tied to the State’s GIS operations, such as the NYS GIS Clearinghouse. The NYS Street Centerline file is an invaluable asset, as is the State’s Orthoimagery program. We will work with any agency that can provide us with critical data, such as DEC, DOT, FEMA, etc. We also use Pictometry for oblique imagery, which is extremely valuable for public works and law enforcement purposes.

eSpatiallynewyork: Anybody talking Open Source or Open Data in Erie/Niagara County?

Morris:  There is occasional talk about Open Source but it hasn’t gained much traction yet.

eSpatiallynewyork: Making maps anymore or is everything online now?

Morris: In spite of living is the highly digital world of geospatial technology, hardcopy maps continue to be in demand. Because of that, we operate with both formats. For example, our online mapping system (“Erie County On-Map”) is popular with area realtors, utilities, attorneys, and other businesses (lawn care in particular) but many County departments seem to like working with paper maps. When the GIS Office is deployed to our Emergency Operations Center (EOC) – generally for major snowstorm events – paper maps are the choice of most of the responders. That’s understandable- it’s a format they have used in the past and are most comfortable with. In the chaotic environment of the EOC, the customer gets what they want and can use most effectively.

eSpatiallynewyork: From your perspective and experience in Erie/Niagara County, do you think decision makers and elected officials value GIS technology as a necessity or a “nice to have”?

Morris:  We are told frequently, and I think it is sincere, how valuable our GIS operation is to the County’s overall operations, yet budget time doesn’t always reflect that. You decide what that means.

eSpatiallynewyork: Assuming money and administrative support were in place, what are a couple cost effective (and needed) geospatial applications which you feel Erie County could develop and make available for the two county area?

Morris:  My laundry list of needs is longer than you’d care to read. Right now, mobile apps are really needed- examples by department  include an app for Public Works for road condition updates (especially during storms), in Health for inspections, in Parks for the public to locate and hike on trails, and in Emergency Services for helping to manage the County’s response during various crisis scenarios caused by natural or man-made events.

eSpatiallynewyork: So what’s next?  What are you working on now?

Morris:  There are a couple of large projects in the works that involve GIS. Integration of GIS into the County’s SAP program is an enormous undertaking that we are beginning to chip away at. It will take a long time to fully integrate these two enterprise systems. I’m also in the early stages of looking into an ELA with ESRI. It would greatly simplify the administration of our ESRI accounts and provide access to more tools for our GIS staff. We have several other areas, such as Parks, Sewers, and Public Works, where mobile applications are coming into demand, so we are working on how to best meet those needs. It’s challenging keeping up with the demand as well as with the rapidly evolving technology that can be used to address those demands. I struggle with GIS technology that changes so rapidly that as soon as you determine what course to take, you quickly need to take a detour in another direction. It can be frustrating.

eSpatiallynewyork: If you weren’t working in the geospatial field, what would you be doing?

Morris:  I’ve always wanted to be an architect or in a design related field. My interest in architecture was intensified when my daughter went through RPI’s architecture program. I’m now working with an architect on a major renovation project on my own house, and I think I’m driving him crazy. I’m sure he wishes I had never heard of SketchUp.

eSpatiallynewyork: Your whole career has been in civil service.  An honorable achievement.  Anybody in particular who shaped and influenced your career?

Morris: That person you want to say “thank you” to? I’ve been blessed to have administrators who have trusted me to build a GIS program- even when they didn’t understand the technology. I actually had a former supervisor tell me “I don’t know how you do what you do, but just keep on doing it”! I was fortunate to have been able to ride the wave of the emergence of GIS into government from an early point. The benefits of this technology were fairly easy to understand, even if the technology itself wasn’t (I’m still having nightmares about workstation ArcInfo on our Sun SPARCstations!).

 eSpatiallynewyork: Active in local GIS user groups?  NY GIS Association?  Made any recent presentations?

Morris:  I’ve been active at both the local and state levels. I really believe that we have a responsibility to support our profession in this manner. At several points I’ve been involved with running the WNY GIS Users Group, although I’m just a member at the current time. I’ve participated in numerous state-level activities, from being on the NYS GIS Association Board of Directors, the NYS GIS Coordinating Body, and various state committees such as the Professional Development Committee, the Regional Coordination committee, and the Awards Committee. I’m proud of the fact that I have served on the committee for the NYS GeoSpatial Summit for all nine of these events- however the upcoming Summit in October of 2016 will likely be my last. What a fantastic group of people they have been to work with- truly committed to this profession.

eSpatiallynewyork: Hobbies?

Morris:  I’m an avid (aka- addicted) runner, and just ran my first Boston Marathon. It was a very tough run but I am grateful to have finished. What an amazing experience to be able to participate in a truly world-class event! I also like cycling, and participating in duathlons (cycling+running). Love to travel, and lately have enjoyed doing “running destination” vacations with my family. I have two grown daughters who also have the running bug and we enjoy travelling to participate together in an event. We are now looking into doing a half-marathon next year in a National Park out west (earlier in 2016 we did a half-marathon together in Wilmington NC). I’m an aspiring furniture maker when I have the time, which is rare because I’m usually training for a running event. I’m also in the midst of a major rehabilitation job on a house we just bought in the Village of East Aurora. It’s a crazy big job that will occupy me well into my retirement years.

eSpatiallynewyork: Anything else?

Morris:  Thirty-eight years of public service is a long run. It doesn’t happen without a lot of hard work, good fortune and good health, great supervisors, wonderful colleagues, and a love for what I do. I don’t get up every morning and go to a job- I get up and go to my vocation.


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