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.
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NextGen NYS Geospatial: Expanding the Profession

Based on the support of many long standing contributors, vendors, and returning individuals, the NYGeoCon 2013 meeting in Saratoga Springs, November 12-13, was considered a success.  Looking forward to future conferences and similar outreach efforts within the state, many could argue there is much optimism within the professional geospatial community – particularly with the NYS GIS Association at the helm – for continued growth and presence of the GIS profession across the Empire State.   However, unless new members are recruited from professions which are currently not part of the “staple” of the Association membership (government/public agencies, software companies, photogrammetry, academia, and civil engineering disciplines), such optimism may be tempered based a combination of recent industry and business reports, metrics, and employment trends.   Consider the following:

Government Job Growth Weakest:  A December 2013 Governing Magazine article notes that while private employment may finally be ready to accelerate, “state and local government job growth continues to be among the weakest of any industry”.  Translation:   Much of the future geospatial development – most likely at all levels of government in the Empire State – will increasingly be vendor/contractor based. While it is anticipated that existing government GIS programs in the Empire State will find a means to continue on some level, current government budgets and tax cap spending limits, suggest that new or expanding government geospatial programs will occur at a decreasing rate.    And few in government administrative or management level GIS positions across the state would probably be unable to argue otherwise. 

Minimal Technology Sector Growth:    A recent Praxis Strategy Group market report entitled “The Surprising Cities Creating the Most Tech Jobs” offers current statistics on employment trends in industries normally associated with technology, such as software, engineering and computer programming services. The article also presents numbers of workers in other industries which are classified as being in STEM occupations (science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related jobs).   Though the study considers only MetroNYC – and not the entire state – the findings are still somewhat troubling as the NYC ranked 36th on the national scale – only slightly ahead of metro Buffalo (43rd) and Rochester (45th).  Since 2001, New York City’s tech industry growth has been a paltry 6% while the number of STEM related jobs has fallen 4%.  The chances of New York City – or others parts of the state for that matter – of becoming a major tech center are handicapped not only by high costs and taxes, but a distinct lack of engineering talent. On a per capita basis, the New York area ranks 78th out of the nation’s 85 largest metro areas, with a miniscule 6.1 engineers per 1,000 workers, one seventh the concentration in California’s Silicon Valley. (Buffalo and Rochester statistics in this regard may be better though were not available as part of the article).

Shared Services Still Struggles:  For a technology which presents incredible opportunities for public organizations to share computing infrastructure, replicate (or share) identical mapping applications, cost-share on similar geospatial data development projects, or jointly exploit new Cloud-based programs – Information Technology (IT) shared services – and by extension GIS – have yet to be broadly implemented across the Empire State.  An August 2013 report prepared by the Cornell University found that while Shared Services programs in areas such as transportation, public safety, and recreation/social services continue to show promise, only eight-percent (8%) of the nearly 946 New York State government agencies surveyed in the study were engaged in Shared Services IT projects.

Growth Outside the GIS Mainstream:  An illustrative series of 2013 global market study reports by TechNavio forecasts steady GIS growth in disciplines which currently do not have a significant presence in many statewide conferences and programs or the NYS GIS Association.  Largely outside of government, and certainly not normally considered “tech jobs”,  these key industries  include banking and financial services, real estate, retail,  telecommunications, and utilities – all of which have significant corporate presence in the Empire State.  Many of these same industries were also identified as “GIS growth sectors” – including banking, insurance, law enforcement, business, healthcare, and finance – as part of a Geospatial Job Market panel discussion at the 2012 Association of American Geographers annual meeting.

Long term sustainability of the GIS profession in the Empire State requires the continued expansion and recruitment of industries which to date, have not had a strong visible presence in statewide GIS programs and activities.    Such opportunities exist by engaging these disciplines –  health care, retail, real estate, insurance and banking, and telecommunications, to name a few –  in local and regional GIS events,  NYS GIS Association professional development programs, or conversely, by attending and participating in industry trade shows and annual conferences held here in New York State (i.e., National Retail Federation,  NYC Real Estate Expo,  Annual NYS Commercial Real Estate Conference, NYS Association of Health Care Providers, and NY Bankers Association as well as many others).

Long term growth and influence of the NYS Geospatial profession should be considered extremely promising though will need to be based on a broader mix of disciplines and practitioners.