Part 1: ArcGIS Online & Food for Thought

To kick off a two-post AGOL series (really it's just to avoid packing, let's be real), I'm going to talk about the consumers using GIS and suggest ways they can approach "the cloud". For those of you who haven't heard about ArcGIS Online or have heard of it and just don't understand what it is, let's go into a little background. AGOL is one of the newest intros to the ArcGIS platform. Rather than relying on paper maps you've produced in ArcMap, AGOL allows you to host that data in the cloud and share it with whomever you wish - your group, your organization, even your mom. You maintain all the rights to the data and maps hosted there.

As an added bonus (which is really the coolest thing about AGOL) is that it allows you to utilize different apps - like ArcGIS Collector for mobile updates, Operations Dashboard for simultaneously viewing maps and analyzing the data, and Story Map templates for displaying your data with a narrative. 

Okay, I give in. Here's one picture. That's all you're getting!The only challenge to AGOL is that many businesses, organizations, and individuals just don't realize what this type of approach could do for them. In Part 2, I'll give you more info on how it could be used for utilities, especially those smaller companies. (I know you're excited, it's okay, calm down!) For this post, however, I'm going to start with something more general...

Questions to ponder when considering the move to ArcGIS Online.

What is my current workflow? How can this alleviate any issues (or even cause problems)?

With all of the applications that can be used in conjunction with AGOL, the possibilities for who can update maps or even collect data are multiplied exponentially. I won't elaborate here - I'll save that for Part 2.Admitting something is wrong is the first step to recovery. One significant way to do this is to really pay attention to what you're currently doing. For example, do you have a crew going out into the field who records data on paper that they hand into the GIS technician to update in ArcGIS who then sends the maps to customer service and maybe even to the higher ups? It all sounds well and good distributing the work flow this way, but how many sources of error have you introduced by allowing the manipulation of the data to pass so many hands (not even considering all the time it takes to go from point A to point B in the first place)? What are some processes you could eliminate by utilizing mobile apps that update on the fly or hosting your maps online so the updates can be shared automatically? 

Also, I'm a huge supporter of pro's and con's lists. They're really useful in any situation - everything from whether to buy that house, take that new job, or eat that last slice of cake. Really, they put things in perspective (except for the cake, that's a win-win situation all around). Making a list, even if it's just mentally, of the ways a service like ArcGIS Online could help your organization and workflow as well as any negatives you may perceive about it could help you take the plunge. As for the negatives that come of it, they may not truly be deal-breakers. For example, the cost of an AGOL Organizational account may not be ideal, but how will using it help you save money to make up for the fee?

How can utilizing the cloud increase the number of employees who can participate in this workflow? Be honest - Who is really going to be using this?

When you roll out any new system, you need to stop and consider who will be using it. It's easy to say your GIS Analyst, your rare gem of an employee who has extensive knowledge in ArcGIS Desktop, will do all the work. But, suppose you have more people on your team you want to introduce to the platform. They may be the ones who will be doing most of the field work, whose time and attention could really benefit from implementing GIS into their workflow. These are the individuals, not the GIS Analyst, I'm referring to - he or she already got their degree, I'm not worried about them (kidding...but really). These employees typically have no experience in Desktop and wouldn't be able to use it in the field regardless. You should consider how much time and dollar bills you're willing to put into this endeavor - train them in a software they don't necessarily need in addition to having them do their regular tasks OR implement a system that allows them to utilize equipment they're already familiar with, like mobile devices? This allows for less training, less confusion, and automatic updates - it can even be used for other departments in the organization as well.

How can the cloud help my communication skills? Between departments as well as external organizations?

Unfortunately it won't magically teach you how to be a World Class Communicator. However, a bonus of AGOL is that it allows you to create different groups that you can choose to share your information with, each abiding by their own rules. They are only allowed to see the maps you share with them and can only contribute to particular groups if permitted. The same goes for groups created for external organizations. Although these aren't the only things you should think about when implementing this new platform, I just thought I'd serve them up as food for thought. Although I originally came up with these issues when considering snazzing up the workflow of an organization I used to work for, it might not hurt to keep these in mind across the board.