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Selecting and Evaluating a GIS Consultant
Characteristics of Good Consultants
In general, good consultants share the following characteristics:
- Ask lots of questions about the work of the government, the government's problems, and the project goals.
- Listen as much as they talk. Take notes.
- Want to talk to the people who will use the solution they propose.
- Can provide a ballpark cost and timetable for the project and explain how to figure out the long-term return on investment (the payback period for the government).
- Are up front about "extras" and additional costs.
- Present more than one option and the pros and cons of each.
- Can determine of the government's goal is realistic and offer ideas to improve results.
- Are willing to answer questions about the project and previous work experience and clients.
- Are willing to make a quantifiable guarantee about the results of their proposal.
Qualifications and Staffing
A GIS consultant should have significant training and hands-on experience using GIS software, not just experience in engineering or mapping. A consultant who is familiar with a variety of software packages will be better able to recommend products that will meet the unique needs of the local government than will a consultant who works with only one product. Ask the consultant questions about GIS even if you don't fully understand the answers. A good consultant should be responsive to your questions and able to explain things in non-technical terms. The consultant should note the importance of explaining GIS technology (i.e., giving and educational seminar/demonstration, etc.) to everyone who will be involved with a project. The consultant should also be able to explain the technology to audiences of varying technical expertise and varying interests. Consider the following questions:
- What is the consultant's educational background and work experience?
- What is the extent of the consultant's database management background? What type of databases does the consultant have experience with? A consultant should have a solid foundation in information systems, not just a geography or cartography (mapping) background.
- Can the consultant explain the difference between the functions (mapping and analytical) offered by different software packages, and match the appropriate software package to the client's needs? The consultant should be able to evaluate the client's data requirements and describe the differences between packages' ability to create, import, and edit data.
- Can the consultant explain the difference between GIS and CAD (computer-aided design)? CAD is an automated design tool. It lacks much of the "intelligence" of a GIS and cannot perform analysis of information.
- How many GIS staff members does the company employ or have access to?
- Are there GIS programmers and computer systems analysts on staff? If a company doesn't have GIS programmers and systems analysts that are knowledgeable about how the data can be used, it will be difficult for the consultant to suggest applications that will be useful to clients or to integrate GIS into existing information systems.
- What work does the company subcontract out? If an engineering firm, for example, does all work in-house, be cautious. Companies should know when to subcontract work in which they lack expertise.
- Can the consultant provide information on sources, quality and approximate costs of GIS data that would be of interest to the client? Consultants should be able to evaluate a client's needs and make recommendations for digital data which may already exist (particularly of appropriate uses of the data with regard to accuracy and scale), or indicate what data may have to be created.
Previous GIS experience is critical to the success of a project. There are numerous mapping and architecture and engineering firms attempting to break into the rapidly expanding GIS market. Many of these organizations have little or no experience with GIS. Avoid becoming a consultant's GIS training ground. Hire someone who has documented experience conducting projects similar to yours. The best way to determine whether a consultant has relevant experience is by talking to previous clients. Ask for a list of local governments for which the consultant has done work, specifically for the name of the GIS lead person and the information management person at the government. If possible, make a visit and discuss the government's experience with the consultant and their satisfaction with the products and services the consultant provided. Ask:
- How many GIS user needs assessments has the consultant done? Ask to see copies of previous work.
- How many implementation plans has the consultant done for local governments? Ask to see copies of plans developed for previous clients.
- How many GIS database designs has the consultant done? Ask for client names and descriptions of projects.
- What data conversion projects has the company been involved in? For whom? What did the project involve?
- Does the organization own GIS software? What packages?
- How long has the organization used the software it owns?
- How many GIS applications has the consultant written? What kinds and for whom?
- Is the consultant familiar with developing metadata? How does the consultant document his or her work?
For Further Information
If you wish to discuss hiring a consultant to provide a GIS needs assessment and feasibility study, implementation plan, or to develop and install a GIS for your government, contact the State Archives via telephone at (518) 474-6926 or via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.