OSGeo Events, FOSS4G 2008

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Peter Reinecke

Building: Cape Town International Convention Centre
Room: Golden Gate Room (Room 2.4a)
Date: 2008-10-01 01:30 PM – 03:00 PM
Last modified: 2008-09-09



Despite the immense potential of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) for executive level decision making, planning and many other diverse applications, these systems are largely underutilised. This paper outlines some of the reasons for this and identifies the critical success factors for implementing a GIS in a government institution of a developing country. The paper explains how success depends on strong linkages to political drivers and objectives, GIS data availability and a number of social, institutional and technical factors.

GIS and Developing Country Constraints

Issues common to developing countries which complicate the implementation of a GIS include the lack of good quality spatial data and a shortage of highly skilled people. Ongoing investments in data collection and the academic sector of developing countries are therefore necessary.

GIS Crosses Organisational Boundaries

The institutional, organisational and social components of a GIS are undoubtedly the most critical, complex and least controllable potential success factors in any GIS implementation. One must acknowledge that social factors are more critical to the success of a GIS initiative than technical factors are.

GIS is a technology which crosses functional boundaries not only within (intra) but also between (inter) organisations. It is important that this inter-organisational nature of GIS is understood. It is widely agreed that the benefits of GIS come from both intra- and inter-organisational sharing of spatially referenced data. This usually radically reshapes relations between organisations. In order for a GIS initiative to succeed therefore, inter-organisational networks must be formed to facilitate data sharing and GIS mediated change.

Information Systems Best Practice

A GIS initiative must be implemented using information system development best practices. User requirements should be elicited, documented and managed, executive management support obtained and project champions identified. Spatial decision support software for decision makers is also recommended to ensure that the complexity and sophistication associated with GIS does not impede their use of the technology.

Project Management Principles

GIS should also be implemented using project management best practices. Specific project deliverables must be defined in advance and linked to fixed timeframes and budgets. Because GIS is characterised by high startup costs and long payback periods, short term success or pilot projects can be instrumental in obtaining the long term buy in of stakeholders.

The Open Source Debate

When considering the option of open source GIS in South Africa, a number of factors must be considered. Advantages of using open source software include the potential to create a local software industry, reduced reliance on external software giants (monopoly), reduced cost of ownership, user based software provided user base is large enough and collaborative parallel development involving source code sharing has potential to increase efficiency and reduce development time, reduced software bugs due to fact that many users are also developers and can find and fix bugs.

Disadvantages include potentially compromised security due to fact that the source code is public, lack of formal support, a lack of a clear development path, software is provided without any guarantees, a lack of documentation in some instances and a difficulty to integrate with proprietary software.


The sustainability and success of GIS in this country depends on a better understanding of the issues outlined above. It is the authors belief that not enough time is spent discussing the "bigger picture" issues outlined in this paper, a better understanding of which will greatly increase the probability of any given GIS initiative being a success.