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Challenging current information management: a case study

Scott Irvine

Qld Department of Natural Resources and Mines, PO Box 19, Emerald, Qld 4720

Abstract

The Department of Natural Resources and Mines (NRM) is a state government agency responsible for the management of land, water and vegetation within Queensland. The NRM Emerald district employs 40 people and covers the shires of Bauhinia, Belyando, Emerald, Jericho and Peak Downs. The Emerald office is a mix of administration, natural resource management and regulatory staff. The natural resource management area is equally as diverse covering individual aspects of resource management and extension activities.

The Emerald office operates two servers based on geographical information system (GIS) and normal office requirements respectability. There are two GIS software in use, Arcview and Mapinfo. The office environment operates on Windows NT with individual computers operating on a number of operating systems including Unix.

To provide services in all areas of natural resource management adequate information management must exist. The Emerald office embarked on a project to meet its immediate information management needs. The initial focus started with managing GIS requirements. However, it was quickly discovered by all participating staff that regardless of the data, software or hardware, adequate information management lies with staff as a whole and not dedicated information technology specialists.

The achievements to date are an improved data structure designed by all staff and significant savings in data storage. However, the individual gains cannot be measured and these include the time saving in locating data and ease of interpretation to allow more effective decision-making. More importantly staff are more aware and are actively encouraged to achieve efficient information management.

Introduction

In July 1998, a small group of staff based in the Emerald office formed a local group based on managing GIS. The aims of this group later expanded to other areas of data management. The group agreed to the following aims:

  • Address poor data and information management at a district level with a view to “getting our own patch right”;
  • Improve accessibility, effectiveness and efficiency of use of relevant district data;
  • Promote a culture of good data management at a District level;
  • Promote training and the use in software; and
  • Establish a protocol for Emerald staff (current and future) in term of: capture of metadata; and processes that transfer or ensure completed District data is available at a district, regional and state level.

This group has since expanded and is now known as the Emerald Digital Data Committee (EDDC). The EDDC is not intending to circumvent activities at a regional or state level. Rather, it intends to compliment them and advance data capture and management in all areas of data management.

It was recognise early in the group’s formation that data (including non-GIS) was already captured but could not be found and staff did not realise the full potential of information management due to inaccessible data. One of first tasks was to purchase appropriate hardware and software to further improve workability. A business plan was also written in conjunction with all interested staff. This allowed the individual group members to define their roles and provide a bigger picture view of data management.

The approaches undertaken by the EDDC to manage information is now being seen as a model for other similar offices. For the first time information management is being seen at the individual instead of relying on dedicated persons with information technology backgrounds.

The situation before change (the dark ages)

NRM staff have relatively freedom of access to its computer networks, allowing most users to generate information. Unfortunately this freedom has resulted in poorly organised data structures across the department. This is causing individuals to spend more time searching for information. As an example, the majority of Emerald GIS data sets were located on a common server in conjunction with all other data. The GIS data instead was located under a workgroup directory (see Figure 1). Unless someone had been in the office for some time or managed to talk to the people associated with the workgroup, the majority of the data was unknown.

Figure 1. Location of the GIS area under the pre 1999 directory structure, as one can see there is no logical sequence effectively rendering the data useless to everybody.

Compounding the poor structure was the duplication of data. As an example there were 15 copies the digital cadastral database of the Emerald shire on the server. This was obviously caused by users copying the information and placing it somewhere else that was easier to find. This had the potential of creating errors in base information with duplication and possible re-writing by staff going unchecked.

Outside GIS, other data was in a similar condition, particularly unpublished articles and other non-digital information. This was a great risk of information being lost due to prospect of staff movements. Despite this, information was still being produced with the server was in-effect close to being 100% full in late 1998. The problem of badly managed information was becoming apparent to all staff but little action was taking place.

The Impetus (the Renaissance)

Change was initiated by a small group of people with some computing background. However, instead of enforcing change, it was seen by the group for everybody to work together. The common focus was that everybody knew, where and how to best manage the information. It was realised that efficiencies would be gained without great expense. People are the most important and yet neglected aspect of information management (see figure 2).

Figure 2. The information management puzzle, software, hardware, data, money and people being central to the whole scheme.

The initial series of staff meetings discussed options for data management, with a common data structure understood by all staff being the central focus. The guiding principals were established by the group and are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. The Guiding Principals of the Emerald Digital Data Committee.

Guideline 1

Data and information will be professionally managed. All individuals will assume responsibility, be accountable and work to the greater good of the District by regularly reviewing data capture, and taking steps to contribute to its better management.

Guideline 2

NRM officers will make use of information in a professional manner in terms of quality (data integrity, data accuracy standards, metadata completion), respect copyright and the NRM charging policy.

Guideline 3

Security and access to data will be maintained in a manner that is responsible (protects client privacy rights, ensures effective NRM decision making), appropriate and maintains rights of use.

Guideline 4

Timely and effective data capture and information sharing will occur. Individuals must allow sufficient time to be allocated to these activities. Managers and supervisors should negotiate and ensure individuals allocate time regularly to complete such tasks, and not simply allow individuals to wait till the end of projects.

Due to size and ability of GIS to improve information transfer, the group decided that a dedicated GIS server should be in place. Group members contributed unspent funds and with managerial support, the server was in place by December 1999. At this time the first directory structure was in place designed by all staff guided by the EDDC.

Given the complex nature of the data within NRM, each directory was in effect an individual resource area. Within each directory, a clear and concise breakdown to the individual data source is found. Each area is unique to its topic. Soils were divided on scale of coverage and cadastral being based on shires. The data structure is in constant review, with dedicated meetings every 6 months.

Data security is guarantee by having the base GIS information being in a read-only format. Write access can only be made in the individual’s working directory (see figure 3). Two people have the role of data custodians and have full write access.

Figure 3. The initial data structure as decided by the group, being based on board resource areas. Note the access permissions designed to protect the data.

The business plan detailed the roles of the EDDC and information about the server and other associated hardware/software items. The most important feature of the plan is that any new data be to place on the GIS server needs to be approved by the EDDC for a continual role to maintain data integrity; checks are needed for appropriate projections and meta-data. This is important leap from the traditional role of centrally located data custodians into the hands of users. To ensure continually, the business plan contains a rolling agenda. At each meeting (usually monthly) the agenda items are discussed. Additions and sometimes removal of items are done at the meeting.

The Empowerment (the Industrial Revolution)

Since the formation of the EDDC, staff are now making the information technology decisions for the Emerald NRM office. The committee recognised the need for an information technology/ GIS technician be to appointed to the office. Office management accepted the need and ensured the position would work within the EDDC. The person appointed has the knowledge and access to the departmental network support to further improve the computer and data management.

The continued education of staff in information management has produced a data culture. Today most staff employed in the Emerald office use GIS in their day-to-day work. This is compared to the 10% of staff in mid 1998 who used GIS. The data culture now encompasses all computer information with steps in place to capture historical data sources and web development.

The office data culture is best demonstrated by the yearly one-day workshop, where all staff have the opportunity to clean out the main server and to create an updated directory. The first workshop achieved a 4 Gigabyte saving on the main server. Previously there were concerns that the server needed upgrading, since it was close to full capacity (16 Gigabyte). The second workshop has reduced the data requirements down a further 2 Gigabytes. As a result, old and useless data was removed or copied to compact discs, a new updated directory structure was in place and email management improved.

The workshops operate by presenting the current server structure and showing all participates obvious examples of poor data management and at times identifying the guilty person or party. The environment is such, that the identified person is not challenged, but made aware of the problem. Participates then move on to their work units and begin to clean or improve information management related to their needs. It is important to realise that all staff regardless of their role or contribution to information had a role to play in these achievements and cross linkages are being realised across work units.

Recently, selected staff from NRM offices in Rockhampton, Mackay, Emerald and Longreach formed a regional information management team. The team endorsed the mechanisms applied in the Emerald office to improve information management. The overall regional structure with staff driven teams in individual offices with the regional team having a coordination role has been liken to a jellyfish, due to the vertical linkages to a body mass and its transparency.

The Future (the age of reason)

The EDDC is now planning to develop a web interface to allow easier access to information. Web pages allow a 3 dimensional data structure and may improve information transfer in natural resource sciences. The other activity is information capture and meta-data creation. These long-term activities will ensure information is not lost and attempts to organise information for outsourcing. Recent software advances has allowed traditional mind mapping capture far easier. It is hope that all staff will use new software to design the web interface. The web may eventually replace the file structure into an organic form that captures the multiple ways that people organise data. However, regardless of the approach the office will take into the future, it will be always be driven by well-informed staff.

Discussion

One of the key foundations in developing knowledge is well-managed data and information that is easily accessible. Another key foundation is the use of process and tools, which enable individuals to apply the information as part of a learning experience.

This places responsibility on NRM research, extension, regulatory, business and administrative officers to contribute to information capture and exchange on a regular and professional basis. It must be done in an effective and efficient manner that not only assists internal use but also ensures NRM can respond to and provide the community with required information. The information must be accurate, reduce complexity and work toward effecting responsible natural resource management decisions.

Natural resource management is a complex issue and covers not only the physical aspects (land, water and vegetation resources) but also includes the sociological factors (community development, community capacity) and the administration of land and land use (permits, conditions of use, cadastre, enforcement etc).

Due to the introduction of the information management culture, all staff now:

  • Think beyond disciplines and components in isolation, to think globally (systems and holistic approaches); and
  • Act locally in terms of contributing information; and
  • Think about their data management and how it effects the office environment.

The approach done by the EDDC, focuses on making geo-spatial and technical information more accessible to a much wider audience (both internal and external). Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. We cannot continue to rely on experienced staff keeping others aware of what data sets are available. The Emerald office will still need to address the wider issue of document management and client file record keeping as an adjunct to this plan.

Conclusion

By involving all staff, a data structure was created that is easily understood by all staff. This has allowed a rapid increase in the use of GIS locally. Data duplication was also removed, improving computer storage efficiencies. Also, the EDDC promotes a culture of data management to ensure that current data capture is not lost through staff movements.

These group activities have shown that local staff can easily implement a working data management system that capitalises on local skill and allows for opportunity to identify skill storages, which can be addressed.

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