Beginning GIS: Asking the Right Questions

A few years ago, a local community approached my company requesting that we create a GIS system. We had the software and some of the know-how, but with little experience, starting such a system from scratch was quite a challenge. In the end, we not only created a system that worked, but we also learned invaluable lessons along the way. It starts by asking the right questions.

1. What Kind of System Does the Client Need?

Does the client want an in-house system where the data will not be shared with outside sources? It is to be on their website or downloaded as zip files or on an ftp site? What software will be used?

These are crucial questions, because knowing how to format the data at the end will save a lot of time.

Because I didn’t ask the question about how they wanted the data formatted to the public, I went under the assumption they wanted it viewable online. Since they didn’t have a large budget for developing a GIS website or using a hosting company, I created one on ESRI’s ArcGIS online server.

Figure 1: Online version using ArcGIS Online.

After adding all the data and making it look really good, I presented it to our client and proceeded to show them how it worked. It was then they informed me they merely wanted the data available online to download as zip files.


Easily 10 hours of my time wasted, but it was an important lesson I will not quickly forget.

This also begs the question: What if the client is uncertain how they want the data presented to the public (if at all)? This is where it helps to have examples of other systems to show.

We have several cities with excellent systems available to the public that I use almost daily. One is Minot, North Dakota. They have all infrastructure including water, sewer and storm as well as parcel data (

Figure 2: Minot GIS.

The City of Bismarck, by contrast, created an ftp site with all its data in both AutoCAD and ESRI shape files (

Figure 3: City of Bismarck ftp site.

By presenting such examples, the client can better understand what can be done and which way will work the best for them.

2. What’s Included in the Data?

What data is the client looking for? Is it parcel data including areas, addresses, ownership with links to the Tax Assessor? Infrastructure including water, sewer, and storm sewer? How detailed do they want the data?

For instance, does the client want size, material, and installation date of all the water and sewer? Do they want the depths and sizes of all the sanitary and sewer manholes? Would they like to know the type of pavement of each street and the year they were installed or improved?

Even if the client doesn’t specify, asking the question is important, especially before compiling the data begins.

Do they also want links to not only other websites, but also pdf files of filed plats? Our client requested this, and it worked out fabulous.

Which brings up the third most important question…

3. Where to Get All the Data?

This is likely one of the most time-consuming parts of putting together all the data, aside from drawing in the features and adding all the data.

How much of it will need to be field surveyed? How much can be added from as-built drawings, or other resources such as the County Recorder, Tax Assessor or City/County Engineer?

For the system we put together, the client was able to provide ownership data in an Excel file. For the rest, we had to send our surveyors out to tie in.

Another reason why knowing what information the client wants before any data is sought is so the surveyors know exactly what to tie in. If they tie in only the manholes without knowing they need to get the depths, they will have to be sent out twice. That can add a lot of cost that could have been avoided.

The same goes for any other research. If we are unaware the client wants the owners’ home address along with the property address, it adds that much more time adding another column to the data table.

4. Communication above All

It’s important to keep the client informed as to your progress, so give presentations fairly often on how the system is coming along. That way they can see how the system works and make any suggestions additions and/or adjustments.

I guarantee there will be changes. As we progressed with the system for our client, at each presentation they came up with more data they wanted to add. If you know going in that this will happen, it will lessen your frustration.

Be sure the client knows you must be in constant communication with them, and that you are readily available if they have a question, concern, or addition. A GIS system is a huge undertaking, and keeping in constant contact will make the project go smoother from beginning to end.


In the end, it’s not just about the data, but about making sure the client is happy with the results. Knowing what questions to ask from the start will not only make your job easier, but will save the client—and your company—time and money. The client will also appreciate open lines of communication and your attention to detail. Doing so will increase their confidence that the end product will be what they want, need and expect.

Figure 4: The End Result

Andra Marquardt is a Professional Land Surveyor in the State of North Dakota, and has worked for Toman Engineering Company since 1997. She has used AutoCAD beginning with Version 9, and works on projects using AutoCAD Civil 3D and MAP.

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