Intergovernmental Information Systems Advisory Council


What kind of GIS will be required to satisfy your needs? What will it cost? Minnesota governments that have implemented GIS can help you determine realistic estimates of what systems resources will satisfy a certain level and nature of need. To find organizations to talk to, consult a list of local governments that have invested in GIS maintained on the Governor's Council on Geographic Information Internet World Wide Web site or call LMIC. The cost figures most local governments can state with confidence are usually hardware, software and training. However, their figures may not consider current hardware and software prices or costs for false starts and technological dead ends.

Unfortunately, few local units of government in Minnesota really know what their complete GIS effort has cost them. Hardware and software represent the smallest part of the full costs of GIS implementation. You will end up spending more for staff, staff learning (both formal and informal), and data. Investments in GIS will contribute to success in this order: staff/learning, data, software, hardware.

With GIS providing a range of benefits and replacements for other normal activities, as well as new benefits and capabilities, it is difficult to get agreement on what should be included in the cost calculation. Nevertheless, you must make an estimate.

  1. Software, Hardware & Systems
    Contact hardware and GIS software vendors to get their ideas about the level of investment needed to satisfy your needs. They can quote prices of products they sell and training they provide. They will have informed opinions about the other costs. They can help you with a reality check on your wish list, pointing out which items may be in conflict or are likely to provide poor returns on investment.
  2. Data
    Check with local units of government, private firms such as utilities, forest products firms, those with significant land holdings in your area, regional organizations, and state government to learn what GIS data sources already exist for your jurisdiction, how useful they may be for your purposes, and how much they would cost.

    GIS data conversion contractors can provide rough budget estimates for the costs of data conversion. They will provide precise numbers if you are seriously considering contracting for this work. Conversion costs will depend upon the quantity and quality of the sources of information to be used, the conversion methods employed, and the levels of positional and factual accuracy you require. Contractors will need to see a representative sample of the data to be converted to provide a realistic cost estimate.

  3. Staffing
    Each GIS implementation that involves processing should have at least one full time GIS professional. This person should have formal GIS training together with a good understanding of and aptitude for computers, databases, and geography. Colleges and technical schools are producing an increasing stream of graduates who have been exposed to the technology. Some programs do much more than this. If you are thinking of hiring a recent graduate of one of these programs, ask for details about projects she or he has worked on. Even with some project experience at school, it would in most cases be unfair to both the employee and your GIS effort to ask a green grad to be head technician. Let them assist a more experienced GIS professional, on-staff or a consultant.

    The technical knowledge and ability of your GIS staff is more important than what hardware and software you have. Very good GIS technicians can do more with relatively simple PC based GIS capability than inexperienced technicians can with the best hardware and software money can buy. In the long run your GIS staff will cost more than any other single part of the GIS investment. Scrimping on this expense may render all the other investment in GIS a waste.

    These days it can be difficult to attract and hold good GIS professionals. Job tenures of a year or even less are not uncommon. This kind of turnover will drive up your costs, disrupt your schedules, and may add to the incentive to train existing and presumably more stable current staff members. If you elect to train a current, computer-literate staff member who already knows the workings of your department, allow a number of months of intensive study and on-the-job practice before expecting much productivity. In any case, having more than one person trained and practiced in the operation of your GIS is very important.

    We recommend using a combined approach of staff training and hiring a GIS professional from the outside. Make a serious effort to avoid the "guru" situation. You are much better off if two or more people know how your system runs and how your GIS works. An outside professional and a fast learning existing staff member can accomplish this and learn from each other. Your organization needs to learn about GIS from the professional. The GIS professional needs to learn about your organization.

    Compensation rates for GIS professionals vary. [For example, LMIC pays Research Analysts (recent graduates, little or no GIS employment experience) upwards of $26,000 per year, Research Analyst Intermediates (degree and four to five of years experience) get upwards of $28,000 per year, Research Analyst Specialists (degree and seven or eight years progressive experience including some supervision and management) are paid upwards of $31,000 per year, while Research Analyst Specialist Senior grades (degree and substantial experience in all aspects of GIS, and GIS management) make upwards of $36,000 per year.]

    The lead technical role in your GIS implementation will require a good technical education and several years pertinent experience. In general, expect to pay at least $30,000 per year for such a GIS professional. If your implementation will require trained assistants to this technical lead, the wage rates will be somewhat lower. For "first job" graduates of GIS educational programs expect to pay at least $20,000. Recent Masters level graduates salaries run upwards of $28,000 per year. All of these figures will vary with the part of the state and the conditions in the employment market. As the schools continue to produce graduates in this field and they gather work experience, we expect the hiring and retention of good GIS professionals to become easier.

    ** COMMENT ** The rates noted above could be misleading depending whether you are in the metro area or in Greater Minnesota. Also time will change these rates. Contact other GIS users to get a better idea of the rates you will actually have to pay.

  4. Training
    Software training courses are easily priced, but overall learning costs are perhaps the most difficult to quantify. These costs will depend upon an individual's learning rate, role in the GIS, and previous experience with maps and computers. If you will be training a primary GIS technician to be responsible for GIS dataset creation, processing and maintenance, figure ten full days of classes and at least six months of full-time participation in the GIS, at minimum. Those who will be using simple GIS data viewing and mapping software may come up to speed with a couple of weeks of regular use. This assumes good computer and geographic literacy to begin with, but no previous GIS experience. Although some people can learn to use the software on their own, training is a more efficient and less frustrating option for most.

  5. Applications
    Customization of the GIS software to suit your particular purposes can also be obtained from consultants. Most GIS software is designed as a "tool box" of functions, requiring extensive knowledge of how and when to use the various tools. Additional programming, or "applications development," can simplify and streamline your use of GIS for specific tasks. Consultants can provide estimates for the costs of customized applications. Sometimes you don't know what applications you want or need until you have some experience doing your routine activities on your new system. You may wish to earmark an "applications fund" to be set aside for future use.

    Alternatively, you may select a GIS software that is not a "tool box," but is narrowly focused on a few specific uses. This will reduce your need for applications development, but it will also greatly limit your flexibility in meeting unanticipated needs and opportunities.

E-mail comments or questions to IISAC at

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