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Deciding to Do Advanced GIS Analysis

This section describes factors to consider in undertaking advanced GIS analysis

The potential in using GIS to conduct spatial analysis is immense and exciting, but careful attention needs to be paid to avoid using "technology for technology's sake."  Advanced GIS analyses often require additional GIS software (custom scripts or "extensions" to standard GIS packages), additional or enhanced datasets, and, most importantly, staff knowledge and experience.  Once you start working with GIS, it is easy to see the nearly limitless options of what can be done with the tools, but it is always a good idea to revisit your needs assessment and GIS design plan:  what will we achieve through this more advanced analysis, what are the costs involved in developing this capacity or tool, and how does this fit in with our overall organizational goals?

If, after careful assessment, you decide to move ahead with more advanced GIS analysis - and this is often a good fit for larger organizations or those with well-developed internal needs and skills - here are a few key guidelines to follow:

Survey the landscape - Chances are, there is another entity out there that has conducted a similar analysis to what you hope to do.  Learn from their successes and mistakes.  Conduct a thorough web search for examples, existing software and tools, and protocols.   What are some ways other land trusts are conducting viewshed analysis?  What tools are others using to quantify habitat fragmentation?  Check with other land trusts, post questions on listservs, or talk directly with consultants or your GIS software vendor.

Don't skimp on data - Any GIS analysis is only as good as its worst dataset.  For example, there may be a great tool out there for predicting parcel-level land use change.  You found a great parcel database from your local county, but the only land use data you have is a coarse 1-km grid from 1990.  This great tool is no longer useful.  Before you undertake any advanced analysis, make sure you fully understand the data requirements, and that you can obtain datasets that fulfill at least the minimal needs - in quality, scale, and timeliness.

Dial-an-expert - Even the most accomplished GIS user can get stuck in the mire of a complicated analysis task.  If you are conducting the GIS work internally within your organization, make sure you have an external resource in mind you can turn to for help along the way.  This can be another land trust, a consultant, a local university, or your software vendor.  Building a relationship with a support service, whether in a formal consultant role or on a more friendly basis, can help you avoid expending too much unnecessary time and energy - resources that are already at a premium for most nonprofits.

Document, document, document! - If you come up with a really great analysis, chances are you may want to repeat it somewhere down the line - at a specified time period, or applied to another geographic area, for example.  Even if it's not something you think will be replicated, the integrity of your results heavily depends on you being able to clearly define your process.  If you are contracting externally to conduct the GIS work, make sure you require and obtain full documentation of the analysis steps and the datasets and tools used.  If the work is happening internally, make sure you establish clear procedures for tracking data sources and each step in the analysis.  As previously mentioned, moderate effort invested now will have tremendous payoff in the future when your staff changes, your priorities expand, or you need to defend your results.

Don't forget the punchline - You have completed your terrific GIS analysis, generated astounding results, and documented all your steps along the way.  But your job is not complete here.  There are hundreds of great analyses buried in 300-page reports and overly technical posters out there already.  Don't forget your original intentions - to use this GIS tool as an aid to help you better protect the land and its resources.  Make sure you have plans in place to use the results of your analysis in a constructive way - whether producing an information brochure, establishing a data resource that will be accessible to stakeholders and partners, or creating a high-impact map that will help you to share your vision with the public.


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