History of GIS in Indiana Part I: One Perspective

Read Part II of this blog series.
Read Part III of this blog series.

I have worked with geographic information in one form or another since 1974 when I started as a rod man on a construction survey crew. My first recollection of the use of the term “Geographic Information System” came from a panel presentation at a National Computer Graphics Association (founded in 1979 but now defunct) conference in 1982. I vividly recall my sense of relief to discover almost 50 other souls who were wrestling with the same kinds of “computer mapping” challenges that I was working through at the time. In contrast, I recently read that the attendance of the latest ESRI User Conference was over 15,000. How times have changed!

Fast forward to 1985: my career converged with Indiana GIS history when I accepted a project manager position at Mid States Engineering (more on MSE later). By the end of 1987, I was neck deep in managing a conversion project that would span 24 months and consume over 200,000 labor hours. The resulting Indianapolis Mapping and Infrastructure System (IMAGIS) won pioneering awards within the GIS and AM/FM (automated mapping and facilities management) communities, and rightly so.

During the same period in Indiana, others in government, the private sector, and the university community were busy creating geographic information systems and geospatial data bases. These practitioners came together for the first time in 1990 for the inaugural statewide GIS conference organized by the University GIS Alliance (UGISA). Within a year of the conference, GIS users within state government formed the Indiana State Government Forum to share best practices and to foster an awareness of the activities that were occurring within INDOT, IDEM, DNR, and other state agencies. The forum later morphed into the Indiana Government GIS Task Force, and, with UGISA and representatives from the Federal government and the private sector, joined forces to form the Indiana Geographic Information Council (IGIC). IGIC, formerly the Indiana GIS Initiative, incorporated in 2002 as a 501(c)3 non-profit members organization, has been instrumental in creating a statewide vision and single voice for Indiana’s GIS, helping to facilitate critical geospatial projects, providing educational opportunities, and serving as a conduit for GIS news across Indiana. IGIC, along with the Indiana Government GIS Task Force, The Polis Center, and others, played a critical role in the passage of legislation that created the Indiana Geographic Information Office in 2007.

I have been asked many times how Indiana has been able to accomplish so much in the way of GIS, especially since we have never had an established recurring funding stream. The simple answer is that we all work very well with each other. Some of that comes from our Hoosier Hospitality mentality, and a lot of credit goes to IGIC, but I also believe that providence has contributed to our success by way of a highly successful, if unintended, Indiana GIS “technical school,” a.k.a. Mid States Engineering/MSE/ASI, Inc. In 1997, the year that MSE was acquired by ASI, over 400 GIS practitioners were employed at MSE in downtown Indianapolis. That office closed in 2002 and its 400 GIS professionals were forced to find other employment. The fortunate consequence of the demise of that office was that organizations across Indiana gained GIS resources who shared a common background, strong GIS skills, and a level of trust that was unique. That kinship has facilitated GIS cooperation in Indiana for a decade. It is not a stretch to say, as many have, that “you cannot swing a dead cat at any GIS meeting in Indiana without hitting a dozen ex-MSE’ers.” The alumni group includes the Executive Director of IGIC, the Program Manager of IMAGIS, the Director of Geoinformatics at The Polis Center, and the Indiana Geographic Information Officer (yours truly), to name a very few.

They rest is history, as the saying goes, but I recognize that this is only one of many perspectives of how GIS developed in Indiana. I therefore invite you to add your perception to this one so that together we can build a comprehensive History of GIS in Indiana.

–Jim Sparks, Indiana GIO

Read Part II of this blog here.



  1. In the coming week I’m going to write a post to help identify where they are today and some GIS accomplishments made by these 400+ GIS professionals. I’d love to hear from ex MSE’ers about where you are now and how your tenure at Indiana’s “GIS technical school” (as Jim calls it) impacted your career.

  2. Shawn Wright

    To take off on Jim Sparks blog on the importance of IMAGIS.

    After returning from the Navy and Graduating from a Drafting and Design School in 1989. I had been working part time which became a full time position in 1992 for Indiana Bell (which became Ameritech, SBC, and then back to AT&T which is what it was before becoming Indiana Bell) as Technical Specialist and Design Specialist, and then being promoted to Engineer in 2001. (Basically drawing work prints or Staking sheets for the Engineers, until becoming an Engineer myself). They purchased the disc set for Indianapolis from IMAGIS that we used extensively in Designing the Landbase Manual to place Landbase into their database. When they were Ameritech (5-state Region-Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin) I was on the committee that wrote the Landbase Practice for Ameritech, this was the bible that told the DS/TS’s how to place Landbase into the database. Landbase (or GIS) is constantly changing and growing.

    They have teased me about Landbase being my life, but it really is true and has been since the early 90’s. As an Engineer / Records Keeper for a (mid-sized)Fiber Optics Utility. I continue to count on the smaller municipalities to come into the fold and get their maps on-line so utilities can utilize them for accuracy when designing projects in their towns and cities.

    Shawn Wright, OSP Design Engineer/Drafter for (IFN) Indiana Fiber Network LLC.

  3. Aaron M. Shaw

    I was an intern at MSE during the Summer of 1996. My project was the public works project for Waitakere, New Zealand. My project manager was Joanna Thelander, and her boss was Jack Schmitz, who I met a few times back then. In 2008 we met again during the flood of 2008 when Jack was a GIS consultant for The Polis Center.

    After MSE I worked at The Schneider Corporation where I met several people there that had also worked at MSE, Steve Sexton, Pat Harvey and Joel Bump.

    Jim really is right, MSE was a training ground for many of us here in GIS in Indiana.

    Aaron M. Shaw
    GIS Director
    Johnson County GIS Department
    86 W. Court St.
    Franklin, IN 46131

  4. Becky McKinley, GISP

    When you mention the Indiana GIS Task Force Jim are you talking about the group headed up by Cathy McCarter? I remember being part of a City/County GIS Task Force in the early 90’s (I forget the name we used to call ourselves). This was a precursor to INGISI and involved UGISA, county, municipal, state and even federal reps. I remembering lamenting at these meetings how difficult it was for state government to share data between departments – let alone with the locals! I think about how far we’ve come since then – when the idea of a single statewide center line file was just a dream and all we had as a comprehensive base map were those lousy TIGER files. Indiana GIS users should be very proud of ourselves to have gone from there to the IndianaMAP!!

    • Becky, I believe that is the same group. As you mention, it morphed through several iterations. Lorraine Wright, IDEM chaired for a while, as did I for a couple of years when I was the GIS Administrator at INDOT.

      And you are right! We HAVE come a long way. It shows what can be done when a lot of people are enthusiastically rowing in the same direction!

  5. Brief History of GIS in Shelby County
    The beginning of GIS in Shelby County started in the spring of 1993 when I was hired by Shelby County to develop a computer program to display the parcels and associated data in a digital format.
    The cad program I chose was called CADAM. It was a program I had previously used at GM in the plant layout department. After about three years of research and digitally drawing the parcel data the concept of GIS became evident in the tech world. So in an effort to become familiar with GIS the county hired David Schoen, a professor from Ball State University, to conduct a needs assessment to determine the status of information and equipment for a GIS platform.
    Dave’s assessment detailed the equipment and costs involved to develop a GIS system. After much discussion with both city and county officials, it was decided to pursue the project. An inter-local agreement was signed between the city of Shelbyville and Shelby County and Dave Schoen was hired to develop the system. Dave used the project as a teaching tool for over 40 Ball State students which provided great assistance and helped to hold our costs to a minimum.
    The GIS project was completed in the spring of 2000. Since that time many layers of information have been added, and a public web site was developed.
    In 2006 the city and county joined forces with WTH Engineering. They had developed GIS software that was very user friendly and worked quite well with our web application. All facets of city and county government now utilize the GIS system with over 250 government users.

    James R Brown
    GIS Administrator
    25 W Polk St Room 104
    Shelbyville, In 46176


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