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.

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