“We only provide MS Excel to business majors”

02-16-2021 12:30 PM
Esri Contributor
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Can you imagine if a university limited the use of MS Excel to business majors? What if licenses of SPSS were only provided to statistics majors? While GIS software has its roots in geography, its wide-ranging application demonstrates clearly how students and faculty across institutions should have access.  

While the concepts of GIS have always been useful for a vast array of disciplines to employ… let’s be honest, the learning curve of desktop GIS made wider adoption and use of the technology prohibitive. Yet, in the past few years, the ease of using web-based GIS tools has removed this barrier. GIS is now easier to use and students in any field can take the skills and tools available and apply them to their discipline. History, public health, business, anthropology – all these fields require the ability to visualize, analyze, and present information in a spatial context. We have seen countless examples of students building StoryMaps for archaeology, deploying mobile data collection applications in biology, or creating maps in urban planning. 

To ensure that students, faculty, and programs can begin to use GIS more broadly, one of the most successful strategies that we have seen deployed is centralized funding for GIS. Without the hurtles in place that limit access, faculty and students are free to innovate. The change in funding also has much broader implications for educational institutions. 

Some of the top benefits of this change have been: 

  • Increased return on investment (more users = more value = increased ROI) 
  • Eliminating labyrinthian ‘charge back’ procedures 
  • Fostering innovation 
  • Quick & easy access 

Increased value 

With budget cuts and an increased awareness of costs of all kinds, increasing the return-on-investment (in the eyes of administrators) and the value (more faculty and students) for software purchases is a win-win. The wider access to the technology quickly dilutes the ‘cost’ to the university, while also increasing the value to staff, students, programs, and the university  

Fostering innovation 

Students, faculty, and programs (as well as employers) are constantly looking for innovative uses of technology and software. The geospatial market is set to triple to a $25b industry over the next 10 years and employers in every field will be seeking out professionals with these skills (PS Market Research, 2020). The big takeaway is that GIS is not just for geographers. Innovative uses of geospatial technology and skills are happening in virtually every discipline. To ensure that innovation thrives at your institution, the culture and experience must encourage an ability to try the latest technology. 

Removal of ‘charge backs’geography major.png

We have yet to meet a faculty or department staff member that has created a fluid ‘charge-back’ process to other departments or programs. Many stories that we hear are filled with the administrative headaches and pains that accompany software access and requests. By acknowledging the broader application of GIS to more fields and in turn, moving the funding of GIS to a centralized funding model the software can be more efficiently managed. Your university already has staff specialized in the licensing of software that is used across campus, utilizing these resources lets staff focus on their primary roles.  

Quick & easy access 

If students or faculty need to visualize or analyze spatial data… they can! Rather than spending time trying to figure out ‘how’ and ‘what’ to get access to, they can start using the tools and technology. If combined with an enterprise ‘single sign-on’ SSO policy, users simply log in, and get started. An enterprise SSO policy also removes administrative work when it comes to generating usernames or granting access. 


Over the past 10 years, GIS has evolved. While the software has been widely used in the discipline of geography, the skills and tools are applicable to all fields. Just as MS Excel outgrew its roots in business, ArcGIS is no longer tied solely to geography departments. Moving GIS to a centralized funding model provides a wide array of benefits and helps to build more innovative departments, students, and faculty.

Regular Contributor II

I really want to send this to my former employer and alma mater without it seeming judgmental...

Having seen firsthand the negative impacts of a "geography-only" approach to GIS access, I agree with this wholeheartedly. The issue we ran into (as did other institutions, I later learned) was that all software and licensing (thus access to Esri products) already was centrally administered by the school's IT. Due to austerity measures, though, the management of the entire Esri suite of products was lumped in with the responsibilities of an already-overworked employee who had neither the familiarity with GIS nor the time to effectively administer the resources or advertise their availability to other departments.

I think an essential part of this conversation needs to be dedicated staffing, too. We can throw funding at GIS, but if we don't have a staff member who knows their way around My Esri, AGOL, etc., we won't move very far from where we are now.

MVP Esteemed Contributor

Not to be contrarian, but I think the ArcGIS-for-anyone/everyone and Excel-for-anyone/everyone is a disingenuous comparison on a couple levels.

For one, Excel is a single product whereas ArcGIS is multiple product lines comprising hundreds of products.  A more appropriate comparison would be to Microsoft-for-anyone/everyone, which I am sure Microsoft would love much to the chagrin of those managing education IT budgets.

If ArcGIS-for-anyone is supposed to mean ArcGIS-Desktop-for-anyone, well, comparing Excel to ArcGIS Pro is like comparing a Kia to a Bugatti from a cost perspective.  Although Esri does offer education pricing for K-12 and higher-education, so do companies like Microsoft and IBM, so one can look to retail pricing for relative cost differences.  A retail subscription to MS Office, which gives one Excel along with several other products, runs around $10/month while a retail subscription to ArcGIS Desktop Standard with no extensions runs around $225/month.  An order-of-magnitude price difference adds up fast when you have thousands or tens of thousands of students.

It isn't that I don't think there is a value proposition for ArcGIS products, I just don't think there is a general, across-the-board one for all ArcGIS products.  Additionally, given the significant pricing differences involved, I think any value proposition should focus on return on investment and not comparisons to other software.


Regular Contributor II

@JoshuaBixbyMind that educational institutions often do not pay sticker price for software, as it is in the software provider's business interest to have an incoming workforce familiar with their tools. I wasn't privy to my school's Esri contract, but I was told it was far less than would be expected for non-educational use. It was that way with nearly all our software, too.

AutoDesk, if I recall, didn't charge for software licenses at all, provided it was for educational use only. If only I'd used Revit more when I had the chance...

Occasional Contributor III

@JoshuaBixby, as @jcarlson alluded to, the actual costs for educational institutions for the Microsoft and Google productivity suites, as compared to the Esri Education Institution license, is exactly opposite of what you're suggesting. The cost of access to the Esri ecosystem of software per user is significantly less than for Microsoft or Google. 

And that is counting active users of each system; not everyone -- yet -- on our campus is using GIS. If instead you consider your whole institution as potential users -- the goal of empowering everyone with everything GIS -- then it becomes an even more lopsided comparison; crumbs to a loaf of bread.

Also, I didn't read @BrianBaldwin's post as suggesting that "ArcGIS-for-anyone" means "ArcGIS-Desktop-for-anyone". I think that was the view for our parent's GIS, a world that was mostly limited to ArcGIS Desktop and ArcGIS Server. 

Today I would interpret "ArcGIS-for-anyone" in the view of Modern GIS, meaning the whole Esri ecosystem of products, with different users finding their way to different tools to meet their needs and levels of expertise. (Some may know Modern GIS as Web GIS or the Geospatial Cloud, but regardless of the terminology, GIS today is about much more than desktop GIS.)

Desktop users have not gone away either. They are still a key constituency in an institution's Modern GIS. In fact, their numbers grow as more people find their way to GIS, when you make GIS available to everyone, and they are able to discover the power of geospatial.

The largest growth in GIS users in a Modern GIS, however, is in the non-desktop software: ArcGIS Online, StoryMaps, Collector, Survey123, Hub, Business Analyst Online, GeoPlanner, ArcGIS Maps for Creative Cloud, and so on. Those users individually may not use GIS as often as our Pro users, however, on an average day they outnumber our Pro users at my institution.

In a Modern GIS world, the breadth of tools included in the Esri Education Institution license is reflected by the breadth of users. People from all across an institution can now make use of the wide variety of GIS tools in the Esri ecosystem; GIS is no longer the realm of a privileged few using desktop GIS software. 

For example, see the breadth of use today at the University of Michigan. The majority of units and degree programs have someone using some part of ArcGIS. And, that dashboard is just for Esri products, we have people "doing GIS" with other commercial and open-source solutions too. (Check out other examples too, such as Penn State.)

About the Author
I am currently a Geospatial Systems Engineer within the Geospatial Branch of the Forest Service's Chief Information Office (CIO). The Geospatial Branch of the CIO is responsible for managing the geospatial platform (ArcGIS Desktop, ArcGIS Enterprise, ArcGIS Online) for thousands of users across the Forest Service. My position is hosted on the Superior National Forest. The Superior NF comprises 3 million acres in northeastern MN and includes the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).