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New GIO's Sole Priority: Wielding Data in Fight Against Pandemic

“Strategically, how can GIS continue to be successful in the COVID response and working with partners in trying to ensure that? Tactically, working directly with those partners … to make sure they have the tools and the resources to do the work and be successful, whether it be geospatial research, or data for dashboards. I’m happy to support that.” — Isaac Cabrera, the state's new geographic information officer.

Isaac Cabrera took on his new role last week as state geographic information officer (GIO) and manager of geospatial services at the height of a worldwide pandemic, and he’s focused on just one thing.

“The highest priority right now is to support the state’s (novel coronavirus) COVID-19 effort,” Cabrera told Techwire in an interview this week. “Strategically, how can GIS continue to be successful in the COVID response and working with partners in trying to ensure that? Tactically, working directly with those partners … to make sure they have the tools and the resources to do the work and be successful, whether it be geospatial research, or data for dashboards. I’m happy to support that.”

Cabrera entered the public sector in 2002 with the U.S. Forest Service as a GIS specialist — a focus he maintained through GIS positions with the city of Clovis, and then with Madera, Merced and Contra Costa counties, before joining the state in the newly created role within the California Department of Technology.

“It was a progression of my own career,” Cabrera said. “In building experiences and relationships and learning, you learn and you evolve. When this came up, I naturally gravitated toward it, and I applied through the process. It was very exciting to me to be able to grow toward this.”

Cabrera has served as vice chair and chair of the California GIS Council, a professional resource for those in the field, and has been a regular presenter at professional conferences statewide. When it comes to data and geography, he can fairly be described as an evangelist.

“The applicability of GIS and the data involved with GIS really excites me, and how it can be used by people to make better business decisions,” said the Sacramento-area resident. “It can make people’s lives better if they have the tools to look at the data and start asking the questions, and GIS is one of those tools.”

CIOs in state departments and agencies can expect to hear from Cabrera if they haven’t already.

“I would really like to be seen as a partner who will collaborate and work to build these bridges and support education and awareness around GIS technology, and what those bridges will bring into the departments, with CIOs and CTOs,” he said. “That is the best message I can give for now.”

Cabrera’s new role takes some of the load off Scott Gregory, the state’s chief technology innovation officer, who had also served as state GIO until Cabrera’s position was created this year.

“In the data landscape of the state,” Gregory told Techwire in the same interview, “his role will take on some of the activities that I had been engaged in in the past, but Isaac’s bringing a fresh perspective, and a perspective that I think is needed right now. With all this attention on data, and all the directions that many of us are being pulled in, we have to have some very competent folks at the table, and Isaac’s one of them.

“We’re grateful that he’s here,” Gregory said. “I think he’s going to be able to bring an outside-of-the-state perspective from local government … and I’m sure his experience will not only benefit us in the GIS and data arenas, but also will help us bridge more of that local government gap. … If you stay with the state for a long time, you don’t have visibility into it as much as someone who’s fresh out of the game.”

Ties between the state IT apparatus and its county and city counterparts have been deepening for the last few years, and GIS technology and the increased emphasis on open data will deepen those connections, Gregory said. Was that an intentional strategy by the state?

“It’s not a deliberate policy directive, but I’d say it’s a deliberate act of common sense,” Gregory said. “Collaboration, especially in a state as complex as California — you have to have it to be successful. We can’t work in vacuums. When we think about data and about systems and how they interact, not only with the state but with that chain from local to state to federal, we see tremendous benefit in being able to engage our local communities to work with them and to understand their pain points. Oftentimes, they’re recipients of data and of applications that come from the state. If we don’t know what their pain points are and we don’t know what their conversation is, we’re at a disadvantage.”

And local government can help with that, he said.

“Most times when you look at data, the best data comes from the local level,” Gregory said. “California is just massive, and we (the state) don’t have the levels of granularity that some local jurisdictions might have. And by having those partnerships, especially with the work that Isaac’s going to be doing around GIS and open data, the state’s going to benefit by magnitudes by having more detailed information, stronger partnerships, and building a stronger geospatial data portfolio, as well as just a data portfolio for things like we’re dealing with today — emergencies.

“California’s prone — fire, flood, earthquakes, tsunami, medical emergencies — and we have to be able to connect with the locals to be able to make the most detailed picture and to make the best decisions. In the world that Isaac and I live in, that’s incredibly important.”

Because the state’s GIS and open data operations already have the tools in place, there are no big RFPs or other procurements on the horizon for those selling goods and services to the state.

“There certainly isn’t anything in the works whatsoever,” Gregory said. Rather, state IT leaders are working on scaling up what they’ve already got in place.

“By the nature of bringing Isaac on board, we’re starting to look at that scale,” Gregory said, “looking at how to integrate that more into the decision-making process, into the policy development process, using data to really drive some of the decisions.

“And that’s evidenced by Isaac being on the team. We’ve got a tremendous resource here, and we told him he’s going to have to have his seatbelt on. A lot’s going to be coming his way, and he’ll be able to handle it with no problem, I have no doubt.”

The soft-spoken Cabrera isn’t coming in with guns blazing. When asked, he did acknowledge an endorsement last week from the state Little Hoover Commission, which last fall called for creation of the role Cabrera now fills. 

“What I would really like is being that partner to the (state) departments — the CIOs and the CTOs,” he said. “I’m grateful for all those that are approving of me being in the role, and I’m very humbled by everyone’s acceptance.”

Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C.