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Justifying purchasing ArcGIS

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#1
byzantium

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I can see there are times when having the ArcGIS application(s) available would be beneficial for some of my cartography projects.

I’m trying to figure out how I’m ever going to afford to buy it.

It really seems like an application whose pricing is so substantial that a small business could not afford it. Especially when you are already forking out thousands to keep all the other software from Illustrator to Office to O/Ses up to date.

There’s two variables involved in this justification effort--mapping income as well as actual Arc cost. I mean it doesn’t seem trivial to figure out what set of Arc programs are really needed to become more efficient and thereby save some of the lengthy times that various map projects can take to complete.

My cartography income doesn’t really allow me the leeway to drop thousands for this app. Most of my mapping projects end up priced such that my work ends up earning slightly above minimum wage. This happens because they are invariably fixed price, and either the customer is a non-profit or small business who cannot pay much, or my estimate ends up low. I have high standards for my work so almost any map project ends up taking more time than I originally thought. And there have been times when large projects ended up taking so many hours that my effective rate fell below minimum wage. So maybe down the road my reputation will become good enough that I can charge a living wage, but who knows.

I’m quite familiar with the arguments that some established professionals seem to always be sharing with newcomers about how if you price your services low, no one will see them as valuable. The list of arguments put forth for professionals not to undercut the pricing norms are very persuasive. However I have come to feel that in many cases this kind of logic has an ulterior or maybe subconscious motive of keeping those pro’s income high, and possibly funneling all the decent paying work to those established pros. At least that’s been my experience in another field. What wasn't apparent when I embraced these seemingly helpful pro's pricing arguments was that their cost of getting new projects is a lot lower than mine because they are established and have existing customers. Inevitably people will say just charge more, but that has never worked for me in cartography. The times when I bid higher to try to cover a bit more than minimum wage, I almost never get the project—and my regret over losing those projects is grounded in real deprivation that resulted. Inevitably potential customers seem to not want to spend more than what a starving graphic designer would get.

So then there’s alternatives to Arc such as open source GIS. In playing around with them, I don’t get the sense that I’d be able to get the things I need done any faster than my current methods with Illustrator and Mapublisher. Whereas with ArcGIS, I can see a few types of processes where I could save 10 hours here or there. Also many organizations say they will provide some key data in an Arc-only format which the open source app.s can’t easily open. But if I only save 100 hours a year, that doesn't pay for a license (at close to minimum wage).

I apologize for the somewhat rambly topic, but it’s something I’ve been grappling with for a few years. Do many small cartography businesses use Arc*? How have other small-business cartographers managed to pay for this app when it is easily one of the most expensive software packages a small business would ever buy? Or is the secret to become a non-profit and thereby get the software at deep discount?

bb

#2
Andrew

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Hey BB,

First of all I am not a cartographer but a GIS analyst who is a cartography admirer (and envious of the cartographic skills I see so much of on this forum).

I am in a similar position to you at the moment. I use ArcGIS at work and I am looking for a GIS package to use for my private work outside of my 9 till 5 job and it is quite hard to find the balance between sufficient functionality and price.

I too have explored many Open Source GIS options and have been left under whelmed. I admire the work of the Open Source initiatives and as a GIS professional I think the increased exposure and accessibility of GIS to the community is great. However these applications are quite often “Basic GIS” packages and offer little or no geoprocessing, analytical, and statistical functionality. At best I find these packages offer simple querying abilities but no real feature editing power like mentioned before.

There are still options out there which are a lot more affordable than an ArcGIS license. One option I see thrown around quite a lot in forum posts like this one is Manifold. I personally have never used Manifold, but I have been reading into it as a solution for my problem. I hear that for the price it is quite a handy little package and I often read that a number of users on this forum have taken this option. My issue with Manifold is that it has poor cartographic output for GIS maps. I know this will not be a problem for you as you will do your finishing in Illy or some other graphics package. Another problem I have with Manifold is that I am a bit weary that it might be a catch cry solution, meaning that because it is one of only a few nicely affordable packages out there it becomes the automatic answer to questions like these.

I’m not trying to tell you ignore Manifold, it’s definitely on my list of possible outcomes and at the moment is a front runner but I am also going to look further into other packages. Other vendors that come to mind are:

• MapInfo (from what I hear poor cartographic output and still a bit pricey) but a good point about MapInfo is that you can download fully functional demos of their software, which is a good try before you buy. I know they are a relatively big player in the GIS market and not a company you would expect to give a cheap license but none the less I’m still keen to see what they offer.

• Smallworld

• Intergraph. Apparently they work very closely with Open GIS standards and are able to work with a variety of formats. Data Interoperability is a big issue like you mentioned.

• TNTview. I remember a lecturer telling me about it in my uni days it’s a limited license of TNTmips goes for approximately $300 US. Owned by a company called MicroImages.

• MyWorld. From what I have read so far more an educational tool, probably not a good option.

I think you would be surprised how many different packages are out there once you get through the mess of advertisements for the big boys of proprietary GIS products.

I know our desired uses are different and that will ultimately send us different directions on our weapon of choice, but I thought I would let you know what has been on my mind in summing up the same/similar question.

Andrew

#3
frax

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I think it would be hard for you to justify spending that money on ArcGIS just for cartography, but if you do GIS work (which you can charge more for?) - then you have a good argument for getting it.

There are some ways to get ArcGIS licenses (at least ArcView) cheaper thouhg - I think there used to be a deal through the ASPRS for instance, and they have donations for conservation projects.
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#4
Rob

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Arc is expensive to purchase for independent/small shops, not even considering the annual maintenance agreements to recieve the necessary upgrades to keep the software current and functioning, which you might not have considered in the cost of ownership. But it is a powerful and complete analytical mapping package if the workload justifies it. Check out Global Mapper; it can read and output most any GIS format out there today, vector and raster, which might help with some of the data your clients provide you (excluding geodatabases, but any client can batch export a GDB to shape if they want you on the job too...) I think it costs about $200 and I turn to it first for many tasks before i launch my Arc applications, especially for rasters. Loads data faster and has a fair amount of utility for dealing with a variety of datasets for the investment, although it lacks any real extensive geoprocessing capability. Note: not a paid endorsement...LOL...i only wish...

When people tell me how "cool" it is to be a cartographer, I just remind them that 300 years ago cartos were the king's closest friends, and today... well, we just wonder how to pay for the software...

#5
CHART

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BB,

I would start by creating a yearly budget for your cartographic operations.
Because software is an ongoing expense you will probably have to invest every year for maintenance, new software tools, new addons etc. to keep your business going.
I review my software toolbox every year, and based on my budget make the decisions. Keeping within your budget is one of the hardest things to do, because there is always new carto toys out there to taunt you.
You need to do the same for hardware.

The idea for a one man shop is to keep your expense as low as possible. So open source is not a bad avenue (e.g. Grass GIS ect). If you get around with programming you can get a lot of existing code (e.g. dlls) and build some of your own tools.

I am also noticing that software vendor are able to squeeze out more money out of you thanks to key activation via the web. Keep in mind that you are basically 'renting' commercial software.

It is obvious that your choice should also be guided by your potential clients. But you have to stick to that budget.

My two cents worth,
Chart

#6
rudy

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There are lots of affordable GIS packages out there but none of them seem to have the cartographic capability of ArcMap. So they'll be suitable for GIS work but if you have to export and finish your maps in Illustrator than you're probably not going be able to maximize on the cost and time savings. The GIS package then becomes a data prep tool more than anything - useful but it won't meet your cartographic needs completely. Yes, ArcMap is the way to go. Sadly, it is very pricey.

With regards to quoting on jobs . . . I think we have all been there and estimated low on a job and ended up spending way too much time on it. The problem is that maps are so readily available on the internet and those who don't know think it is easy to create one. You have my sympathies but I'm not sure what advice I can offer you. Keep pushing the envelope on the estimates.

#7
Martin Gamache

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Here is my take on this.

Sometimes you have to spend money to make some money.

Manifold or Arc with Illustrator is a more powerful combo than illustrator and Mapublisher alone and can be alot cheaper. The only reason to still have mapublisher along IMO is if you regularly need to export illustrator artwork to GIS formats. Otherwise my experience is that it leads to more time consuming workflows and it is very expensive for what it does. That is my opinion. Others use it extensively and will disagree with me on this one. But when I went off and started doing this for myself I did not purchase Mapublisher and I have never regretted that decision. It has been much more useful for me to have a fully functional GIS around. Exporting to Illustrator for finishing work is now trivial, and you can get very good looking products straight out of arc very quickly.

You use to be able to get a permanent basic arcview license through IMTA for $500. You will need to pay maintenance yearly to get upgrades though. And you will probably need to buy a few add-ons like edit tools or x-tools to make it really useful. Manifold is also very affordable. But has no yearly maintenance fee. The two have been compared extensively in the past on this site, so I won't repeat all that has been said before.

It is very difficult to go from charging very little to charging a living wage.

#8
MapMedia

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I agree with Martin; there is a considerable upfront software cost (and annual upkeep) to starting a basic map making venture (tax deductible of course!). From my narrow experience, I feel it essential to have a powerful GIS application, such as Arcmap at hand. If you don't have ArcMap (or Manifold) sitting there on your desktop, chances are you will not (1) go after GIS related map projects, and (2) use GIS to solve existing client needs. Eventually it pays for itself, just as much as the CS Creative Suite and 'must-have' fonts do.

#9
paul

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Good topic. Gets into the philosophy of business, something that I'm slowly learning.

Ditto on the budget comment and the IMTA discount.

Along with working full-time as a GIS Specialist for a GIS/RS consulting company, I also run a small, one-man cartography side business out of my home, and I feel your pain. I started with just Manifold, and the cartography is not great and is cumbersome at times, but I made enough money from a job or two to invest in ArcGIS. Using my IMTA discount, it was $500, which is a very nice price. I've raised my rates several times since then, plus I can work sooo much faster in ArcGIS (esp with custom VBA map atlas tools), so my profit margin is finally pretty good. Speed is key to making money in this industry, and ArcGIS allows me to streamline my workflow and finish projects faster, and thus I have recouped the license cost many times over. Maintenance is $400/year, and I pay for that by putting away a certain percentage of each job into an "overhead" account (ie 25% for taxes, 5% for licenses, etc.). The rest is profit. I've found that tracking all my income and expenses closely and making a budget helps me pinch ever penny and maximize my resources.

My first couple years I was making peanuts. I was a perfectionist and would dabble at maps for hours until I was finally happy with them. Like you, my result was making less than minimum wage. This is perfectly fine from an artist point of view, but it doesn't make any money. I did two things to change this: 1) Raise my rates. Clients were still willing to pay without batting an eye. Turned out my rates were way too low to begin with. I think I may raise them again. 2) Pad every project budget. I make a line-item spreadsheet of each task, and tabulate how long it should take to accomplish each one. Then I'll pretty much double each line-item, to account for Murphey's Law. My billing rate x total number of hours is the final cost estimate, and it has built-in money for unexpected problems and bumps in the road. 3) Streamline workflow, increase efficiency, and reduce time. This meant me buying ArcGIS, but also quitting my agonizing over every detail and just delivering the darn product. Clients were still very happy with the product, meaning I was just being too anal. If they really don't like something about the map, they'll ask me to change it, and since I 100% guarantee my work, I would be happy to. By working faster, I don't think my quality has suffered at all, especially since most of my business is repeat business from the same clients. QA/QC is still a vital step, but just shouldn't be drawn out.

Anyway, I've been there, but there's hope for turning a good profit. Keep looking for "steals" on software, as there are all sorts of great discounts out there without being a non-profit or a student. Even though I do a relatively low volume of work with my home business, I have no regrets about shelling out maintenance for ArcGIS every year, since it helps me make more money than Manifold or whatever else is out there. It's all about speed. (I do still use Manifold for certain things still, BTW. It's a strong piece of software, just not for carto).

Sorry for the rambling, but hope that helps!

#10
Charlie Frye

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Just to keep it real (watching American Idol too much), the price of Arc, isn't just the sticker price. The learning curve isn't cheap either. Initially it's a long-term investment that you're pouring resources into, then at some point you become vested and can begin to leverage your knowledge and then you are able to make more than minimum wage. Martin's right, you've got to have plans, particularly business, modernization, training, etc., without them you'll be minimum wage in perpetuity.

Frankly, guys like me aren't doing you any favors either. I'm providing tools and teaching more and more people how to use them; effectively pulling the rug out from under the gravy work.

One thing I'm not so sure about is whether learning Manifold or any other less expensive option better prepares you to learn Arc or any other tool. Learning any of these tools requires you to invest some amount of your time and effort in something proprietary and that can either be an anchor or a lodestone depending on your choice. For me, I'm quite happy to not have invested in GRASS, AtlasGIS, or Microstation. Illy is the only thing I wish I learned earlier (versus Corel), and I still don't know anywhere near enough about it.

I think you really have to enjoy learning to be in this business.
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#11
rudy

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Using my IMTA discount, it was $500, which is a very nice price.

So . . . what is this IMTA discount and how come I've never heard of it?

#12
byzantium

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Wow... glad I started this discussion or I might not have known about this.

http://www.maptrade....join/offers.php


"Sometimes you have to spend money to make some money."

That's been my philosophy for a long time. I used to buy every single software application that even remotely could help my work. Now that I depend on map-making for my business income, I have to really get a substantial benefit from a software package to justify buying it.

"2) Pad every project budget." I actually develop a spreadsheet estimate for anything beyond a few hour project and usually double the hours that I come up with. Even then, most projects exceed that number. The problem is, at some point no one will believe that you are actually going to spend 1000 hours on a map. Only that's typical of the projects which end up being sub-minimum wage. Yes, partly my experience at estimating is not fully fledged, but I passed the 500 map mark some time ago so it's not like I'm a newbie.

I guess I could have considered myself dabbling with map-making many years ago when I made them for fun and maybe I was perfectionistic about them. Today I don't have that luxury--I'm very concerned about efficiency as most maps I do have tens of thousands of details and there's no way to agonize over every single one of them or it would be an infinitely long process.

As far as going after "GIS projects" vs. non-GIS projects, I have not come across a single project that required using GIS tools (i..e they stipulate you must use Arcview). I've seen projects where they have GIS data, but I don't consider that a GIS project since I can usually convert it into a format that works for me. Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places? Obviously there are a lot of GIS jobs listed on places like the GIS Jobs Clearinghouse, but they are usually full-time employment.

bb

#13
paul

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As far as going after "GIS projects" vs. non-GIS projects, I have not come across a single project that required using GIS tools (i..e they stipulate you must use Arcview). I've seen projects where they have GIS data, but I don't consider that a GIS project since I can usually convert it into a format that works for me. Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places? Obviously there are a lot of GIS jobs listed on places like the GIS Jobs Clearinghouse, but they are usually full-time employment.


Regarding contract GIS work:

Consider contacting all of the environmental/wetlands/utility firms in your area. Many of them do not have in-house GIS (or time), so they outsource their mapping to GIS shops. The maps produced for projects like that (usally EIS's, EA's, Siting Studies, etc.) are what I call "industrial-grade" in that they are almost disposable. The clients look at them, mark them up with a sharpie, and then throw them away. But they are easy to make (especially for a cartographer like yourself) and you can easily bill $50/hr or so for this kind of GIS work (depending on your local economy).

#14
Dennis McClendon

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I bit the bullet (and used the IMTA discount) a couple of years back. Still find Arc's interface impenetrable, though, compared to being able to directly manipulate maps.

So I still wish I could find a GIS service bureau to whom I could send the files we get from local governments, and get back an Illustrator document ready for me to transform into a good-looking map.
Dennis McClendon, Chicago CartoGraphics
chicagocarto.com

#15
paul

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...Still find Arc's interface impenetrable, though, compared to being able to directly manipulate maps.

So I still wish I could find a GIS service bureau to whom I could send the files we get from local governments, and get back an Illustrator document ready for me to transform into a good-looking map.



Dennis,
Ha ha, that is just the opposite of me. Maybe we should team up: I love GIS, but wish I could get someone to do Illustrator for me! As a GIS monkey, I find Illustrator very difficult to use and spend a lot of time waddling around and wasting time. ArcGIS, on the other hand, is virtually 2nd nature to me. Of course, it probably helps that I use it 8-10 hours/day!! :rolleyes: Illustrator, on the other hand, I just use here and there for elevation profiles and finishing effects on maps. It's easy to forget things when you don't use it every day!

Like Charlie Frye said, it just goes to show the learning curve on both ends, and how important the time investment is on any of these software tools to get work done efficiently. For me, buying Adobe CS2 was a bigger financial risk than ArcGIS.




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