October 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA1

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Evaluating the Effectiveness of Adopting a GIS in the Extension Service: Evidence from the Cooperative Extension Service at Mississippi State University

The purpose of this publication is to provide an evaluation of the effectiveness of adopting GIS in issues-programming activities of Extension Service specialists and agents. Exchange of information between program areas responsible for GIS and other program areas was conducted to show how GIS can be applicable to each major area's programmatic needs. Data on number of GIS products developed and hours of work revealed approximately half of maps produced were for the host programming area. Over 90 percent of hours worked was devoted to clients outside of the Extension Service.

Joselito K. Estrada
Planning Economist
Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning
Jackson, Mississippi
Internet Address: jestrada@ihl.state.ms.us

James R. Steil
GIS Coordinator, Extension GIS Unit
Cooperative Extension Service
Mississippi State University
Mississippi State, Mississippi
Internet Address: jim@gis.mces.msstate.edu

In this age of the information superhighway, not a day goes by without hearing of new information technologies that can make our decision making or issues-programming tasks easier and more efficient. Reactions to these technologies are varied. At times, incorporation of emerging technologies is precluded by our ever- shrinking budgets. When funds are available, we have to justify whether the returns on this investment outweigh the cost of purchasing, learning, and applying the new technology.

The purpose of this paper is to provide an evaluation of the effectiveness of incorporating geographic information system (GIS) technology into the issues-programming responsibilities of Extension specialists and agents. The means of evaluating effective incorporation is by measuring the use of GIS by specialists and agents in the major areas of programming (MAPs) in the Cooperative Extension Service at Mississippi State University.

A GIS is composed of computer hardware, software and spatially referenced data (Environmental Systems Research Institute, 1990). It has the capability to store, manage, retrieve, and perform analysis on data. The unique feature of GIS is its ability to link spatially referenced geometric data (e.g. points, lines, polygons, and topology) with tabular attribute data. Tabular attribute data may include any information related to spatial geometric data, for example, well depth or chloride concentrations (points), road names or maintenance records (lines), and bushels per acre or census tract information (polygons). GIS displays this information in the map form.

GIS Implementation in the Extension Service

In 1993, the GIS unit was brought under the aegis of the Enterprise and Community Resource Development program area (ECRD) of Mississippi State University's Cooperative Extension Service. It has been ECRD's mission to provide Mississippians with technical assistance and educational programs that develop and strengthen rural communities, agribusiness, governmental effectiveness, and environmental awareness (McGilberry, 1996). The Extension Service administration envisioned GIS's potential support role not only to ECRD but also to other program areas within the Extension Service: Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR), Family and Consumer Education (FCE), and 4-H/Youth Development (4-H).

To maximize the use of GIS within the Extension Service, time and effort were put into learning how specialists and agents could use GIS. Extension GIS specialists held meetings and information exchange sessions with state program leaders, specialists, and agents working in the four MAPs. Sample GIS map products were produced to illustrate some possible applications in each program area.

Resources were used to reach out to other university and governmental organizations. Extension GIS specialists provided technical assistance and educational programs to federal, state, and county agencies such as the USDA, the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development (MDECD), and county Extension offices. One of these educational programs was the development of Mississippi's Rural Empowerment Zone (EZ) and Rural Enterprise Community (EC) maps for the USDA.

These maps have aided federal officials in implementing and monitoring the EZ/EC program in Mississippi. Extension GIS specialists assisted MDECD planners and analysts in developing site selection plans for industrial clients interested in expanding or locating new operations in the state. Extension GIS worked with Extension home economists in urban Mississippi counties to assess the feasibility of establishing local child day care facilities.

Effectiveness of GIS Adoption

There are numerous examples of how GIS has assisted Extension personnel in programming efforts. Rather than listing and evaluating impacts on an individual basis, a summary of map production and hours worked by organization for calendar years 1995 and 1996 is presented in the following table.

Table 1
TOTAL MCES 7702009.25
TOTAL OTHER3401100.00

The summary table shows that roughly 48 percent of the Extension GIS Unit's map production was in support of ECRD's programming efforts. GIS assistance ranged from the identification of potential dry-hydrant locations for rural fire protection to the mapping of transportation, energy, and hydrography networks for emergency management needs (McGilberry, 1996).

Over 90 percent of Extension GIS's time was devoted to developing maps and applications for state and local government agencies, university academic departments, and Extension offices. University academic departments requested maps for research and teaching. County Extension agents, in particular Extension home economists, used GIS services in their programming efforts. These maps dealt with issues facing Mississippi families such as health care, poverty, and child day care.

Extension Service administrators have used GIS as a budget and staffing tool. GIS maps have been used to show elected officials and state legislators where in their respective districts Extension Service programs have been implemented, demonstrating the accomplishments and importance of the Extension Service in these locations. Determination of county staffing needs has been streamlined by using GIS technology. State leaders defined and weighted the criteria important to program implementation and used GIS to objectively prioritize the results for decision makers.


Has the incorporation of GIS into the issues-programming efforts of the Cooperative Extension Service been effective? In terms of the statistical information presented above, it is clear that specialists and agents in the major areas of programming have found many valuable uses for the technology. Through educational and information sharing sessions GIS specialists and other Extension personnel have developed Extension programs utilizing GIS as a program needs assessment and program monitoring tool.

The real test of GIS's effectiveness in the Extension Service is whether its use has benefitted clients. To measure the benefit to clients, the Extension GIS Unit developed a questionnaire. Each client who receives a map product is asked to assess the impact of GIS technology to the project. An analysis of clients' responses is currently under study.


Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc. (1990). Understanding GIS: The Arc/Info Method. Redlands, CA: Environmental Systems Research Institute.

McGilberry, J. H. (1996), Enterprise and community resource development: 1995 Program highlights. (Publication 2066). Mississippi State: Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service.