State Spotlight: Alabama

Phillip Henderson

State of Alabama GIO, Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) / Director of the Alabama Geographic Information Office (AGIO)

 Interviewed by Robert C. Hoyler | May 14, 2020  

For the last 30 years, Alabama State GIO Phillip Henderson has worked in state government with much of that time spent working in the field of GIS. He was appointed as the Geographic Information Officer (GIO) for the State of Alabama by Governor Bentley in September 2014 and the Director of the Alabama Geographic Information Program Office in June 2011. He also serves as the Director for Virtual Alabama at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA).

“It was truly significant to see the establishment of the state GIS office in 2011 and to see the creation of a GIO position in 2014’” reflected Henderson. 

Henderson’s lifelong love of maps stems from his childhood where his father would obtain a plethora of maps for their family vacations. He has not been able to put them down since. Because of this childhood love of maps, he decided to pursue a career which required the daily use of them. Approximately 30 years ago, when hired as a geologist, he was given the job assignment of computerizing a cartography lab at the Geological Survey of Alabama. In the intervening years, his love for GIS has only grown.

One of the biggest success stories in the state, Henderson shared, has been the establishment of a successful statewide framework (Alabama GeoHub) for geospatial data and information through a federated model. The state is seeing a steady growth of their geospatial community and there are significant increases in collaborations within their statewide framework.

Henderson recognized the efforts of Jo McGinnis, GIS coordinator with the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, “who has done a fabulous job with significantly improving GIS collaboration within the agency as well as between the local governments.” In addition to her normal routine, McGinnis is leading the initiative from the Alabama GIS Executive Council to create statewide GIS emergency response teams. Thanks to her efforts, they now have GIS teams who are helping the state during times of unexpected emergencies. 

Outside of the ever-present need for funding, Henderson pointed to overall coordination as the biggest challenge he faces in taking their state GIS program to the next level. He noted “it is vital that partnerships are formed so that authoritative data is collected. Not only is this the biggest challenge, it also has the greatest reward once accomplished. As our geospatial awareness and our geospatial community grow statewide, we must continue to remember that this is built through relationships, one person at a time.” Henderson went on to say that at a country level, he feels like one of the greatest challenges in GIS is to improve collaboration across political boundaries both within their states and the nation.

Henderson shared that the state of Alabama has a successful statewide imagery program which divides the state into three distinct regions with annual acquisitions. Therefore, their team has statewide updates of imagery every three years. The state has partnered with the USGS 3DEP program for lidar acquisitions within their state for several years and will continue to do so in the future. 

He noted that they are working to improve the current data infrastructure and filling in the gaps where there are holes. Alabama’s GIS Advisory Committee, which is composed of representatives from across their geospatial community, is a significant resource in this endeavor.

Staying current on what other states are doing and how they are overcoming challenges is, according to Henderson, the most valuable aspect of NSGIC membership. “NSGIC is the only organization dedicated to state GIOs and coordinators where we can share solutions to benefit each other as well as networking with peers. This premier state-led forum provides numerous opportunities for developing, exchanging, and endorsing geospatial technology as well as policy best practices,” shared Henderson. 

When it comes to what he enjoys most about his job as Alabama State GIO, Henderson likes spreading the word on how important GIS is and watching the aha moments when others get it. He enjoys watching reactions as others see their information displayed geospatially through GIS and how useful it is to them and everyone else.

Outside of work, he enjoys spending time with his family restoring old cars, traveling, and going on outdoor adventures.

To learn more about GIS in Alabama, visit the Alabama GeoHub website.


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