State Spotlight: Massachusetts

Neil MacGaffey
Director, MassGIS

Interviewed by Sheila Steffenson | January 16, 2019

In his 18 years of working in state government, Massachusetts’ GIS Director Neil MacGaffey said he has seen the “steady push to a larger and larger scale of mapping. Resolution of all data has improved. Statewide mapping of parcels, addresses, and structures now exists and is a game changer.”

The state completed standardized statewide parcel mapping in 2013. 

“The availability of this information statewide has had an extraordinary impact across a broad spectrum of uses,” MacGaffey said. “There are terrific stories on what the availability of this data has enabled. Parcel data is the single most popular data set, whether accessed via download from the MassGIS website or through web mapping services.”

The parcel data were static early on, MacGaffey explained, but have become dynamic with financial incentives from the state, and, more recently, a requirement from the state’s public safety agency. That requirement made submitting updated standardized mapping to MassGIS an eligibility requirement for annual 9-1-1 grant funding. Updated parcel mapping is essential for the ongoing map-centric operations of the state’s recently deployed Next Generation 9-1-1 system.

With parcel data in good shape, the state will focus on improving mapping of elevation and hydrography, as well as an approach to equitably fund its imagery base map.

Along with his predecessors Michael Terner and Christian Jacqz, MacGaffey has implemented a vision for the possibilities of GIS grounded in good quality, well documented, and readily available GIS data. 

“Data maintained by state agencies and by MassGIS are made freely available through the MassGIS website and through web mapping services,” said MacGaffey. “We have an exceptionally rich and detailed GIS database. Not only does this database support government operations, but we believe that the quality and ready availability of this data makes it easier to do business in Massachusetts.”

Noting the absence of an interagency coordinating council, MacGaffey said interagency issues are addressed by convening ad hoc working groups based on who he knows in state government.

He added, “This is not a sustainable model.”

MacGaffey discovered his passion for GIS during graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Completing a Masters in Land Resources, MacGaffey took two GIS courses in the Department of Landscape Architecture.

“I immediately understood the potential of GIS in planning, soil erosion, dealing with people, watersheds, land, and so forth,” said MacGaffey. “The common denominator was the interdisciplinary nature of GISsurveying, cartography, data, and technology.”

MacGaffey was a research assistant on a National Science Foundation grant awarded to an interdisciplinary faculty team to look at GIS to automate land records in local government. That project involved representatives of municipal and state government agencies. MacGaffey did a lot of digitizing and then fixing related editing errors using the Odyssey GIS software developed at the Harvard Lab for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis.

Following graduate school, MacGaffey was an early employee of the GIS consulting firm established by John Antenucci in the early 1980s, PlanGraphics. 

“John’s strong vision for what could be done with the technology, influence on the GIS profession, and his leadership and ability to attract very talented staff resulted in successful launches of many early multi-departmental municipal GIS projects, most of them going strong to this day,” said MacGaffey, adding that he recalls his time in that first job as providing a solid foundational understanding of all things GIS.

In his current position with the state, MacGaffey said his involvement with NSGIC helps him do his job.

“For the bigger picture, there is nothing like NSGIC colleagues to share issues and results,” said MacGaffey. “All states are dealing with the same set of problems; however, each state has different circumstances.”

MacGaffey uses the analogy of a deck of cards from which each state is dealt a hand they have to play. “At NSGIC,” he said, “the states collectively have the best hand in the deck and by working together, we can help each other.

“NSGIC meetings are also a fabulous opportunity to learn from industry experts, interact with and develop relationships with our federal partners, and have what sometimes feels like a therapy session!”

At future NSGIC conferences, MacGaffey is interested in seeing more of lidar and imagerysensors, processing, and what can be extracted.

On a personal note, MacGaffey is a member of an amateur chorus. He also likes to garden, read, play board games and cards with family members, and spend time in quiet wild places.