Empowered with maps and data

December 2004 » Feature Articles
GIS and specialized databases have become standard tools for government agencies and utilities. But many agencies still are trying to capitalize on their investments in these information technology tools.
Prasad V. Chittaluru, PH.D., P.E.

Web-based GIS and database applications help agencies integrate and mine mountains of information

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and specialized databases have become standard tools for government agencies and utilities. But many agencies still are trying to capitalize on their investments in these information technology tools.

With creative planning, GIS and database applications can be put to their best use and can empower users with easy, on-demand access to the information they need. As several agencies in Florida have discovered, information collected by multiple departments can be integrated for maximum accuracy and reliability, then displayed in tailored, specialized reports and maps to meet needs ranging from long-term planning to daily maintenance.

Buried in data

Most government agencies collect a wealth of data using GIS and database applications. Information typically collected and maintained by different departments or multiple groups within an agency includes the following:

  • parcel data for a city or county;
  • locations and types of assets and infrastructure owned, leased, and maintained by the agency;
  • capital improvement project information, updates, design specifications, construction photos, inspection information, and permitting;
  • planning and zoning data outlining current and future land use;
  • master plans, including population projections and economic indicators; and
  • environmental management data, including wetland coverages, contamination plumes, hydraulic models, existing and required regulatory permits, and upcoming regulatory changes.

For utilities, additional data collected includes daily operating parameters, maintenance schedules, and customer service data, including billing records and use history.

While agencies enjoy the ability to have data literally at staff’s fingertips, some groups are frustrated when information cannot be shared across the enterprise. For example, the engineering department may have mapping capabilities, yet the customer service group cannot generate a map for a public information meeting.

In addition, when multiple copies and versions of data exist, data integrity problems may follow. Yet, as budgets shrink and expectations for service rise, agencies want the most value from GIS and database management systems already in place, rather than purchasing additional costly software.

The good news is that new and more powerful GIS and database applications have arrived.

Today, agencies are developing consolidated systems in which all applications are tied together seamlessly to provide data on demand and standardized data entry that minimizes the chance for duplicate efforts.

These systems are realized through webbased GIS and database applications. Webbased applications integrate data from sources throughout the organization to provide specific data targeted to users’ needs. Making the information accessible over intranets centralizes data and application maintenance. Web-based applications allow employees varying levels of access and authorization to view the data without new, expensive software or significant training.

Data mining and data integration are the means to this new end. Data integration blends data from multiple sources to create a larger, more comprehensive body of information.

Data mining extracts additional value from existing information by searching for and presenting new data patterns. Fortunately, the capability for data mining and data integration is found in the GIS systems already used by most agencies. GIS can reveal data patterns as well as spatially correlate information from different sources. Thus, users already have the tools needed to create an integrated suite of applications tailored to their needs.

Data entered over spreadsheets, text documents, and client/server applications now can be integrated through web-based GIS and database applications. Ultimately, an agency can integrate major applications and make them accessible to end users through a common, seamless interface with a shared user name and password. Applications already in use—including plan review, customer service, transmission systems assessment, asset/maintenance management, and master planning—represent a significant step in this direction.

The following representative applications demonstrate the successful use of data integration and data mining functions inherent in GIS and database applications to provide end-users access to enterprise information and to improve operational efficiency.

Land inventory

Indian River County, Fla., uses an application to identify land within the county for potential development. Using GIS parcel data, county tax roll information, and zoning information, the Indian River County Vacant Land Inventory Application identifies vacant land and computes the number of single-family and multi-family residential housing units that potentially could be developed there. Reports summarize findings by section-township- range, jurisdiction, and traffic analysis zone. The application also creates new GIS map layers so results are viewed and displayed using existing GIS software.

The Indian River County Vacant Land Inventory Application integrates a vast range of data collected by the county planning department, the property appraiser, and municipalities.

Parcel data includes the shape, area, and location of the parcel, revenue codes, assessment values, and subdivision information. Other information incorporated includes future land use data, municipality borders, traffic analysis zones, zoning for nearby beach areas, information about existing or planned development projects, permit status, and street centerline data. The data is obtained from the planning department’s CD+ permit management system.

The application allows users to perform powerful GIS and database analysis without requiring a high-level of GIS or database training or knowledge (Figure 1). What could be a very resource-intensive task has been automated into an easy operation, completed in minutes. The application, delivered on a single DVD, was built using Microsoft Access 2000 to develop the user interface, program logic, and report format. Lookup tables required for the application are stored and maintained in a Microsoft Access 2000 database along with intermediate and final results.

GIS geoprocessing tasks are performed using ESRI Arc/Info Workstation Arc Macro Language (AML). While AML is one of ESRI’s older technologies, it was selected for its proven performance and reliability in batch processing larger GIS data sets. Map templates for viewing results were created using ESRI ArcGIS Desktop software.

Users select from two security levels—administrator and read-only. Administrators have access to the entire application, allowing them to update data sets, regenerate the results, and modify lookup tables. Read-only users can access only reports and maps generated by the application, using a password obtained from a department administrator.

Reports are available that provide land information by acreage and units, as well as development status and other specialized data. To narrow findings, a filter option allows generation of permits for a single area.

The Indian River County Vacant Land Inventory Application was created so the planning department could develop more accurate travel demand models by improving model inputs and the quality of assumptions about future land use and development. The data also allows the county to monitor closely the development pace and perform "what-if" analyses, which are useful in assessing rezoning requests or performing comprehensive land use plan updates. Other agencies, such as the school board and county utilities, now are identifying uses from this application.

Utility updates

A central Florida utility now can incorporate data collected in the field into its central server.

Prior to the development and deployment of this application, field staff marked changes on drawings, which were collected and scanned once a year for incorporation into the GIS system. This caused a significant backlog in updating asset information.

Using a Mobile GIS Desktop application, field personnel can draw findings and add notes using a laptop computer (Figure 2).

When the laptop is connected to the network, marks and notes are sent to the field personnel’s supervisor, who can approve or deny them. Approved comments are transferred electronically to the GIS database, where data editors make the required changes. All field comments are stored as a redline database layer so field staff can verify quickly that their changes were incorporated into the system. A Mobile Data Refresh Process downloads the latest information to field laptops, allowing field personnel to access the most current information when responding to customer calls or completing maintenance tasks. For example, Mobile GIS Desktop proved extremely useful during recovery and repair operations following hurricane Charley because field staff had ready access to all infrastructure information on their laptop computers.

Mobile GIS Desktop was developed in Visual Basic 6.0 and Arc Objects 8.3 using ADO 2.5. Information on field laptops is stored in personal geodatabase format in Access 2000. The application performs incremental/ batch updates to the enterprise geodatabase SDE 8.3. Field staff use ArcView 8.3 to access this application.

Engineering CIP database

In Seminole County, Fla., the Environmental Services Department staff uses an Engineering Capital Improvement Projects (ECIP) database application to track and report on planning, development, and construction projects (Figure 3). The database allows quick access to a variety of information, including engineers’ estimates, budgets, work orders, invoices, and change orders. It also links and retrieves project documents, prioritizes activities, tracks progress through field inspector notes, and assists in managing the work of other staff, consultants, and contractors.

Before the ECIP database was developed, information was stored in multiple spreadsheets and text documents residing in several locations. Information was not easy to retrieve, and data reliability was at risk. ECIP originally was developed in Microsoft Access and Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). The backend database was migrated to Microsoft SQL Server to address county staff’s data access needs and to provide a more robust relational database management system. Enhancements are now in progress to facilitate automatic transfer of field inspector comments to the databases, eliminating paper entries and manual data-transfer operations.

Utility desktop applications

A central Florida utility uses a Data Management Information System (DMIS) to support its business activities, including plan review, utilities planning, and customer service.

The application allows users to track such diverse data as planned development project review, user connection fees, hydraulic model demand, and estimated available system capacity.

Migration to the DMIS application included development of complex data import routines and creation of intricate interface screens and database reports. Data entry, queries, and reporting are handled through the web-based interface screens. User names and passwords allow varying levels of access for security and data integrity.

For the same utility, a Utilities GIS Desktop application offers search, viewing, and printing tools for staff who are not proficient in using GIS. This web-based mapping application provides GIS data and maps over an intranet without requiring a GIS software license. As a result, use of GIS data across the enterprise has increased.

Finally, the utility’s Solid Waste Call Tracker application, which is also web-based, integrates GIS and a work order management system. An ArcIMS map interface for the work management system was developed to create work orders and to display graphically the type and status of existing work orders for call center staff. The map portion of the application was developed using Arc SDE views and Oracle database links to show dynamically the change in work order status on the map interface.

For the web applications, Active Server Page (ASP) and .NET Technologies were used for backend function development. DHTML, JavaScript, and Cascading Style Sheets were used to develop the graphical user interfaces.

Oracle 8i was used as the relational database management system to store and retrieve data.

The GIS applications were developed using ESRI software, including ArcIMS, Arc GIS, ArcObjects, and ArcSDE.

Highway project analysis

A Corridor Constraint Analyst (CCA) tool, prepared for evaluation of alternative highway project corridors, shaves hundreds of hours off the traditional literature review and CAD analysis process required to identify potential environmental impacts for highway projects (Figure 4). The CCA is an analytical GIS application designed to analyze, inventory, measure, and catalog resources within project corridors automatically. This information is vital in site selection and later in preparing Environmental Impact Statements/Environmental Impact Reports, feasibility studies, and permit applications.

With CCA, data is collected from existing GIS databases and from field surveys of the highway corridor to be studied. Field data is entered on handheld units for direct input into the tool. Examples of data input used by the tool include alignment and land use data, endangered species information, and locations of wetlands, aquifers, and hazardous materials sites, as well as oil and gas wells and pipelines.

Once data is gathered and input, tailored reports present measurements of impact areas.

Inventories of environmental features also are provided. Future CCA enhancements will generate planning-level alternate routes and construction cost estimates, as well as simultaneous multi-alignment analyses.

CCA, developed using ArcObjects technology, uses the underlying GIS information as shape files in the ArcGIS 8.3 environment.

Upgrades are underway to migrate the application to the ArcGIS 9.x environment using geodatabases.

Applications within reach

Tailored, web-based GIS and database applications are not just for agencies with large, internal IT support teams. By working with a smaller IT group or experienced consultants, any size agency can develop these powerful tools. Existing tasks that offer a natural starting point for developing these applications include data-intensive and repetitive activities, standard reporting, programs sharing secure data among several users/locations, and computer model simulations.

With growing populations and lean operating budgets, the sensible next step for any agency is to develop specialized applications that maximize existing technology investments.

When information is coordinated across the enterprise, the result is more accurate, readily available data that can be mined and presented to meet an incredible range of needs at a lower final cost.

Prasad V. Chittaluru, Ph.D., P.E., is program manager with PBS&J in Orlando, Fla. He can be contacted at 1-407-806-4105, or via e-mail at pvchittaluru@pbsj.com. Phillip J. Matson is assistant staff director for the Indian River County Metropolitan Planning Organization in Vero Beach, Fla. He can be contacted at 1-772-567-8000, or via e-mail at pmatson@ircgov.com. Jeffrey F. Thompson, P.E., is senior engineer for Seminole County Environmental Services in Sanford, Fla. He can be contacted at 1-407-665-2021 or via email at jthompson@seminolecountyfl.gov.


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