City signs

June 2014 » Project + Technology Portfolio » Commercial/Industrial/Government
GIS-based traffic sign application helps meet federal mandates.
Jim Baumann

The City of Ames, Iowa uses a custom GIS-based sign management application called GIS Assets that runs on Apple iPads and is used to collect data from the field, such as traffic sign inventories and asset information.

The City of Ames, Iowa, was founded in 1864 to serve the Cedar Rapids and Missouri River Railroad, an effect of America’s westward expansion at that time. In 1870, when the town was incorporated, it had 844 residents. During that same year, the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm was established in Ames as a Land-Grant College. Today, now known as the Iowa State University of Science and Technology (ISU), it serves more than 27,000 students, which is nearly half the city’s total population of 59,000.

With the regular influx of new student residents, it is important for the streets and highways in Ames to be clearly signposted to minimize accidents and provide clear directions to both new students and people unfamiliar with the town during campus sports events. Additionally, the city has to conform to state and federal standards regarding signs, as outlined in the Federal Highway Administration Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

Ben McConville, GIS manager in the city’s public works department, has been using ArcGIS for asset management for many years. Among the city’s numerous assets, there are more than 9,500 local traffic signs. 

“Street signs are a challenge to accurately manage,” McConville said. “You would think it is a fairly straightforward procedure; however, there are normally multiple assets residing at the same location. For example, in addition to the signpost, you may have three or four signs attached to it. So at that identical location, your database will include maintenance histories, accident reports, and retroreflectivity records for each sign as well as the post. In addition, there are replacement and maintenance schedules and vegetation management procedures related to the assets at that same location.”


By using barcoding, public works department staff can easily identify signs and, if retrieved and turned into the department following an accident or act of vandalism, the sign’s proper location.

Recently, Ames partnered with DGTex, Inc., to create a custom GIS-based sign management application called GIS Assets. It’s built on ArcGIS Runtime SDK for iOS and runs on the Apple iPad. The application, now available on iTunes, is used to collect data from the field, such as traffic sign inventories and asset information, and integrate it and other remotely collected data with the department’s geodatabase, managed by ArcGIS for Server.

Dominic Roberge, GIS specialist for the city, worked with traffic maintenance staff and developers at DGTex to design the application and database schema. “I spent a great deal of time identifying the needs of the crews and exactly what gaps the application needed to fill,” Roberge said. “Among them were the need for barcoding and the ability to handle complex relationships. I then designed the database schema to accommodate these needs and published the Web services accordingly.”


The city uses a RoadVista model 922 retroreflectometer that records each sign’s GPS coordinates and reads the barcoded label attached to it for identification purposes.

The city uses a RoadVista model 922 retroreflectometer to measure the reflectivity of each of its signs, which is required for the federally mandated retroreflectivity survey. In addition to measuring its reflectivity, the device records the sign’s GPS coordinates and reads the barcoded label attached to it for identification purposes.

“Signs are frequently knocked down by vehicle accidents, vandalism, or snowplows,” said Bill Latham, an Ames traffic maintenance worker. “Often the signs are simply dropped at the maintenance shop by law enforcement or maintenance crews with no explanation of where they may have come from. By using barcoding, staff can easily see exactly which sign it is and where it came from, making it easy to reset.”

Back in the office, the data recorded by the retroreflectometer is downloaded to the GIS Assets application, which uses the sign’s barcode for reference. The application then performs a join to the department’s geodatabase, and the field data is automatically added to it, which helps centralize all remotely collected data with the geodatabase. Because each sign’s reflectivity data and history are now part of the database, the city’s traffic department can easily check to see if a specific sign is in compliance with the MUTCD. This verification can be done by public works staff from either the office or in the field with their iPads, which saves time and money.

“During city construction activities, GIS Assets has proved to be extremely helpful,” said Terry J. Keigley, an Ames traffic maintenance worker. “Contractors often remove entire blocks of signs prior to construction. Sign crews are now able to easily reset the signs in the exact location with no measuring. The GPS typically gets us close enough to where we can find the existing hole or stem to place the sign on.”


Reflectivity of each sign is required for the federally mandated retroreflectivity survey.

Before implementing the sign management application, the public works department was faced with bulk replacement of its signs in a specified area every five years to comply with FHWA mandates. With the application, field crews can now evaluate these assets sign by sign and then send this information to the geodatabase back in the office, where it is determined whether a sign should be repaired or replaced and issue work orders depending on the decision. 

In addition, the iPad provides other functionality that is enhancing the department’s workflow, including messaging between workers, broadcast emails, and the opportunity to shoot a photograph or video of an emergency situation in progress, such as a water main break, and send the video to the engineering department for evaluation. This information can also be attached to the geodatabase.

“The ability to easily attach pictures is a huge benefit. Pictures are a great tool to help us see what information may not be in the attributes. For example, not every MUTCD code indicates what the exact wording is on the sign. By looking at the picture, we can easily see,” said Brad Becker, traffic signal lead technician.

“Centralizing all our public works asset data has really been a big benefit to us,” McConville said. “Previously, there was a lack of integration and field connectivity, which made work tracking and inventorying difficult.” 

The GIS Assets application has sparked interest from other departments and is increasing the use of ArcGIS in Ames, particularly because the city has an Esri enterprise license agreement (ELA). “The ELA has opened up a ton of doors for us,” McConville said. “It’s given us the opportunity to really explore what we can do with GIS.”

The next project for the Ames Public Works Department is expanding its use of the GIS Assets application by making greater use of its barcode reading capability. “Adding barcoding to all our public works assets makes it much easier for crews to immediately identify an asset in the field, determine its condition, and then send that information back to the geodatabase for further review,” McConville said. “It will really help streamline our field crews’ work and continue to keep our geodatabase up-to-date.”

Jim Baumann is a writer with Esri (esri.com)


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