GIS Offers Online Access to Zoning and Utility Information

Ohio city makes detailed maps available to citizens, contractors and engineers.

by / September 22, 2008
Easy Access Design Department

Portsmouth, Ohio, has made getting maps and utility information much easier by implementing a Web-based GIS portal. Utility workers, engineers and residents can now access up-to-date sewer, floodway, zoning and parking information from virtually any location.

"This particular solution allows us to put all of our data that we've had in different sources together in one source, which is now an Oracle database," said city CIO Michael Penn. "It's a mountain of data we have right now and it's a lot easier to deal with when it's all in one place."

The Nitty-Gritty
Portsmouth began harnessing GIS technology in 1997, when the city hired Penn. "The current mayor had an idea that he'd like to see GIS implemented, and he brought me onboard; we got a start on it," he said. "We'd been doing digital maps within the city for a long time, and it's just been until recently that we had the idea to put everything on the Internet and make it available for pretty much everybody."

Now Portsmouth uses AutoCAD Map 3D, Autodesk MapGuide Enterprise software and Oracle Spatial database technology to display digital design data.

"If you think about it, Oracle is basically in the center -- that's where all the data is stored," said Mark Christian, product marketing manager for Autodesk. "The sewer lines, the cadastral data, zoning data -- all types of information like that -- is stored in the Oracle database."

Two types of clients access the database information: the desktop client, known as AutoCAD Map, which also is the tool engineering staff use to update that information; and MapGuide Enterprise, which is the Web server technology that serves up the information in the database to a Web browser.

Using the desktop client, city engineers edit the data or create new information, Christian said, whether it's editing a map vector, sewer line placements or attribute information that describes the object. "It's based on AutoCAD, so a lot of the engineering staff are already familiar with most of the tools. But rather than storing data in files, they're storing them in the Oracle database," he said.

In addition, AutoCAD Map 3D and MapGuide software support various computer-aided design (CAD) and GIS file formats and data servers, such as DWG, ESRI shapefiles, Oracle9i and industry-standard raster formats.

The integration of the various formats is virtually undetectable, Penn said.

"We can connect to any of the GIS formats out there," he said. "They get put into the Oracle database, and then when we access them through AutoCAD Map, there's really no conversion at all -- it's just kind of done on the fly. You don't ever see it."

For this system, Portsmouth uses one server -- a Hewlett-Packard DL380 with a quad-core processor that has 4 GB of RAM -- that runs both the Oracle and MapGuide software, Penn said.

"It has some pretty good hard drives in it -- eight different hard drives -- and they're about 15,000 RPM hard drives, so they're pretty fast. That was probably about half the cost of the switchover. But it's running great, and I think the Oracle database itself is right around 3.8 GB."

Laying the Groundwork
Penn said the GIS Department didn't run into any problems prior to or during implementation, but the scariest thing for him was working with the Oracle database. "I'm not an Oracle programmer or expert," he said, "but it seems to be pretty easy to work with right now."

Overall, Penn said the solution was exactly what the city needed. For example, it allows Sewer Supervisor Dwight Altman to look up sewer information in the field with a laptop instead of relying on a potentially outdated paper map, Penn said.

As the sewer supervisor, Altman checks complaints, assigns jobs, marks sewer lines, buys supplies, lays out projects such as new lines and manholes, and supervises contractors. GIS comes into the picture in multiple ways.

"We look up sewer lines and print maps from the Internet," Altman said. "GIS also allows contractors to look up their own information as a matter of convenience."

Contractors typically don't alter the maps -- they only need to access them for referencing purposes. Previously this was done using paper maps, he said, which were always in the office. But things are much easier now.

"Whenever a contractor needs to look up a sewer line, I can give him the Web address to our GIS portal and he can look up the line himself," Altman said. "I can still help them look it up in my office, but they mostly look them up themselves now."

This accessibility results in incredible timesaving, he said.

"All I do now is turn in an updated map to [the] Engineering [Department] and it's uploaded into the GIS portal," he said. "That way, I always have an updated map to work off of."

There's only one thing missing so far.

"I want to put our sewer taps into the GIS, so we can see those while we're in the field too," Altman said.

Many Happy Returns
Many citizens also have used the GIS technology.

"Citizens have been using it to look up aerial photos, and of course, the first thing they do is go look up their house," he said. "Then they start thinking of areas of interest to them and zoom in on the map. And if they have a question about where something is, they can find it on the map instead of coming into our engineering department to look up zoning information. They can do it right from their house."

It took about three months to implement the GIS solution, Penn said.

"We bought a GIS server, we bought the software and had it installed, and then it was basically just translating all the data into the Oracle database, and then putting our sewer lines in there," he said.

The total cost of the switchover was approximately $20,000.

"It was funded through our capital improvements program," he said, noting a good return on investment that's going to get better. "We're still settling into the workflow right now. Once we get it down a little better, we'll keep coming up with new ideas to use this."