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St. Charles County, Mo., Deploys More Capable, Powerful GIS

GIS systems have had to evolve in step with their technology foundations. For government, this evolution is painful, but ultimately necessary.

by / January 25, 2017
Courtesy St. Charles County

In 2015, Adobe indicated it would be moving away from its workhouse application development tools Flash and Flex, declaring HTML5 “the Web platform of the future across all devices.”

GIS services provider Esri followed suit, saying it would continue to fix bugs in Adobe-based systems, but would not be introducing any new features based on the plug-in approach, shifting instead to products built on HTML5 and browser-native JavaScript.

All this left St. Charles County, Mo., in a pickle. The county’s mapping system was built with Esri tools on a soon-to-be antiquated Flex infrastructure.

Faced with an imminent loss of vendor support, county GIS executives took the plunge and converted their systems. Last fall they released a new public-facing mapping product with enhanced features and functions built on a JavaScript foundation.

“We are following what we see a lot of local governments doing,” said Mark Duewell, the county's manager of GIS Services. “I want to put as much data up there as we can. I want the data to be reviewed for accuracy and timeliness. I want metadata with it, and JavaScript just has a lot more powerful options.”

Esri officials say St. Charles’ move puts it in line with a trend that has been playing out across the GIS landscape since Adobe signaled the shift.

“The developers want to be on the screen of the user, and for a lot of users that has meant just going to HTML5 and using JavaScript,” said Andrew Stauffer, product manager of civic technology for Esri. “A lot of people have already seen the writing on the wall.”

The new maps

With about 385,000 people, St. Charles is Missouri's third-most populous county and includes many of the northern suburbs of St. Louis. The county’s new mapping tools give those residents a range of new options for tapping into GIS data.

  • A new search function allows users to access parcel data, along with photos from the Google Street View widget, simply by entering an address.
  • The main countywide map view has been labeled with municipal boundaries and jurisdictions, with municipalities color-coded and unincorporated areas depicted in a single color. Users can zoom in to see roads and other details.
  • A “layers” option allows users to take a deep dive into the data, with access to information on voting districts, county council districts, school districts and utility service providers. They can inspect zoning information, get data on park trails and explore topography.

The site draws from the county’s other recent GIS initiative, a newly launched Geospatial Open Data Portal. The portal opens up diverse downloadable data sets, available for free as either spreadsheets or as computerized mapping files called shapefiles, or Keyhole Markup Language (KML) files.

Even with the recent enhancements, the GIS team said it would like to continue adding new data into its mapping service. “Because we are situated between two rivers, we are prone to flooding, and we think people would like to know where the levees are and where the levee districts are,” Duewell said.

While the team is eager to pile on the new information, they haven’t rushed ahead. The priority for now is to ensure they are putting out a product that users will accept.

“We had a map service that was already being used, that was already accepted and well ingrained in county policies and operating procedures. We had lots of internal and external users who were going to be impacted,” Duewell said.

Feedback so far has been positive, but there have been some hiccups in the rollout, including complaints from real estate professionals about having to learn a new interface. “There are some people who would prefer not to have that learning curve,” Duewell said. “The JavaScript map does not look exactly like the old one and we did get some initial comments from people saying, 'Bring back the old one! I knew where everything was!'”

Despite the growing pains, Duewell is looking ahead to further iterations of the new JavaScript-based tool. He’d like to take out some layers of information, like agriculture data no one seems to use, in order to make room for new data sets as the city expands its GIS data collections.

He said he would also like something more mobile-friendly. “We know the real estate agents want to use it on their phones and so we are working on that next,” he said. “Right now, it works if you call it up on your phone, but it isn’t necessarily smooth. We want it to be optimized for the different platforms.”

For other jurisdictions still the midst of the JavaScript migration, Stauffer notes that Esri has a range of tools available to ease the pain of conversion, including map service templates and auto-create applications.

“If somebody did something super customized and did it all themselves, they might need to rewrite that for JavaScript,” he said. “But it’s not like the move to JavaScript inherently forces anyone to learn new niche tools.”

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.