It's the kind of faux pas that makes a taxpayer's blood boil -- a utility closes a street to service underground cables. When the project is done, workers repave the roadway. Five weeks later, the Department of Public Works digs up the freshly paved surface to work on a sewer line.

This failure to coordinate means twice the inconvenience for anyone who regularly drives on that street, and the double excavation and repaving also waste money.

Like many local governments, Sacramento County, Calif., dealt with this sort of blunder all the time. However, in the late 1990s, a county supervisor got annoyed about traveling on a road that had just been excavated and was being excavated again, said Bob Earle, the county's principal IT analyst.

At the time, county officials had no formal method for coordinating excavation projects. The procedure was entirely reliant on one person remembering to call another, Earle said, adding that turnover was a problem as changes in staff interrupted the chain of personal communications. "So things got excavated twice."

To address this challenge, the county's Geographic Information Systems (GIS) department started building support for the idea of developing software that county departments could use to coordinate street excavation projects. The first version of the county's Street Excavation Right of Way (SEROW) system went on line in 1999, and in 2003 -- with help from GeoPrise.Net, a developer of GIS applications for governments -- Sacramento County started using a second, more capable version of its SEROW system.

County developers originally built SEROW using ArcIMS, a software solution from ESRI, for delivering GIS data and maps over the Web. After substantial thought about how to display the areas covered by excavation projects, they decided to use street centerlines. That's not a perfect choice, since a project might correspond to more than one road segment, but "it seemed to be the most practical and useful feature we can tag these projects to," Earle said. "The centerline is one of our fundamental base map layers, so it's updated on a frequent basis and is useful in a lot of applications."

GeoPrise.Net, a reseller of ESRI software, later rewrote SEROW from scratch, basing it on standard technologies so it can evolve as the available technology improves, said Mark Perry, president of GeoPrise.Net. In the SEROW system, GeoPrise.Net provides the business and presentation logic while ArcIMS provides the map displays.

One important change in the new system is that it allows project managers to enter data about street excavations themselves, rather than relying on the GIS department to update SEROW on their behalf.

But the No. 1 change was in system performance, Perry said. "It was the most important improvement in terms of user acceptance and software effectiveness. It was too slow prior to that -- so slow that staff resisted using it. We improved the interface and tools for editing the project data quite a bit."

That's Going On?

Personnel in three units of the county's Municipal Services Agency -- the departments of Transportation, Water Resources and Water Quality -- use SEROW to enter information on upcoming projects. That includes the location of a project, its start and end dates, and contact details for the person responsible for the project. When a department contemplates a new project, a manager can query the system to see what other activity is scheduled for the same area, viewing the results on the map display.

"It helps identify any projects you would be overlapping if you're trying to speculate visually," said Tony Henderson, Sacramento County's senior software engineer.

Individual users with administrative privileges can go into the application, enter the specifications for a new project, visually identify what other projects might be in that immediate area

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer