Small municipalities know the difficulty of meeting demands for location-based information. A small, mostly non-technical staff with a single desktop GIS can quickly fall behind on routine tasks if requests for spatial data start piling up. It may take hours, days or a week to prepare maps and related information for other departments and the public. The first casualties are usually office efficiency and public relations. On the other hand, the cost of hiring a technical staff to build and maintain a GIS and related Web site could easily exceed the annual budget of a small county government or municipality.

When tiny Island County, Wash., faced this dilemma in May 2001, it decided to test one of the relatively new, automated Web-based mapping services. At the time, only two were available: MapCiti from Syncline of Boston and BeyondGeo from Blue Marble Geographics of Gardiner, Maine.

Not to be confused with traditional map server technology, a fully automated service offers subscribers a range of Web-based GIS tools, including interactive mapping, data storage and format conversion - all through a user-friendly, push-button interface. Subscribers can upload data, compose maps, store them and publish them to selected recipients. The service provides a relatively affordable way to leverage investments in location-based data.

This was the premise on which the county planning department decided on a six-month test of MapCiti services. The objective is to make zoning maps and other location-based information available anytime to rapidly growing communities, and thereby reduce staff time spent on the phone and at the counter giving out basic information. Planning and Community Development Director Phil Bakke anticipates the county will be able to determine by December if there is sufficient community support to continue the service.

Halting Data Distribution

Island County is actually a small group of islands in Washington's Puget Sound, the largest of which is Whidbey, with roughly 90 percent of the county's 75,000 residents. Most are concentrated in the cities of Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley, and in the unincorporated area, Freeland. Scattered private residences sit on three other islands, and five are uninhabited rocks.

Island County's one-man GIS department, Mike Schechter, pointed out that part of the problem of being a small county is the need to spread projects over several years. "We can't just drop a lot of money on a project and have it done," he said. "Digitizing the county's 80,000 parcels, for instance, will take a long time. Something like that in one budget cycle would be a massive expense and drain funds from other needed projects." The same is true for building and staffing a fully operational GIS department and developing a Web-enabled data distribution and storage system.

The county has some zoning information on its own Web site, but as Bakke acknowledged, it does not have the staff or the time to properly maintain the data. "We have old-fashioned raster maps that need to be replaced with interactive maps, a rapidly growing community and a tremendous amount of new construction," Bakke said. "Employees change, those changes foster errors, and errors in land-use zoning can be expensive. Providing property-zoning information is one of the most important services we can give the community. Critical land-use decisions are based on that information, and we don't want to make mistakes there."

Bakke added that a Washington state law also requires counties to put together effective public participation programs. "One of the ways we're trying to do that is by giving people continuous access to our proposals, and opportunities to respond," he said.

Web-Based Mapping

Through December, the medium for distributing that information will be Syncline's MapCiti service. Syncline, an ESRI partner, built MapCiti on a customized version of the ArcView extension Internet Map Server (IMS). The system provides Web-based GIS functions used to create interactive maps.