Low-Budget GIS

Web-based mapping service helps Island County, Wash., cut the cost of delivering GIS data to departments and the public.

by / April 16, 2002
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. Subscriber and viewer services - map composition, uploading, access, viewing, queries, printing instructions and data storage - are all accessible through a customized front end. Bakke emphasized that the user side of MapCiti was designed for viewers with no knowledge of GIS. "They can just push the buttons, press the pictures and pick the data they want. Anyone can do it," he said.

As the assessor's office digitizes the zoning, parcel and other land-use information, Schechter works with the staff to translate the data into map layers and upload them to MapCiti. "We decide what's going to be on a map, what it's going to look like, then make the maps through a Java application on the developer side of MapCiti," Schechter said.

Anyone with Internet Explorer or Netscape with Java can access Island County public information directly from MapCiti's Web site , or indirectly by clicking on a link from the county Web site . Registration is required at each site, a process that will help profile the purpose and number of hits at the site.

The planning department is using Freeland as a test community, mainly because residents there are active in community planning and have computers and Internet access. Also, most new construction on the island is taking place in Freeland, and the county can provide a complete set of zoning and other land-use maps for the area.

Schechter said the MapCiti service already has accelerated the process of getting GIS-based information to other departments and to the public. "Building a map with ArcView and getting it on MapCiti may take 10 minutes, 30 if it's a complicated map," he said. "Before this, building a map and putting it on our Web site for public distribution could take hours or days."

According to Syncline CEO Matthew Gentile, the baseline price for MapCiti is $18,000 per year. Users pay for additional services. Bakke said the six-month test for Island County is $4,000. He estimated the cost of a technical staff and an in-house GIS with comparable functions at around $125,000.

To date, responses from the planning department, the code enforcement officer and administrative staff have been positive. However, Bakke does not expect citizen feedback until the county announces the service in the press and through community presentations. "Ultimately, we'll want to know if the information is getting to the residents, if they [are] interested in it, if the efficiency of the department improves, and if any security issues crop up during the six-month period," he said. "At the end of that time, we'll decide if we're going to continue the service or hold off until we've completed the parcel layer for the whole county. In any case, the board of county commissioners is not going to approve public funds for this service if we determine that only a very small number of people in the community find it useful. Eighteen thousand [dollars] a year is not piddly - it means something to us."

The Yugo Solution
"Island County is a small, rural, wannabe-urban community that just doesn't have deep pockets," Bakke said. "We have to do things in a cost-effective manner, which is why it's taking so long to develop full GIS capability. It's like trying to build a Rolls-Royce for the price of a Yugo.

"So far, it seems to be working," he added. "I'm hopeful we'll realize some cost savings by empowering our community to get the answers on their own, and that my staff will then be more productive at issuing permits, and won't have to spend as much time answering basic questions about zoning and ecologically sensitive areas. The information will be out there anytime they want to see it."