Maps for Sale

Allen County, Ind., streamlines geographic data, while bringing in some needed funds.

by / July 9, 2004
Managing demand for geographic and associated records is a challenge for fast-growing counties across the United States. To deal with the surge in demand for geographic information that has accompanied its development boom, Allen County, Ind., developed an online GIS solution to help fund its own upkeep. The new GIS Web portal will give county departments, area businesses and the general public tools to research, view and acquire county geographic data and associated records.

Allen County -- the state's largest county -- has a population of 337,512. The county grew by 10 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, but the cities of Fort Wayne and New Haven grew by 27 percent and 33 percent respectively.

Laying the Groundwork
In 2001, Allen County created the iMap Management Board via ordinance to streamline the county's geographic data operations.

There are two major goals for the project. First, it is important to provide relevant, valuable services that are accurate, up to date and easily accessible. Second, the revenues generated through subscriptions and data purchases will supplement part of the GIS budget, so future burdens to the general fund are reduced as much as possible. The project is not intended to be self-supporting. However, having an additional revenue stream coming into the department is a significant factor in its acceptance by the County Board.

The iMAP Board conducted a local and national survey of map and GIS users. Survey questions included the level of need in 17 categories, such as survey control monuments, parcels, zoning and digital elevation contours. The survey also allowed respondents to rate the accuracy and resolution needed for all 17 categories. Ratings were specific, with a "very high" rating equal to survey-level map accuracy of better than one-foot positional accuracy, and ortho pixel resolution of 6 inches or better. Timeliness, GIS products and services, privacy issues and format were also queried.

Thirty-six local firms, among them engineering, surveying and title companies, returned the six-page survey. Results revealed that 90 percent were willing to pay for high-quality data as long as it was priced fairly. The survey also confirmed that most are AutoCAD users and wanted data available in that format.

Two hundred fifty members of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association also completed the survey. This national sampling showed that 74 percent of respondents did not charge for data distributed by their governments. Some cited public access policies or laws as the reason. Responses enabled fine-tuning of the county's business plan, and although the survey results were what officials expected, they confirmed things were on the right path.

Defining the Service
Ruekert/Mielke, a Waukesha, Wis., firm, is designing the site, which is expected to be operational by mid-July.

In addition to maps and geographic data, users will search, view and download recorded digital documents, such as warranty deeds or mortgages, stored in the county's document management system. Consumers and businesses can create, order and pay for digital maps with a credit card.

The Web site will include a secure e-commerce environment for the transaction of static- and user-defined data sets. Static data sets will include predefined maps, such as parcels and ortho photography, that will be compiled and made available for each government survey township. Data is purchased and downloaded through a secure online credit card system. The Web pages are designed with the industry standard "shopping cart" interface, which allows users to add and remove items from their cart before purchasing them. VeriSign and E-Merchants solutions are used to handle credit cards purchases and county reimbursements.

Users will also order custom data sets by selecting from the various digital map layers the county converted. An e-mail request will be forwarded to the county's GIS for compilation. For custom purchases, payment will be required in advance. This service will be helpful to private developers, title, mortgage and real estate companies, and engineering and planning consultants.

For those who regularly need data from the site, the county is developing a subscription service that allows users to access the information for a monthly or annual fee rather than paying per data request. Businesses will set up a user account with access to specific areas of data after signing a subscription agreement with the county.

The Web interface is designed to be user-friendly, even for non-GIS users, and will function much like a public library catalog system. Information will be indexed by content type, content theme, keyword and geographic location. User groups will be defined as "public," "private," "subscriber" and "administrator." Functions will include zoom tools, property searches, ID parcels, buffers, print, queries and a help key.

Reaping the Benefits
Four large engineering firms have signed up for the subscription plan when it becomes available. Fort Wayne is also participating, and is splitting the 2003 costs for ortho photography with the county. Verizon, Aqua Indiana, two regional utilities and the city of New Haven, which currently receive digital data from the county on CD or DVD, could become future subscribers. Subscriptions will allow greater access to selected data. The county is testing the subscriber system, and officials anticipate more customers as they see the value of the service.

The site will benefit county offices, which will access the information for free. Loren Robertson, Health Department administrator, is enthusiastic about uses for the system. "Since we are responsible for the location and inspection of all private septic systems and wells, the ability to locate these with the GIS system is very helpful. We are also adding information for a disaster plan linked to our homeland security plan. There is no shortage of public uses for the data as we build new layers into the system."

Al Frisinger, county surveyor and another member of the original iMAP Board, appreciates the system's sophistication. "It's probably one of the most exhilarating things I've ever done in my professional career." The topography layer is one of the surveying office's most important tools. "We are the drainage entity for the entire county. Because the topography is relatively flat, and because two-thirds of the drainage flows to Lake Erie and the other one-third to the Gulf of Mexico, drainage routing is a huge issue for us."
Alexander Wernher Contributing Writer