Merging City/County GIS Efforts

A North Carolina city and county developed a joint GIS to access common information and lower costs

by / October 31, 1995
Nov 95 Level of Govt: Local. Function: Land Use Planning Problem/situation: There was no way for most database users in the city of Raleigh and Wake County, N.C., to access multiple levels of land-use information for analysis and mapping. Solution: City and county GIS departments initiated a joint project and developed a Multi-access Parcel System. Jurisdiction: Raleigh, N.C., Wake County, N.C., Lee County, Fla. Vendors: IBM, Graphic Data Systems Inc. Contact: Charles Friddle, Wake County geographic information systems director 919/856-6375. Colleen Sharpe, geographic information systems director, Raleigh 919/890-3636.

By Bill McGarigle Contributing Writer Until recently, there was no simple way for most database users in the city of Raleigh and Wake County, N.C., to access multiple levels of land-use information for analysis and mapping. Wake County GIS Director Charles Friddle explained that "departments needing information from the assessor's file could access attribute data via the IBM mainframe, using their PCs and Graphic Data Systems Inc. (GDS) software, but were not able to link that data with the graphics. To bring up a map described by the data required a separate search from a GIS workstation. All that took time." In response, city and county GIS departments initiated a joint project with system supplier GDS to find a solution. The result was the Multi-access Parcel System (MAPS) - a software program that Friddle said "gives us a quantum leap in system accessibility." Administrators and staff alike agree that MAPS has significantly cut the time needed to research records, eliminated much data-storage redundancy, and provided real-time data communication between municipal and county agencies. BACKGROUND For Raleigh and Wake County, the capability for rapid, simplified access to land-use information was a much-needed tool. Already home to 500,000 people and growing by 3 percent annually, the county is attracting increasing numbers of high-tech industries in electronics and biotechnology. Keeping up with the combined urban and industrial growth requires city and county agencies to track approximately 14,000 new construction starts a year; research the county's 180,000-plus parcels and identify each one over 10 acres to determine suitability for commercial and industrial development, provide maps in response to requests for sites with specific geographic criteria; and scramble to find locations for new schools. In addition, subdivisions, zoning changes, and development of new parcels currently produce between 6,500 and 10,000 land transactions annually, all requiring timely appraisal. Part of the difficulty in accessing information, explained Raleigh GIS Manager Colleen Sharpe, also stemmed from agencies using different software applications. "The one used by the county assessor to access the mainframe looked completely different from ours over here. When our employees went over to Wake County, they needed to know how to use the computer one way. When their people came over here, they were looking at another computer and a different application." Although the county and the city had been developing applications, adding information to the databases, and regularly upgrading the system since 1989, the GIS departments determined that the rate of growth and land-use changes in the county required larger numbers of staff to have a faster, simpler method of accessing various databases from desktop PCs. The GIS departments discussed the problems collectively and began looking at ideas other state and local agencies were using. Through GDS, they learned that Lee County, Fla., had a comparable IBM mainframe, was using the same GIS software, and had the same needs. Friddle pointed out that Lee County had also been working on a solution. "They had developed the connection between the IBM mainframe and the digital processor that was running the GIS system. We were able to take what they did and modify it for our needs. It took a lot of work. There were similarities, but there were also many differences. It gave us a place to start." The two departments subsequently proposed a joint project to develop their own program, in concert with GDS. The MAPS project, as it was known, was funded by the county and the city of Raleigh. "Both contributed staff resources," Sharpe said. "I worked on it, one of their programmer analysts worked on it, then we had our GDS software-applications person working on it. The project was one of our best examples of cooperation." Despite hardware problems along the way, MAPS was up and running by the summer of 1995, nine months after the project began. "Seamless" is how Sharpe described the MAPS application. "The user doesn't know or need to know what database to access to get the information. It's very user friendly - just follow the menu, point and click. The program was intended to have a Windows look, require a minimal amount of typing and only two to four hours instruction. We developed it pretty much as planned." Friddle stresses that MAPS doesn't allow an accessed database to be altered - it enables users to produce their own maps, do analyses, and make copies from their own PCs. "A lot of municipalities have a GIS system with PCs, workstations, or X-terminals accessing one digital processor. But what we have developed here is a network of PCs, X-terminals and workstations that enable users to access a wide range of databases on various platforms - whether it's an IBM mainframe, the county's digital processor, or the city of Raleigh's digital processor," Friddle said. "With our system, you don't have to know where the data is; you just ask for what you want, and the system tells you where the data is. You don't have two or three terminals sitting on your desk. You can do everything from one device." "MAPS lets users with only one piece of information access the entire database," Sharpe added. "If you want to know where someone lives, and you have only the person's name, type it in, and a map comes up on the screen. If, at the same time, you want ownership information, you can get that also. If you have only a map and want to know who lives in a certain parcel, you can access the person's name and the associated ownership information - all through MAPS." Assistant County Manager Wally Hill uses MAPS to access a variety of real estate and tax-accounting data on the mainframe. "The program is seamless for people like me, who don't have or need GIS training. I don't have to know where the information comes from - it's all accessible. Not only can I see a map of the site I'm interested in, but I can pull up all the existing information on it, using just this one program." Hill believes a version of MAPS may eventually provide citizens with a view-only access to public records. ELUDAS A valuable spin-off from the MAPS project is the Existing Land-Use Derivation Assignment System (ELUDAS) - a program that translates the county assessor's codes into attributes other agencies can use to plot land-use maps. The program was written by Scott Ramage, a student who interned for a year with the county planning department. "ELUDAS is a single-focus program," Friddle explained. "It is used to identify existing land use throughout the county. MAPS, on the other hand, allows users to view, query, analyze and report a wide variety of information - including the land-use information generated by ELUDAS." Friddle added: "In the past, determining existing land use meant the planning department had to send someone out in the field with colored pencils to color maps, then graphically enter that information into the GIS. Now, the ELUDAS program enables planners to access the assessor's files for all that information without ever leaving their desks." EXPANSION VS. COST As the system is presently configured, Raleigh and Wake County agencies have real-time access to each other's databases via a T1 telecommunication line. At the time of this report, nearby towns of Cary and Fuquay-Varina can only download information from county agencies but expect to be in the data-sharing loop before the end of the year. According to Mike Jennings, a Wake County planning director, many small towns throughout the county find the hardware connections needed to access the system much too expensive at this time. However, the county provides maps and data on disk to all municipalities, without charge. OTHER BENEFITS Sharpe sees the MAPS project as an example of the benefits that can come from close cooperation between municipal and county governments. "We save our taxpayers money by not duplicating data; we use each other's data, free of charge, and reduce the time needed to respond to requests for information and other services." OUTLOOK Hill believes MAPS holds much promise for being available to a wide range of non-technical personnel, including himself. "I use it most of the time, except in instances that require expertise in GIS to conduct an intelligent data search, which MAPS doesn't do. Then, I have to call our GIS folks and ask for help. I don't have the knowledge of the software to do that myself." Hill concedes that, although MAPS saves time and cuts down redundancy in data storage, "right now, the real dilemma is how do you make GIS easy enough to use so that you don't always have to have your staff right there to help you do things." When asked about a version of MAPS for use in libraries, Jennings pointed to recent budget cuts. "Right now there's no money to provide either the hardware or a simplified query program that enables citizens to access public information. One thing we are seriously pursuing, however, is creating regional service centers throughout the county. The assessor wants to put a terminal in each of these so that people in outlying towns won't have to come downtown to get property information. But we're not talking about a lot of expansion," Jennings cautioned, "not after the county board of commissioners cut budgets by 20 percent last year." Tight budgets notwithstanding, the GIS program is not static, Friddle stressed. "MAPS and ELUDAS are only the most recent developments."