Progressive City, Progressive Tools

GPS aids fast-growing city

by / October 31, 1998
As one of California's fastest-growing cities, Ontario is making tremendous advances as a leading industrial and commercial center. Located 40 miles east of Los Angeles, it's a community that likes to be progressive, despite its small-town charm. In fact, GIS Project Manager Elliott Ellsworth heads what many experts call one of the most advanced GIS departments in the country. Now, thanks to a GPS, many believe the city is headed for even greater success in GIS data management.

"We have a lot of people from around the country who come to visit us to see what we are doing with our GIS," Ellsworth said. "Thanks in large part to a GIS visionary named Christopher Thomas, who got us started, we believe we have one of the best GIS programs available any-where. Until a year ago, however, when we first received our [Trimble GPS Pathfinder] Pro XR Mapping System, we hadn't attained the highest level of accuracy we were capable of with our GIS."

The Next Level

In 1997, city officials requested the assistance of GPS manufacturers in developing their data collection and updating capabilities. "A major catch with developing our GPS data collection capabilities was the enterprise-wide focus of our GIS," said David Zuiderveld, a GIS analyst for the city. "We wanted a GPS that would be flexible enough to tailor it to our GIS whatever we decided to do with it."

Not only is the city updating its GIS with its new positioning capabilities, but Ontario is incorporating the advantages of GPS throughout the city. "Our GIS helps us in many projects for the engineering and planning departments, as well as mapping fire hydrants for our fire department," said Ellsworth. "When you have demands that are that diverse, you need to have tools that are capable of meeting everyone's needs. We found this capability with our equipment."

Despite this, final implementation of the GPS program was dependent on specific individual uses for users to learn to operate the equipment. "As we learned to use the program, more and more applications became obvious," Ellsworth explained. "We didn't implement our program for any reason other than our desire to better collect data for our GIS, then to explore what more could be done with the system."

Flexibility and Ingenuity

Zuiderveld said Ontario officials initially "were looking forward to collecting a lot of different information about facilities of the city. We started with an update of our storm drains and other street features. We already had these types of points in our GIS, but we had originally collected these points using a person driving around in a truck, marking the location of drains and other features on a hard-copy map."

The new system lets them map those points more accurately.

"With this new data, we found that storm drains had not only been marked in the wrong locations, but often on the wrong side of the street as well," Zuiderveld said. "We learned a lot, not only about what we had, but about what we needed, to get where we wanted to be with our GIS."

Prior to implementing a GPS, city officials didn't know how accurate their GIS was. According to Peter Witherow, a GIS analyst for the city, "Before using GPS, we knew some of the information in our GIS was
inaccurate, but we didn't know how inaccurate. We found that after doing data collection with our GPS, some of the features we had mapped were up to 500 feet off."

Building a Better GIS

Acceptance of GIS as a tool to help run the city has been an educational process, one that's been quickly accepted. "Thanks in large part to our GIS, we have an information system that is useful to everyone, regardless of their application. Now, with the combination of GIS and GPS, we believe we are going to be able to spread the acceptance of our GIS information even further.

"A GPS costs more than pocket change, but when you consider other costs of data collection, there's not many other options that can beat the purchase of a GPS," Ellsworth said. "Our Trimble system is accurate and very easy to use. This is something that concerned us in the beginning. We were concerned about a lot of the administrative types of things when we began our GPS program, such as how we were going to train users and how much it was going to cost."

A full staff of data-collecting engineers wasn't in the budget either, Ellsworth noted.

"We wanted to employ student interns under the supervision of maybe one GIS analyst. This would dramatically cut data collection costs," he said. "Our ability to standardize the data dictionary, the general ease of use, and other considerations, made implementing the GPS program a lot easier and much more economical than we even thought was possible in the first place. GPS allows us to collect a lot of data faster than with other methods, and with a lot greater accuracy."

Ellsworth pointed out that most other data-collection methods are much more labor intensive, and thus far more costly and less accurate than a GPS.

Getting it Right the First Time

"When we got started with our GPS, we didn't want to have to take a big step backwards," Ellsworth explained. "We have a very progressive GIS program. We wanted to get a GPS that would enhance our GIS, not slow it down."

And that, he said, is what Ontario got.

"We have an excellent GIS program, along with excellent people. Why should our GPS be anything less? We can't afford to go back and do the job again. We owe it to ourselves as well as to our program to get the highest level of data we are capable of getting when we are out there gathering our data. We have found that with the Trimble GPS Pathfinder Pro XR, we get just that, the first time."
For more information, contact Elliott Ellsworth, Ontario GIS project manager at 909/986-1151.

From time to time, Government Technology invites industry to present its point of view on issues and technologies of importance to state and local government. The author of this article, Michael W. Michelsen Jr., is marketing communications specialist for Trimble, headquartered in Sunnyvale, Calif.

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