Public Access Adds Value to County's GIS

Summit County, Ohio, began planning a GIS four years ago that now connects county departments and provides public access.

by / June 30, 1995
July 1995

Summit County, Ohio, began planning a GIS four years ago that now connects county departments and provides public access.

Level of govt.: County

Function: GIS

Problem/situation: County wanted a GIS for both staff and public access.

Solution: System with user-friendly design.

Jurisdiction: Summit County, Ohio

Vendors: ESRI, PlanGraphics, Woolpert, McCoy Associates Inc.

Contact: Bob McLaughlin, GIS director 216/643-2732.

AKRON, Ohio - For some local governments, setting up public access terminals so residents can print their own property maps or see a listing of previous owners at an address is an afterthought behind internal use of a system. In Summit County, Ohio, however, providing public access to as much of the information as possible has driven the geographic information system's design, funding and development.

"In the past, taxpayers were asked to fund these projects, but they never really could see any tangible benefits," said Bob McLaughlin, county GIS director. "Our system has been planned to meet the GIS needs of county departments and provide information to the public."

As the system is developed and refined, the public's use of it will remain a primary consideration, said McLaughlin. "If you've got the information, why not have a public access terminal where people can display and use it? And why shouldn't the public have upfront advantages to data systems built with their money?" he said.

Planning for a countywide GIS began in 1991 and was guided by the vision of a system that would incorporate and consolidate the current mapping functions in use by several county agencies, and, more important, speed public access to information. When researching property, for instance, residents once visited a tax map room full of hand-drawn E-size tax maps of the county's 240,000 parcels. These were compiled in large books that might be in use or misplaced when requested, or in poor condition.

With the GIS, the county can finally retire those map books. Instead, citizens will use prompts to "drill down" through geography and locate specific parcel maps within minutes. And because the system is linked with an IBM 4381 mainframe housing the county's tax assessment data, users can view and print all kinds of information about the land, including who owns or leases it, its assessed value and measurements, or if there's a septic tank buried on the property.


Keeping the data needs of both its departments and the public in mind, the county enlisted PlanGraphics, a GIS consulting firm based in Frankfort, Ky, to help develop a framework for product selection, testing and implementation. The county reviewed reports in 1992, and an implementation plan was developed and approved the following year.

A three-member GIS Policy Group, consisting of the county executive, auditor and engineer, approved the organizational layout for the GIS. A Technical Advisory/User Group was also formed to provide technical guidance to the Policy Group.

A request for proposal was released in early 1994. ARC/INFO GIS software from Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., of Redlands, Calif. running on a DEC Alpha AXP server and workstations was selected as the backbone technology.

The Engineering and Environmental Services departments and the Auditor's Office, located in two separate buildings, were initially networked for the system, and a fiber-optic connection was established between an existing IBM mainframe and the DEC server.

ArcView Version 2, an easy-to-use, customizable desktop GIS product from ESRI, was chosen as a "front end" to the public access terminals. The software was customized by the county to make it easy for inexperienced users to point-and-click through regional maps to locate neighborhoods or parcels.


Even as the GIS hardware and software were being bid and selected, work had started on designing and compiling the database. Plans were to use existing resources whenever practical to keep conversion costs low.

The county's hand-drawn tax maps, some worn and nearly unusable with age, were scanned into the GIS. Map centroid files, which define the position of the tax map in relation to the overall county and to adjacent tax map images, were also created. The parcel centroids are used to link the existing IBM mainframe appraisal data to the tax map images. These centroids allow a user to access parcel-level appraisal data on the public access system.

This data is being supplemented with 1":200' scale and 1":100' scale color digital orthophotography flown by Dayton, Ohio-based Woolpert in conjunction with McCoy Associates Inc., a local company that was the photogrammetric and ground control contractor.

As the aerial orthophotos are received, the GIS will be used to overlay the aerial maps of each county property with the hand-drawn maps showing the legal boundaries. This will help county employees update the information and convert the maps into more-permanent vector format in the GIS software.

In addition to the raster digital orthophotography, limited planimetric data in vector form will be captured. This will include street centerlines, pavement edges, railroads, water features and building outlines. The final basemap will serve as the county's common map for use by its agencies and the public.

Woolpert delivered one set of color contact prints in July 1994, and the complete delivery of a county township was done last October. This information has been compiled and is currently accessible on the public access terminals. By fall, records and maps for all Summit County communities will be available.


Eight terminals for public access were installed last September and have been used by "walk-ins" since January. Three terminals were placed in the tax map area to access the raster tax maps on the DEC server and the appraisal database on the IBM mainframe. Other terminals placed in the tax map area are used at this time to access only the appraisal database. Information from the database can be laser printed at a cost of 50 cents per page.


Employees from several related departments, including real estate, conveyance and tax mapping were merged to create a Property Transfer department. These employees have a DEC workstation and two DEC X-terminals providing access to the Real Estate Appraisal applications on the IBM mainframe. Training has focused on teaching them how to use the ESRI software and the Digital OSF/1 UNIX operating system. "We're showing them what's available so they can start to think about how they can use the technology in their jobs," said McLaughlin.

About 125 abstractors from title companies have been trained on the public access system. Other members of the public use a quick-read training manual compiled by county staff.

The customized system starts by providing a keymap of the entire county. Users select an area to view, and the system provides an index map of that area. Maps become more and more detailed as the user makes selections. At the parcel level the red-dot centroids are used to activate data about that lot. When users click on the dots, information from the appraisal system is displayed.

Currently, the county's GIS links a few of its towns to both the real estate appraisal information and orthophotos. By fall, real estate appraisal information and tax maps for the entire county will be added to the system. The Woolpert orthophotos for the entire county will be put online by January 1996. Other information will be added to the system as it's needed. For example, McLaughlin said, research of a property may someday include average amounts for utility bills or which cable television company services the neighborhood.

Plans are to expand the data on system by exchanging GIS information with cities inside the county, including a newly incorporated city which is mapping its infrastructure for the first time. Other county departments, such as Economic Development, will use the system and share data with sister agencies at the cities.


The GIS project has been a driving force in updating the county's internal telecommunication infrastructure. The system has also boosted productivity in county departments and is starting to save private sector money by eliminating some of the surveying and basic engineering work for property transactions.

In 1993, administrators estimated the GIS program would cost up to $5.5 million. But the entire project has thus far cost only about $3 million. Part of the savings is attributed to the dropping costs of technology. In addition, a competitive benchmark and bid among vendors and using color orthophotography rather than traditional surveying helped hold costs down.

"The biggest cost savings was in using raster images rather than vector data," said McLaughlin. "That cut down our conversion costs and accelerated our implementation schedule."