Scarborough GIS Opens Window to Digital World

A city geographic information system - designed to free up staff to do "real" GIS - turns out to be a productivity pearl.

by / May 31, 1995
June 95

Level of Govt.: City

Function: Public access.

Problem/situation: Creating maps manually was time consuming and expensive, and the results were unsatisfactory for different users.

Solution: Custom GIS mapping from public service counters.

Jurisdiction: Scarborough, Ontario.

Vendors: Oracle, IBM, ESRI, Intergraph, Autocad.

Contact: Raphael Sussman, GIS manager. 416/396-4141.

Not a "real" GIS

By Raphael Sussman

Scarborough GIS Manager

A new public access mapping application in Scarborough, Ontario, is cutting both city costs and customer queues while raising the city's pride. Scarborough's new system, called the User-Defined Mapping Application system (UMAP) is an extremely effective use of readily available technology running on an enterprisewide database.

UMAP is available through public access terminals at the Works and Environment Department counter, representing a huge addition to customer service by reducing costs and response time dramatically. The system has also enabled the city to drop several steps and several days from the old mapping methods.


UMAP allows city employees to view maps on computer screens or to print areas of the city, located in the eastern Toronto metropolitan area. A map can be produced in any of a number of scales and can include particular features, such as roads, buildings, sidewalks, trees or watercourses as well as other information available from the city's geographic databases including property lines, municipal addresses and the names of public buildings. A hard copy, done while a customer waits at the counter, costs between $5 and $20 depending on the size of paper selected. Digitized maps are not now provided to the public.

Scarborough is not selling data, but is simply automating a service traditionally provided at this counter. The system could be expanded, however, to computers in public libraries or at public information kiosks in the future.


Other UMAP access points have been designated for city staff. In the past, staff members who used maps have had to retrieve the pieces from many sources, photographically enlarge or reduce them, then cut and paste them together to get the combination of data required for a job.

The new system eliminates such tedious exercises and allows employees to produce far more attractive images than before. Typical users now create maps for inclusion in the agenda of council or committee meetings, for public display at open houses, for planning purposes or for the design of public parks or roads.

People who previously viewed buildings or walkways as descriptions or as lists, now "see" these objects on maps or in aerial views. Maps can be created in whatever format is desired, allowing them to be, for example, inserted as images into written documents.

Other benefits of UMAP include:

- Elimination of hard-copy maps. Maps previously maintained in various departments of the city for the purpose of whiteprint reproduction were very expensive to produce and cumbersome to extract and replace. These maps have now been replaced by computers at both the public counters and at the desks of employees who create maps.

- Simplicity. Maps can now be easily created of the area desired. It is unnecessary to use either drafting staff or graphic artists for most requirements.

- Clarity. Maps can now be created with only the objects of interest shown, highlighting exactly what is desired, rather than using maps already created for other purposes.

- Efficiency. Staff is freed to do more sophisticated graphic or mapping work requiring their special expertise.


Interestingly enough, UMAP was not a major objective of Scarborough's GIS development project. Very few municipalities in North America have set up such an extensive geographic information system. We embarked on our journey into GIS at the beginning of 1990 when the Municipal Council mandated the development of "the best user-oriented, user-defined municipal geographic information system in North America."

After years of intensive user involvement and enterprisewide data modeling exercises, word spread across city government on what could be achieved by GIS in an integrated environment. The requests for special reports, usually in map form, became so numerous and time-consuming that it became almost a matter of self-protection for the GIS staff to get "simple" mapping requests directly into the hands of those making the requests.


UMAP was developed in-house in a matter of weeks as a means of freeing up development staff to do "real" GIS. It has turned out to be a window into the world of digital geographic data for staff and citizens of the city.

As a result, it is no longer necessary to maintain complete sets of maps. It will, eventually, not be necessary to even print most maps. The users themselves are gradually putting their trust in a technology which allows them to see what they wish to see without maintaining paper records at all. Eventually, it may be possible to avoid even seeing the result, allowing the computer to simply use it as another form of input for some other purpose altogether.

For GIS staff at the city, however, maps are merely reports in a graphic form. The ultimate intention is to allow the development or acquisition of hundreds of computer applications which would act against selected elements of the corporate database.

The first priority is to develop those applications most prominent in the collection and maintenance of the most significant data. It is perhaps unfortunate, because such applications are inevitably found in tedious, low-key functions of the city, quite unlike the flashy, magic-like, query-only uses of geographic data.

UMAP is fairly typical of this latter group of applications. Perhaps it is the problem of all creative endeavors: praise for the dramatic but relatively simple accomplishments, while the pearls of tremendous achievement are simply taken for granted. But then, that may be the best praise of all. Scarborough is a good place to live, work and play. And its GIS is designed to support the infrastructure which keeps it that way.


Scarborough's GIS is a multi-million dollar, multi-year project for supporting business requirements in all of the city's departments. Its major focus is an Oracle database distributed physically among a number of different buildings in IBM RS6000 Series UNIX (AIX) Servers. This Oracle database is associated directly with the spatial representation of features in Arc/Info by ESRI, MicroStation by Intergraph and AutoCAD.

Each city business function is supported by the tools best suited to the job at hand. UMAP is based on Arc/Info and is operated through a local PC using Microsoft Windows in X-Windows mode. The system outputs both centrally to the city's large, expensive, electrostatic color plotter and to local printers as required.

The next upgrade would be to move to a different form of client-server, operating Arc/View II software, from the PC itself. The city is now prepared to support applications which require spatial data in text form, point form, line form (networks), polygon form, volume form and raster image form. It is expected to eventually support the full gamut of multi-media: sound, motion-video and animation.